This story is the first in a series highlighting the research accomplishments of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) grantees from the Human Capital portfolio and the mentors that guide them.

Great researchers are made, not born. But in addition to years of study, academic and personal achievement, what are the less tangible factors that propel people toward extraordinary success?

"Great careers in medicine do not just occur," explains Iris Litt, MD, national director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Physician Faculty Scholars program. "Researchers must also become superb clinicians, good teachers, and learn how to disseminate their study results so that they can help people change unhealthy behaviors. To accomplish this, even the most brilliant scientists need nurturing, guidance and advice."

Providing that support is the goal of the multifaceted mentoring techniques used in the RWJF Human Capital programs. "Part of grantee success, of course, is that wonderful people come into our programs," says Desmond Runyan, MD, director of the RWJF Clinical Scholars program. "We then introduce them to a panel of mentors with different backgrounds and experiences that help our scholars move forward."

Building on the Basics

Scholars, fellows and investigators come to RWJF programs with varying degrees of knowledge about how to conduct research. In many cases, mentors assist with the development of skills in statistics, epidemiology and other disciplines. "The Clinical Scholars also have local mentors who read their papers and review their research writing techniques," Runyan says.

"In the Physician Faculty Scholars program, we start grantees out with structured mentoring sessions. It's formalized and interactive. We also have mentors talk with a grantee's institutional representative to make sure the scholar really does have protected time to conduct their research," Litt says.

Rose Marie Robertson, MD, chair of the National Advisory Committee (NAC) at the RWJF Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program explains, “many of our scholars have worked on research and have published in the past. They apply to the program to work with a mentor who is an established expert and can help them expand their skills set and add depth to their approach to scientific inquiry. The NAC member assigned to them as an additional mentor can help guide and counsel them in many other ways and they often develop a life-long relationship."

The RWJF Health & Society Scholars (HSS) program takes a similar approach. "Our scholars are mentored in scientific, professional and leadership development," explains program director Jo Ivey Boufford, MD. "Their secondary mentors work on specialized scientific areas. In addition, members of our NAC form relationships with our scholars and advise them on an as-needed basis. The site directors are responsible for guiding them through the program successfully and providing general career advice," explains HSS co-director Christine Bachrach, PhD.

Even when working with grantees who are senior in their fields, such as those in the RWJF Investigators in Health Policy Research program, mentoring contributes to their success. "The candidates selected for the Investigator program are generally very well-established," says program director David Mechanic, PhD. "But we do review their materials and help them prepare to publish expanded discussions of their research in book form and guide them in how to work with publishers and book editors. We also encourage them to go beyond their usual disciplinary journals and publish in important venues like the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Health Affairs and other important policy outlets."

The Vision Thing

As important as these fundamental skills are, a mentor's greatest accomplishment is helping scholars, fellows and investigators realize their full potential. "Our NAC members guide the Physician Faculty Scholars in how to further their careers, but we also show them how to work within their institutions and profession to establish a national reputation. We help them grow," Litt says.

"We help Harold Amos Scholars see just how good they really are at what they do," Robertson adds. "Some people just need to hear: 'Look at what you've accomplished. You really are ready for the next step!'" Because the Amos program works exclusively with scholars from ethnic and racial groups that are underrepresented in the medical profession, "we also often have people who want to give back to their community. We help them get their careers on more solid ground so that they can really make an impact. Our belief at Amos is that if we are going to change American medicine in a way that's beneficial to society, then we have to change the face of medicine [through diversity]. So we make sure our scholars have someone who is unfailingly in their corner and wants them to succeed and become role models."

Runyan adds that beyond working on research skills, Clinical Scholar mentors "help candidates expand their view of what they can do so that they can play on a larger stage and bring about change in medicine. They often need to be told that they are more powerful than they think."

"We want to produce scientific, as well as policy and practice leaders in the field of population health at the Health & Society Scholars program, so we make sure they can meet the challenges of interdisciplinary work and leadership," Bachrach says.

"Our people—the Investigators in Health Policy Research—may already be leaders in their field, but very senior people can become siloed," Mechanic advises. "We put together interdisciplinary groups and make Investigators aware of each other, which sometimes results in very successful research collaborations. We encourage them to participate in policy with a greater vision of what they can do."

Achieving Greatness through Balance

Inspiration and advanced academic coaching are essential parts of mentoring, but there is one more factor that is a critical part of the mix, advises veteran Clinical Scholar program mentor Robert Brook, MD, who is also distinguished chair in Health Care Services at the RAND Corporation. And that is balance.

"I begin each new Clinical Scholar class by saying something very inappropriate," Brook says. "I tell them, 'I expect everybody to produce a baby while they're in the program.'" His quip is his humorous way of reminding the scholars that, "they should not put off their dreams to do this work. Their lives should be in balance because happier; more fulfilled, more content people also do better work. If things come up while scholars are in the program—a crisis or life-changing event—I try to help them work through it as part of the Clinical Scholar experience."

As an example, Brook sites scholar Benjamin Springgate, MD, MPH, executive director of Community Health Innovation and Research at Tulane University, who experienced hurricane Katrina in the midst of his Clinical Scholar term. His research became a project that brought together 400 providers to provide health services to storm victims. "It would not have been possible if we had been telling him he couldn't miss his statistics class," Brook says.

"The people who come to our program spend so much of their lives competing, that they may lose sight of their individual strengths," Brook says. "The University of California at Los Angeles approach is to create an environment where the anxiety level is reduced and they are not competing against each other so that they can function at 100 percent of their ability. I look around the room and tell them, you cannot always be on top, but each of you can make a difference if you are the best that you can be."