Celebrating National Mentoring Month at Neuro-Oncology Branch

Published January 2020

January 2020 marks the 18th National Mentoring Month and was launched partially by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2002.  A supportive and encouraging mentor can play a powerful role regardless of one’s age, professional experience and career field. In fact, a national report called “The Mentoring Effect” talks about the impact of mentoring early in life, finding that youth who had a mentor were much more likely to finish school that those who did not have a mentor guiding their academic prospects.

Here at Neuro-Oncology within NIH, we believe in the power of good mentorship as a pillar to advancing science and impact patient’s lives. To celebrate National Mentoring Month, we have spoken to some of our notable mentor-mentee pairs conducting research in brain tumors about their experiences.

Dr. Mark Gilbert and Dr. Nivi Ratnam

Dr. Mark Gilbert and Dr. Nivi Ratnam

Dr. Mark Gilbert and Dr. Nivi Ratnam

Nivi Ratnam, Ph.D., joined Mark Gilbert, M.D., Chief of NCI’s C Neuro-Oncology Branch in the Center for Cancer Research, in 2018. She wanted to combine her basic immunology expertise with Dr. Gilbert’s tumor immunology and precision medicine approaches to improve response in brain tumor patients.

“The experience has changed the way I approach scientific questions,” she says. “Dr. Gilbert has given me the opportunity to work on projects that impact what we do in humans.” She says the most rewarding part of her time here has been the opportunities to use clinical observations to design or write clinical trial protocols and interpret human clinical data.

Dr. Gilbert considers Dr. Ratnam an exceptional scientific colleague. “She has a strong sense of responsibility and personal integrity and has a magnanimous approach to work,” says Dr. Gilbert. He believes she has been a big part of making other trainees’ experiences important. “She is always willing to share knowledge and take the time to help others,” he says. Moreover, he emphasizes her ability to build relationships with other labs and institutions, allowing the lab to build successful collaborations to benefit the field.

Dr. Ratnam is also grateful that Dr. Gilbert provides her autonomy to create and fund her own project visions, but always remains available to help. “Along with the inspiration he provides to do impactful work, Dr. Gilbert also respects having a work-life balance and has a great sense of humor, making him an ideal mentor,” says Dr. Ratnam.

Dr. Masaki Terabe and Dr. Vibhuti Joshi

Dr. Masaki Terabe and Dr. Vibhuti Joshi

Dr. Masaki Terabe and Dr. Vibhuti Joshi

Masaki Terabe, Ph.D., and Vibhuti Joshi, Ph.D., are new to NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, Neuro-Oncology Branch. Dr. Terabe is an investigator leading the basic immunology team and Dr. Joshi is his postdoctoral fellow. Together, they are building a laboratory to study the role of immunology in brain tumors, which is a field of growing interest in our branch.

“I came into neuro-oncology with not a lot of expertise in immunology and only some background in brain-related diseases. Dr. Terabe has been a mentor, lab colleague, and teacher,” says Dr. Joshi. “He’s made me feel very comfortable to ask about anything, science-related or otherwise, and made my transition to my new role in this new country much easier.”

Dr. Terabe also applauded Dr. Joshi’s willingness to learn about an entirely new field. “She is very collaborative, efficient, and organized, which are crucial qualities to help start a new lab. Dr. Joshi has been proactively reaching out to key people within our Neuro-oncology Branch, NCI and NIH that can help us, and absorbing as much of the field as she can,” he says.

Dr. Joshi expressed immense gratitude for the opportunity to work under Dr. Terabe and commended his patience. She has been able to pitch new project ideas and is exposed to conferences, tumor boards, and several other professional collaborative opportunities at NIH. She hopes to set up her own lab in the future.  “This experience has been important as I get to explore how to do it under Dr. Terabe’s guidance and mentorship,” says Dr. Joshi.

Dr. Chunzhang Yang and Dr. Yang Liu

Dr. Chunzhang Yang and Dr. Yang Liu

Dr. Chunzhang Yang and Dr. Yang Liu

Chunzhang Yang, Ph.D., and Yang Liu, Ph.D., both received their undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Peking University, albeit five years apart and from different departments. Dr. Liu was introduced to Dr. Yang through a friend and they have been working together for a little over three years.

At the time they met, Dr. Yang, an investigator in NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, Neuro-oncology Branch, and was recruiting researchers for his newly formed lab. Dr. Liu joined the lab shortly after and has provided not only his scientific expertise to projects, but also helped set-up the lab and train several incoming researchers. “I am very fortunate to have a postdoctoral researcher who was already a seasoned oncology researcher. He’s efficient and produces high-quality work at a productive pace,” says Dr. Yang.

Dr. Liu expresses a similar gratitude towards his mentor. “We were on the same page about expectations from day one and really developed a close personal and professional relationship,” says Dr. Liu. The pair runs experiments together, meets regularly to discuss project ideas, and has built a strong collaboration.

Dr. Liu is also particularly very thankful for Dr. Yang’s mentorship as he transitioned to a new life in the United States. “I needed advice to establish myself here and he provided help and advice to get everything set up,” says Dr. Liu.

Dr. Yang has also provided countless opportunities for Dr. Liu to attend conferences, network with important players in the field, and learn more about the translational aspect of their research. “I have fallen more in love with science through these experiences, which exposed me to all the new things happening in the field,” says Dr. Liu. Together, Drs. Yang and Liu make a fabulous mentor-mentee team to advance basic and translation glioma research. 

Dr. Miora Larion and Dr. Victor Ruiz-Rodado

Dr. Miora Larion and Dr. Victor Ruiz-Rodado

Dr. Miora Larion and Dr. Victor Ruiz-Rodado

Victor Ruiz-Rodado, Ph.D., has been a post-doctoral fellow under Mioara Larion, Ph.D., since 2016. Dr. Larion’s lab in NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, Neuro-Oncology Branch studies how metabolomics can play a role in glioma and patient response to treatment.

Dr. Ruiz-Rodado came to NCI from the United Kingdom where he used NMR and machine learning techniques to generate and study metabolic datasets to classify patients. He has now applied his NMR and expertise to studying the metabolic processes that makes gliomas highly malignant in Dr. Larion’s lab.

 “She helped me develop a broader picture of glioma research and transition lab work to be beneficial to patients,” says Dr. Ruiz-Rodado. “She has also given me a lot of freedom to explore a wide range of scientific ideas in the lab and encouraged me to participate in many conferences and collaborator meetings.”

Dr. Larion also feels very lucky to have Dr. Ruiz-Rodado as part of her team. “He is very technical, willing to try different techniques, and take risks that result in new projects. He is also very open-minded about new technologies within the context of metabolomics research,” says Dr. Larion.

The majority of her lab’s data science is supported by Dr. Ruiz-Rodado’s expertise. He has also grown to learn animal experiments and traditional bench work. “I was not considering academic research as a future career path before, but it is definitely an option to consider after doing this fellowship under Dr. Larion,” says Dr. Ruiz-Rodado.