Dr. Ben Park greets me cheerily as I enter his large, comfortable looking office. Dr. Park is a familiar presence here in the Oncology department. He has been here since 1998, first as a postdoctoral research fellow with Bert Vogelstein, and then as faculty in 2002 when he started his breast cancer research lab.
With an M.D., Ph.D. and a residency in Internal Medicine and Hematology/Oncology, Dr. Park wasn’t always headed towards a career in breast cancer research. Over the years, he has mentored a multitude of trainees; juggling running a lab with seeing patients. He is also the Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Affairs. He speaks to me of how he serendipitously entered his current career and dispenses valuable advice on how to navigate the mentor/mentee relationship.
What drew you to a career in breast cancer research?
“A lot of my career has just been through serendipity. I originally was going to be a leukemia doctor and I came to Hopkins to work with Bert Vogelstein. That was when all the exciting gene discoveries were happening, and the intent was to learn everything about the genetics of colon cancer and then apply that to a different cancer type. I’d just done my clinical oncology year at Pennsylvania; I saw a lot of leukemia patients dying during that time- we just didn’t have any good therapies. And the notion of using genetics as a tool and to apply that to the problem of leukemia was very attractive because I felt like you could make a lot of difference.
However, when my wife came down here she joined the Internal Medicine Residency program, she wanted to stay for her Pulmonary Fellowship. There was an opportunity here at the breast cancer program so Bert asked me one day, “Do you think you could do breast cancer as a disease to work on?” I’ d seen a lot of breast cancer patients so I felt very comfortable with breast cancer. So, I said “Sure!”. It taught something that I tell a lot of my trainees: one can be opportunistic, meaning, that if something comes your way that you really find is important and meaningful you can still develop passion around that. Just because I never thought about being a breast cancer physician-scientist, didn’t mean I couldn’t become one.”
What would you advise young scientists?
“I think people have forgotten about what I call the joy of science. I think people right now are so stressed about getting grants and papers because papers beget grants and vice versa that we’re losing perspective of what got us into this field in the first place. It’s really about the joy of doing research and discovery. In cancer, the idea for me is that, this is going to help patients. We’re moving towards a cure for cancer. I’m worried that, because of the pressures of academics people are forgetting that and are not enjoying that aspect of their job. So, every once in a while, you got to step back and recognize that nobody’s forcing you to be here. You’re doing this because you really love science. Every job has their positives and negatives, so don’t let the negatives overrun and color your view to the point where you don’t enjoy it anymore.
The second thing that people tend to forget is that it’s a pretty selective process – getting a Hopkins postdoc and going on to a faculty position. I tell them, Look, if you’re not the person who’s going to make it, then who’s going to? Remember that despite all rejections and hardships, you’re going to be okay. Work, think, have fun and hopefully, things will take care of themselves.
The other thing everyone always says, “You have a safety net – you’re a physician, you can always do private practice”. To that, I would argue, PhDs have a safety net too- there are plenty of jobs for PhD scientists, you just have to know where to look. So, I don’t buy the notion that just having an MD makes it so that it’s a safer career pathway. Also, I don’t really think that’s a great way to look at any career. If you really love what you’re doing, you’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
What do you think makes for a successful mentor-mentee relationship in an academic setting?
“A good mentor-mentee relationship relies upon good communication and time spent between the mentor and the mentee on a regular basis to really help achieve their goals.”
What do you think young scientists should look for in a mentor?
“The number one thing to is to make sure that the mentor understands what their goals and objectives are. I think that a lot of conflict that happens is directly from that. I feel that there should be a conversation; maybe in the first month, then 3 months and 6 months about your goals, what do you want to get out of your postdoctoral fellowship, what ultimately do you want to be? I ask trainees, who do they want to emulate in their professional careers? Once you’ve established that, it’s easier to lay the pathway of what the training is going to be.
Trainees need to look for mentors who are flexible in how they mentor you. I also think trainees need to ask mentors: are they open to the idea of having additional mentors? Not just scientific mentors, but career mentors outside of the lab. Because I don’t have expertise in every area that my trainees want to go into, I encourage them to seek out those additional levels of mentorship. Trainees need to be aware that those opportunities exist; they also need to make sure the mentor is on board with that. There a lot of mentors who just say “No, while you’re working for me, you’re working for me, and that’s it”. And that’s probably not the type of mentor you want to work for.
I tell every prospective trainee before they join a lab to talk to the people in the lab when the PI is not there. You need to find out how happy people are in the lab in an honest way. You also need to find out where those people have gone recently, like, are they getting jobs, are they getting a postdoc, have they published? And then you also want to find out what’s the level of happiness in satisfaction with the mentor in terms of mentoring. If you’re going to spend three or more years in someone’s lab, it’s probably worth spending a few hours trying to figure out how happy the people are there with the style of mentorship.”
How do you sustain your scientific curiosity despite the frequently oppressive pressure to procure funding?
“That’s a multifactorial answer. Personally, I find the idea that I can help cure a disease incredibly satisfying. I think the notion that a new discovery could lead to a new drug that’s going to help patients in a huge impactful way, is something a lot of us at Hopkins want. I think people who go into this business have a natural curiosity and an internal drive for discovery. It makes you want to get out of bed every day, how do we think about cancer differently, how do we attack it in ways we haven’t thought about before.
Sustaining this drive is difficult when you become a PI and you must write grants and papers and also be a good mentor. But mentorship is a two-way street and helps keep this curiosity. Students and postdocs often suggest something that I may have never thought about before; ideas come from conversations. They come from both experience on the mentor side and maybe naivete on the student side. Conversations lead to a new, testable hypothesis, and ultimately whether it’s proven wrong or true- it’s really an incredibly satisfying process.”
What part of running a laboratory do you enjoy/hate the most: hypothesis generation/writing, bench work, or mentoring?
“All the above. I don’t do bench work anymore. If I enter the lab, my trainees make fun of me, they don’t want me to touch their pipets, but I love that part of it. I love mentoring. I would probably say the worst part of running a lab is the administrative part: which includes writing for grants and having to do paper revisions. I think the bar has gotten so ridiculously high and people (reviewers) have become so nit-picky, almost vindictive sometimes. I often tell trainees; you just learn to brush that off and realize that a lot of this is just chance. You just got to keep doing your good work, keep putting stuff out there and eventually, things will stick.”