Research Mentors and Mentees: Meant to Be

Anne-Marie Malfait, MD, PhD, has dedicated her research to figuring out why people with osteoarthritis experience pain. Finding an aspiring scientist to help her reach that goal was decidedly pain-free.

Malfait, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Rush University, hired Rachel Miller, PhD, as a postdoc in 2010, and the duo has been collaborating seamlessly since then, tackling an area of osteoarthritis research that is being conducted at only a handful of institutions worldwide.

“The day that I started working with Rachel — that’s when I knew she had a bright future,” said Malfait, who was named Rush University’s Postdoctoral Mentor of the Year at the Mentoring Programs Symposium on Aug. 17. “She started contributing immediately. She asked novel questions — the right questions.”

After eight years as a discovery scientist with Pfizer, Malfait joined Rush in 2009 with hopes of exploring some of the gaps in osteoarthritis research. She had to build her research team from scratch, though, since she was new to academia. A year later, she was fortunate enough to cross paths with Miller, who had just finished her doctorate at MIT.

Together they have earned National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for their work. And under Malfait’s guidance, Miller, who was promoted to assistant professor at Rush a year ago, is now pursuing her particular osteoarthritis research ideas after starting a lab of her own and receiving an NIH grant for her efforts.

“It has been incredibly rewarding to see her grow into an independent researcher,” Malfait said.  “I helped her by guiding her through that process, and she helped me as I started my lab from nothing. She was instrumental.”

Miller’s research takes advantage of her engineering background: She’s curious about the role of mechanics— how different cells and tissues respond to forces — in osteoarthritis pain. Her work with Malfait, meanwhile, is examining which neurons are activated when people with osteoarthritis experience discomfort.

Miller continues to collaborate closely with her mentor even though she’s pursing her own research endeavors.

“We meet to discuss research, but she also takes time to discuss career development,” Miller said. “She makes sure I’m networking, attending conferences and developing as a grant writer — all of the things besides doing experiments that make you a successful scientist. It’s those soft skills that you don’t always learn at school that are so important in helping you succeed in your career.”

Rush Mentoring Programs

The partnership between Malfait and Miller is among the 150 mentor-mentee connections that have been fostered by Rush Mentoring Programs since its inception in 2007. During that time, 70 percent of mentees have remained at Rush to continue their research.

The program helps both the mentors and mentees grow professionally, which contributes to more collaborative research and, in turn, improves health outcomes.

“Mentors play a crucial role in the professional development of junior faculty, and mentors receive reciprocal benefits from the relationship,” said Giselle Sandi, PhD, director of Mentoring Programs at Rush. “It’s integral to furthering research and professional growth.”

Sandi has helped mentoring efforts at Rush  expand into a robust resource for junior investigators, adding three new programs recently: the Rush Educational Mentoring Program, the Rush Postdoctoral Society and the Rush Women’s Mentoring Program.

Rush Mentoring Programs honored Malfait and others at its recent symposium. Faraz Bishehsari, MD, PhD, was named Mentee of the Year, and Ali Keshavarzian, MD, earned Mentor of the Year recognition. Three researchers were awarded travel funds to help them present their work abroad: Mahboobeh Mahdavinia, MD, PhD; Joanne O’Keefe, PhD; and Amanda Persons, PhD.

In addition, members of the Cohn Fellows class of 2016 presented their research activities. The Cohn Foundation has been instrumental in the success of mentees during the past 10 years, donating a total of $1 million.

The Cohn Foundation funds allow mentees to put their mentor’s research advice to good use.

“Most people are really good at something,” Malfait said. “If you can find what that something is and foster that rather than force them to do something they don’t enjoy doing or are not so good at, then you can really help everyone blossom.”