Rochester Medicine

The Makings of a Good Mentor

Jul. 30, 2014

While diverse and difficult to define, successful mentoring relationships are easy to recognize at the School of Medicine and Dentistry. They are symbiotic in nature, having a powerful impact on both the mentor and mentee.  And they help the organization grow.

Gary Morrow and Supriya Mohile In Homer’s classic tale, The Odyssey, the character named Mentor appears most often as a god in disguise rather than a mere mortal.  By all outwardly appearances, mentors at the University of Rochester are human, but some of their protégés might occasionally wonder if there is a vein of truth to the ancient Greek legend.  Drawing profound reverence and gratitude, a good mentor is often considered sacred to one’s professional, and sometimes even personal, development.

Beyond the hallowed nature of these pairings, however, the worldly characteristics of a fruitful mentoring relationship are impossible to describe in succinct fashion.  Gary R. Morrow, Ph.D., M.S., who has been nationally recognized for his mentoring abilities, says each relationship develops a life of its own, so a single definition won’t suffice.

“Mentoring is not a follow the rules, check the boxes, cookie cutter sort of thing,” says Morrow, a Dean’s Professor of Oncology, professor of Surgery, and principal investigator on eight cancer control grants totaling more than $40 million.  “It’s more of a philosophic approach to showing you genuinely care about someone else’s well-being.”

Vice provost for Faculty Development and Diversity, Vivian Lewis, M.D., supports mentoring efforts in all six schools at the University of Rochester, and she’s on the Mentoring Development committee at the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI).  Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Lewis is in the midst of analyzing data from a mentoring study involving 11 universities and colleges.  But even she doesn’t offer a concise interpretation.

“The word ‘mentoring’ has many meanings,” says Lewis, who is also an Obstetrics and Gynecology professor in the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “As a school, we haven’t tried to define it.  It varies between departments and according to what the needs are.”

Because needs change during the lifespan of a career, Lewis says it is unlikely one person can fulfill all of the mentoring roles that stimulate academic and professional growth.  People who discover the value of a mentor rarely stop at just one.  Mentors become like rungs on an extension ladder, providing ongoing assistance for the climb.

“These aren’t just good teachers,” says Mark B. Taubman, M.D., dean of SMD.  “A lot more goes into becoming a good mentor.”

A 2,000 Year-Old Prototype

Nicholas Gresens, Ph.D., lecturer in Classics on the River Campus, easily ticks off the parts played by Homer’s Mentor.

“He encourages Odysseus’ son Telemachus, yet he is also comfortable criticizing him.  He offers him advice, and helps him form plans.  He coaxes and guides.  He provides a connection to the past, and he’s a parental figure while Odysseus is away,” Gresens says, pausing briefly before launching in again.  “At the end, Mentor is the one who tells Odysseus and Telemachus to stop fighting, so he mediates between various parties. He’s the calm one, far enough removed from the current state of affairs to look at it in a more rational way.”

While it’s uncertain if the word “mentor” originated from The Odyssey or a later French text, Homer’s character exemplifies a number of the roles mentors take on today, more than 2,000 years after the poem was believed to have been composed.  Every mentor is some combination of role model, teacher, counselor, advisor, sponsor, advocate, ally, collaborator, motivator, challenger, and/or confidant.  While some mentoring can be accomplished in a meeting or two, many of the University’s mentors devote hours to their protégés every week.

“There’s a reason I don’t have a wall,” Morrow says, pointing to the floor-to-ceiling window that fronts his office in the CTSI.  It is hard not to draw a comparison between his workspace and the giant fish tank humming out in the hallway. “I don’t put anything on the glass.  I’m right here. The door is always open.”

Will You Be My Mentor?


Supriya G. Mohile, M.D., M.S., associate professor of Hematology/Oncology, laughs when she recalls the first time she walked through Morrow’s open door in 2007.  She showed up without an appointment, and announced she wanted him to be her mentor.  Morrow politely declined, saying he knew almost nothing about her area of interest, geriatric oncology.  But Mohile had heard that before.

