Streams

Find A Mentor, Be A Mentor

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Today I pay tribute to my mentors. You know, those rare people in life who take the time to help you, quite often redefining the path ahead. Mentors are people who selflessly give away two of their most precious commodities: wisdom and time.

Who hasn't been confused, unsure of which way to go, stuck between choices that would lead to very different futures?

We often want to go a certain way but can't, due to a variety of circumstances. Life demands commitment and sometimes these commitments are more like obstacles than opportunities. Maybe your parents don't want you to follow this career, or you are afraid of taking the plunge into a radical choice, or someone near needs you and you don't have the freedom to go your own unencumbered way. Maybe this is why some say that to be free is to be able to choose to what you will commit.

Like many young students, I went through a crisis when I got into university. It even started before, when my father "suggested" that I should go into chemical engineering instead of physics. It was a safer bet for the future, he argued, worried about my wellbeing. I see this often with my own students at Dartmouth. They come geared-up for a pre-med or pre-law degree, only to find out a year later that their passions lie with philosophy or drama.

So, I obediently followed my father's advice and started engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. It didn't take long for me to realize that it wouldn't work. I loved physics and calculus. Problem was, I didn't know any physicist. I mean, how many people actually know one? The only fellows I knew were my teachers for intro physics courses. Not having much to lose, I knocked on the door of a teacher who had impressed me in the classroom with his passion for science. I guess today we call this bold outreach "networking."

He probably doesn't remember this, but he received me like an old friend and suggested I apply for a fellowship to learn the theory of relativity with Prof. Arvind Vaydia, a colleague of his. The Brazilian government had the wisdom to provide thousands of these "scientific initiation" grants to motivate undergrads to go into STEM-related disciplines. (Hello, Department of Education!) Well, it worked.

As a second-year engineering student, I was feverishly studying Einstein's amazing theory and nearly flunking chemistry, especially inorganic chemistry lab. Time was marching on and I had to make a choice.

The day of my very last exam in intro physics, the man proctoring sits back in amazement as I give him my exam: "Wait, do you know a guy called Luiz Gleiser?"

"Sure, my older brother", I replied.

This fellow, Francisco Antonio Doria, a brilliant mathematical physicist, and a man of extraordinary culture, who could read Marx in German and Proust in French, became my first true mentor and advised me in my master's thesis. (Here is a recent book about Gödel he co-authored with famous mathematicians Gregory Chaitin and Newton da Costa.) I'd go to his house in the town of Petropolis, the old imperial capital of Brazil, and spend whole days talking about quarks, galaxies and diffeomorphisms.

Today I understand how generous he was. Doria didn't have to do any of this; he did it because he wanted to, because he wanted to share his passion for learning with his students. He understood that when you love something you only give it full life when you share it with others. That's the essence of good mentoring.

The search for mentors continued when I went to London for my Ph.D. I wasn't as lucky there, despite trying. These were lonely years, when I used what I had learned from my previous mentors to stay afloat: follow your passion and the inevitable obstacles will look smaller to you.

Life changed when I got to the United States for my postdoctoral fellowship at Fermilab, a huge particle accelerator some 40 miles west of Chicago. The head of the theoretical astrophysics group was Edward (Rocky) Kolb, now dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago.

I learned a lot of about physics from Rocky. I was torn between doing research in what everyone else was doing at the time (supersymmetric dark matter particles and cosmic strings), or following my own interests in less popular areas. Rocky's lesson is one I pass on to my students all the time: Do what makes your heart beat faster, not what is fashionable. Only then you will give it your best shot; results and papers will follow.

It's hard to imagine someone successful who never had a mentor. Unfortunately, it's not so hard to imagine someone successful who quickly forgets about his/her mentors. Hey, they made time for you; now go and make time for others.


You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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