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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Mentorship: Reflections of the CIAT Diaspora

In memory my father, José Alvarez- my first and best mentor

JT- CatalystWe at Capacity had a relaxed afternoon conversation with some of our honored guests*, part of our CIAT’s Diaspora meeting, all of which had, at one time or another, studied and/ or worked in the Biotechnology unit, about their memories of CIAT. What really caught me was this groups’ perception of the factors that got them to be whom and where they are, their growth processes in professional agricultural research: invariably they mentioned the importance of the mentorship they received in CIAT. But what, exactly, does a good mentor do? A lot of what we talked about was in reference to Joe Tohme, but others were also recognized in their roles as mentors:  William Roca, Gerardo Gallego, Valérie Verdier. So what are Joe & Co. (couldn’t resist) doing so well? It all seems to be more a process than isolated actions: a process that begins well before these young, promising scientists arrive in CIAT, and which, apparently, never ends.

Choosing the chosen

It all starts with a very intuitive selection process- our CIAT scientists are well connected with university professors here in Colombia and all over the world, and they “keep an eye out” for young people with initiative, curiosity and with good possibilities of success in the complex world of Biotech research. The university contacts will recommend a few students or recent graduates, and this, in conjunction with the CIAT mentor’s “uncanny perception of human quality”, gets a few lucky ones to work in our high- standard labs. And very quickly, each one of these promising researchers becomes part of a close family. “It seems that once the decision is made to invest in you, that you are worthy of it, from that moment on you get a support that stays with you for the long run”.  As soon as the “mentored” arrived in Biotech, they saw signs all around of how far they could go if they chose to: “It was always very exciting to hear that Natalia just went to study abroad here, and such-and-such just got a PhD, and so-and-so is in Cornell, and so on. This was very direct encouragement, and also the first glimpses of our own global projection!”

Delegating responsibility- and credit

Soon, “you get proof that you are “in” – because a good mentor, like William Roca, starts delegating. “They [William, Joe] very good at delegating work and opportunities…” For example, allowing young researchers to travel and present the work that is being done. “One of the things we really appreciated was the opportunity to travel… and to represent CIAT abroad, to prove ourselves.” Another one of the benefits working in the lab alongside these brilliant mentors is to get immersed in an interdisciplinary and international research ambiance, and to find your place and capacities in it. Good mentors give their protégées the opportunity to take on responsibilities- “not just: here you go, you do it” but with backing in resources, advice, trust, capacity building.  “It is like you receive a baton- you have to keep it and take care of it until it is time to pass it on- this builds your perception of teamwork”.

Maintaining a friendly learning environment

Camaraderie and an unselfish space to practice and learn were a constant in the labs, and constituted “a beautiful experience, something that has been very hard to find again in our professional histories”. “There was a combination of scientific experience with the wish to always learn more…” This attitude, promoted and supported by the mentors, mean that most people are happy to work, even coming on a Saturday or Sunday… “and apparently this is still the case! I came yesterday after 4:30 and found many people working in the Biotechnology lab. I work in another CG center and there, as professional as everybody is, no one would work extra hours like here, out of commitment to the work”. All these ex-Biotech lab alumni remember fondly the same things: a feeling of enthusiasm, of discovery, friendship, the parties, breakfasts, “and characters such as doña Nidia, Paulito, quality people”. The mentor’s “eye” to choose people with compromise and the will to “work for the cause” was crucial. CIAT is still seen by many in this group as the place to come “renew our love for doing science”.

ciat-diaspora 1.1- for blog

Helping researchers go global

Young researchers felt treated “at the same level [as recognized scientists], visitors were introduced to us and we had the opportunity to chat with them, exchange ideas- assuming we will understand what they are talking about, and will represent the lab well”. “It is a responsibility entrusted to each of us, knowing that we will not let the lab down, because we will not let ourselves down”. Eventually there begins the time to start moving on, to new studies, new horizons. Mentors look for opportunities for the junior researchers to complete their studies abroad, working in collaborative arrangements with universities and research institutes all over the world. It is a commitment “Joe has had through many generations, helping people look for the best possibilities”… The good mentor suggests, influences, gives ideas, and reinforces. “CIAT mentors such as [William] Roca and Joe are well known and recognized in Latin America and the world- they are like a high-quality  letter of introduction, they sort of become part our “pedigree” out there”.  And the support doesn’t finish once the person is installed abroad- the support is constantly there, through follow up contact, even visits to the universities and organizations hosting the lab students- “not an evaluative following, but rather a supportive one.” CIAT and CIAT mentors continue alongside, as a presence, as a stamp of recognition to the work done.

Our proto-mentors have had the capacity to teach and transmit not only knowledge and skills, but also an attitude: being generous with their teachings and with their recognition of others’ strengths and work. They are strategic thinkers, who have themselves broadened the scope of Biotech work of CIAT and globally. They have the capacity and understand the importance of making contacts and maintaining networks, which they later use and share for the benefit of the upcoming generations of agricultural researchers and innovators. They have stayed “ahead of the game” through a broad strategic vision, and the fearlessness needed to contribute to change and generational change-over when they are needed. I was pleasantly surprised to hear testimony of such direct influence CIAT mentors have had in the professional life of generations of successful agricultural researchers.


* Thanks to a great conversation with:

  • ELIANA GAITAN SOLIS, Danforth Plant Science Center, USA
  • CAMILO LOPEZ CARRASCAL, Universidad Nacional de Colombia
  • MARCELA ROJAS-PIERCE, North Carolina State University, USA
  • PEDRO J. ROJAS, IICA, Costa Rica
  • SILVIA RESTREPO RESTREPO, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia
  • ESPERANZA TORRES, Universidad Nacional de Colombia
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