“It was a new field.  Even now, there are very few people nationally who do what I do,” explains Mohile, who directs the Specialized Oncology Care and Research for the Elderly (SOCARE) clinic, supported by U of R’s Wilmot Cancer Institute and Highland Hospital.

While at the University of Chicago, completing her post-doctoral training and separate residencies in internal medicine, geriatrics, and oncology, she doggedly pieced together an assortment of mentors.  None were geriatric oncologists. Some had expertise in cancer, others in aging.  But when she moved to New York City for her first job, Mohile failed to find even one person who could serve as a guide on her singular quest.  In this case, the absence of a geriatric oncology mentor was a career-shaping experience, reinforcing the need for more specialists like her.

“When I was interviewing for jobs, a very famous prostate cancer researcher told me he was a geriatric oncologist because most of his patients were older,” Mohile shakes her head at the misnomer. “I saw leading oncologists neglect to address pharmacology, comorbidity, and all of the other things I learned about treating geriatric patients.  You can’t just say ‘I’m going to treat their cancer,” and then not think about their how age, health, and life circumstances play into that.”

After her husband, U of R neuro-oncologist Nimish A. Mohile, M.D., finished his fellowship, the Rochester-area native quickly packed her boxes and headed back home.  She was excited by the U of R’s strength in geriatric oncology, and easily lined up geriatric specialist William J. Hall, M.D., and medical hemotology oncologists John M. Bennett, M.D. and Deepak M. Sahasrabudhe, M.B.B.S., to mentor her.

“Then I found Gary Morrow,” she smiles.

“She was persistent,” says Morrow.

Despite his initial refusal, Morrow signed on to become Mohile’s mentor as she was dipping her toes into grant-writing and clinical research. He remains her mentor today, even though she’s become a decorated swimmer in the grant pool.  Her latest feat: winning a $2 million award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI).

“I would not be where I am now with my grants if it weren’t for Gary Morrow,” Mohile emphatically states.

She is beginning to gather data and map out practical approaches that will lead to better cancer treatment nationwide for patients over the age of 75.  She also helps lead the national Cancer and Aging Research Group, a fledgling band of geriatric oncology researchers that holds bi-weekly conference calls, publishes the international Journal of Geriatric Oncology (Mohile is deputy editor), and provides mentors for those struggling to find their own.

“Watching her become aware of her capabilities and talents has been a joy, a real joy,” Morrow says. “Mentoring has helped me maintain some of that childlike wonder that got me into the research business in the first place.”

Passing It On

Mohile and Magnuson

It is a few minutes before 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and Mohile and Allison Magnuson, D.O., are on their cell phones, calmly making last minute childcare arrangements.  With several patients still waiting to be seen at the SOCARE clinic, neither physician will make it home on time.  Both of their spouses are also doctors, so busy days and broken schedules are commonplace.

“Seeing how she handles it really helps,” says Magnuson, who is Mohile’s first primary mentee.  “That’s the most unrecognized element of a mentor.  For me, it is arguably the most important.  If your home life is chaotic, your work life is too.”

To an outsider, the clinic looks like a breeding ground for bedlam.  A half-dozen providers, including the team coordinator, therapists, a nurse, and social worker, weave in and out of exam rooms, performing various patient assessments.  They circle through the office, arbitrarily dropping their reports in piles and calling out salient details.  Their sporadic motion is charted in Expo marker on a small whiteboard. Somehow, it all works. 

While they have their differences (Mohile munches on McDonald’s fries for lunch, Magnuson picks at a green salad from home), both of them approach cases with a similar blend of compassion and frankness.  It results in a nearly instantaneous trust between caregiver and elderly patient.  The shared approach is not a coincidence.  Magnuson says her mentor helped her learn to project greater confidence and be more proactive with her patients, attributes that significantly increase her effectiveness and job satisfaction.

“Mentoring is really helping people figure out what will make them happy and what will make them want to come into work each day,” Mohile observes.

After three years as a fellow, Magnuson is being promoted to junior faculty at SMD and second attending at the SOCARE clinic.  Under Mohile’s mentorship, she was awarded a Wilmot Fellowship to continue developing her research skills.

“There’s only one other place in the country with two, full-time geriatric oncologists,” says Mohile. “Mentoring is helping advance what we do.”