“Feeling the Jazz”: Lessons in Mentoring from an Old Friend


Bob Denno (photo M. Peterson)

Exactly 6 years ago to this week, I got one of those phone calls that you hope you never get. The caller ID said it was my old friend and post-doc advisor, Bob Denno, calling me at home. Typical for him. But on the other end of the line was his wife, Barb, calling to say that Bob had just suffered a massive heart attack and died while doing research in the field. He was 62.

I often think about my old friend and mentor. It’s hard to overstate the effect Bob had on my academic life. Many of us who knew and loved him consider ourselves fortunate to have worked with him. He was a major figure in the field of insect ecology. I was influenced by his way of asking questions and doing science even if we didn’t see eye to eye on everything. He had a brilliant way of explaining things and distilling complex ideas to their essence.

But it isn’t the science per se that has had a long-term effect on me. It’s all the unspoken things that he did as a mentor that still affect me daily.

Bob once said to me, with his southern California surfer drawl, “Dude, the science is easy, it’s the people that are hard.” It took me years to really appreciate what he was talking about. Sure, doing science is hard, but it is harder still to successfully train really good scientists. Here are a few important lessons he taught me about mentoring:

1. Mentor = coach

Bob taught me that being a successful mentor is like being a coach. We bring talented young men and women into our research groups, people with great potential who have demonstrated some sort of flair and enthusiasm for the areas in which we work. Yet, no matter how brilliant and capable they were in their previous lives, they don’t know how to navigate the new and foreign world of graduate school. Here, they learn how to be independent, how to push beyond what we know, and to always question dogma and authority. They need to become comfortable in the land of no concrete answers.

How do you help them do this? Bob found little things in each of us — blocks, deficiencies, weaknesses, call them what you want — and subtly pointed them out. If we were willing to hear what he had to say, we could start the hard work of improving ourselves.

2. Encouragement is key

Bob had a way of pushing and encouraging you in just the right amounts. I recall one sweltering summer in the punkie-infested salt marshes of New Jersey, when we had run up against a wall in a set of studies we’d been doing for a two years. Nothing was working, and I think Bob sensed that I was losing faith after a long stretch of failures. But as we collected the final samples, some obvious patterns emerged. Now it looked like the experiments were panning out, and we both started to get excited. Bob turned to me and said, “Do you feel the jazz?” At that moment, I certainly did.

Bob and me in NJ salt marsh (photo C. Gratton)

In academic work, there are (usually) more setbacks than successes. For a student or a post-doc, those failures can be crushing and make you question why you are doing this in the first place. (For faculty, it’s very different: we can buffer failures in one project with successes in another.) Maybe Bob sensed that I needed that broader perspective, or maybe he was just as excited as I was about what we were finding. It didn’t matter. His enthusiasm was infectious – when we do feel the jazz, it’s all worth it. I needed to be reminded of that; what we do can be immensely rewarding and downright fun, if we’re present enough to appreciate it.

3. Have fun

When Bob died, our extended family of “Denno-ites” came together to share stories of how he touched our lives. It’s interesting how few focused on the science. Merrill Peterson, another former post-doc of Bob’s (now a professor at Western Washington University), distilled our reflections into a list of “Lessons from Bob,” a copy of which I have hanging in my office:

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Never forget that just about anything, when viewed from the right angle, can be funny
  • You’re never too old to have a 12-year-old’s sense of humor
  • Work on something you are passionate about
  • When you get knocked down (by reviewers, failed experiments, life’s curveballs), get right back up swinging
  • Surround yourself with people you care about and work doggedly to support them

The last three are what motivate me every day to be a better scientist and mentor: love what you do, and work hard to help develop your people around you.

Although mentoring doesn’t come easily, and we are rarely coached on how to do it, it is among the most important things we do. Who was an important mentor in your academic life, or even your non-academic life (not like it’s easy to separate the two!)? What were their “life lessons” or words of wisdom to you? Were there key moments in your mentoring relationship that changed the way that you mentor your own students? Leave a comment.

Claudio Gratton, a 2013  Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of Landscape and Insect Ecology in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  Read more about his group and follow him on Twitter.