Cancer Researcher Values Teaching and Learning

By William Hahn, MD, PhD

Every year, hundreds of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students study cancer research at Dana-Farber under some of the world’s leading scientists. The Dana-Farber Postdoc and Graduate Student Affairs Office recently named the first recipient of its Mentor-of-the-Year Award: William Hahn, MD, PhD, the Institute’s deputy scientific officer and director of its Center for Cancer Genome Discovery. Here, Hahn discusses the lessons he learned from his own mentors and his efforts to instill the same principles in his own trainees.

Drs. William Hahn (right) and Joseph Rosenbluh study a protein complex that drives colon cancers.

I was fortunate to have superb mentors early in my career. In the research area, they encouraged me and other students to choose important problems to study and to take time to step back and re-examine what we were doing and where our research was headed.

They stressed the importance of questioning our assumptions – asking ourselves why we believed what we believed – and learning to express ourselves in writing and speaking, both of which are extremely important in science.

In my clinical training, the emphasis was on putting patients first. We were encouraged to always consider the effect of disease and treatment from their points of view.

The common thread among my best mentors was that they cared. They didn’t have to tell me they did; it was clear in the way they interacted with me and other students.

I consider mentoring one of the most important things I do as a faculty member at Dana-Farber. The challenge we face as mentors is to pass on not only what we know and what we’ve learned, but what we value.

Here’s my advice to others in mentoring positions:

  • Put yourself in your trainees’ shoes.
  • Understand their perspectives.
  • Have a set of principles you want them to follow.
  • Be a good listener and recognize that there are several sides to every story.

The reward of mentoring is the knowledge that people you’ve trained are going to thrive on their own. There’s nothing as satisfying as seeing them succeed.