A Mentor’s Responsibility

May 2nd, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Mutual inspiration between a middle-schooler and a university professor leads to scientific discovery.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Ria Chhabra’s middle-school science project was inspired by a debate in her own house about the value of eating organic foods. In an attempt to find a definitive answer to the question, she measured the Vitamin C content of organic produce relative to conventionally farmed foods and found significantly higher concentrations in the organic foods.

Ria then decided to use fruit flies to measure the effects of organic eating on overall health. After emailing several university professors that maintained fly labs to ask for their help, she heard back from Dr. Johannes Bauer, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Their work together was the subject of a New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope, who wrote, “By nearly every measure, including fertility, stress resistance and longevity, flies that fed on organic bananas and potatoes fared better than those who dined on conventionally raised produce.”

The results of Ria’s study aside, perhaps the most inspiring part of this story is Dr. Bauer’s willingness to mentor and also learn from a middle school student. In the Times piece, Parker-Pope notes that Dr. Bauer wouldn’t normally rush to work with a middle-school student. In this case, however, Ria proved to be an exceptional partner, performing at the level of a college senior or even graduate student. “The seriousness with which she approached this was just stunning,” Dr. Bauer told the Times. Working with Dr. Bauer’s lab, Ria published her research at the age of 14 in a scientific journal, along with Dr. Bauer and an SMU research associate, Santharam Kolli.

A Columbia University guide to mentorship labels mentoring as the social foundation of research, saying, “Without it the trainee is deigned to traverse the labyrinth of professional development in the research enterprise as a solitary soul, making it all but impossible to reach full potential.” Furthermore, the guide states, mentoring is the ideal way to pass ethical values on to the next generation.

But mentoring isn’t just critical to the success of scientific researchers. In every discipline, and in life in general, those with more experience should take on the responsibility of not only imparting their wisdom and knowledge, but also passing along values.

Do you have a story of being affected by a mentor or of taking on the mentor role for someone else? Share it here.