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Ashok Deniz Named Outstanding Mentor



Ashok Deniz Named Outstanding Mentor

By Cindy Brauer

Ashok Deniz, associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), believes collaboration is key to being a good mentor, in his words, “rather than telling [mentees] what do to, working together to develop a plan based on their own ideas and interests.” This is the approach Deniz has used to guide some 25 postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and interns over the past 16 years as a faculty member at TSRI—and one that has earned him the 2016 Scripps California Outstanding Mentor award.

Sponsored by the Society of Fellows (SOF), the annual award recognizes TSRI faculty who consistently and enthusiastically serve as effective mentors to postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. The winner receives $500 to support professional development, training or team-building activities in his or her lab.

“I believe people do their best work when they are self-motivated,” Deniz explained. “From the practical side, my goal is to provide guidance and the lab’s expertise to help shape and refine their projects and research. We learn from each other.” One outcome of this collaborative environment, he added, is mentees’ ideas can lead to exciting new directions for the lab and the field.

Deniz also sees his role as a sounding board and guide for mentees’ career plans and questions. “I try provide the perspective of the whole scientific career line, from early work in a lab to establishing an independent career,” he explained. He makes a point to help mentees as they develop practical career skills such as writing and presenting, preparing fellowships and grants, and applying for jobs.

The Deniz lab, which focuses on single-molecule biophysics, aims to develop predictive physical and chemical principles that can be applied to molecular systems in the broader understanding of biology. He and his lab members are “really like detectives,” said Deniz, “studying the mysteries of molecules, using the tools they develop to uncover clues and ultimately piece together solutions.”

Deniz credits his own doctoral and postdoctoral experiences as a mentee for much of his leadership style. He began postdoctoral work in TSRI CEO Pete Schultz’s group when it was located at the University of California, Berkeley. “Those were exciting, challenging times,” he recalled. “Pete encouraged me to explore different, new ideas in the field.”

Important to Deniz and his mentees is the lab’s family-like atmosphere in which members commiserate over obstacles and setbacks and together celebrate successes. “Everyone is giving a lot to the process, so we become a family, collaborating very closely, enjoying good relationships,” said Deniz. “I’ve been lucky to have many really awesome people working in my lab. It’s been very rewarding to watch former mentees to achieve successful careers in industry and academia.”

Lab members value Deniz’s particular kind of leadership. Common descriptions among the mentor award nomination letters speak of his kindness, high standards, passion for science, patience and concern for their wellbeing within and outside the lab. Sample comments include:

“He was always supportive and keen on making sure I became a good scientist, not just in my head, but from my heart.”

“During our one-to-one and group discussions, I always have the feeling we leave all our academic titles by the door. He sincerely values each and every opinion and tries to learn from us without any prejudices.”

“Ashok gave me the independence to discover and pursue my own scientific interests, while staying closely connected to the process, offering his own knowledge and expertise for me to learn from along the way.”

“Ashok leads by example… He is tactful, kind and sensitive to the complex challenges faced by budding scientists... I have witnessed the kind of scientist and mentor I hope to be like one day. And I have watched myself become a real scientist.”

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The Scripps California Outstanding Mentor for 2016, Associate Professor Ashok Deniz, considers a collaborative approach key to good mentorship. (Photo by John Dole.)