Dr. Eric (VJ) Rubenstein was our 2021-2022 Graduate Faculty Mentor Award recipient. Dr. Rubenstein is a Professor of Biology. Nominator Samantha Turk, said this about Dr. Rubenstein, “During my time in the lab, I have seen him mentor a variety of students. Not only has he been an incredible mentor to me, but he has adapted and provided the mentorship each student requires. I have overlapped with eight different master’s students, over eighteen undergraduate students, and three high school students; each required a different mentoring approach to succeed, which Dr. Rubenstein effortlessly provided. To my knowledge, he is still in contact with nearly everyone who has graduated from the lab and remains updated on their lives. His students are doing exciting things from continuing their education in medical school or PhD programs to working at Eli Lilly or other companies. Dr. Rubenstein is always available to answer questions or share in excitement over data for students past and present – via email, text, or in person. He encourages his students to be productive in the lab but not at the expense of their studies or physical or mental health. Throughout every student’s time as a researcher in the lab, he provides feedback score sheets at the end of each semester. I’ve seen my own scores improve with Dr. Rubenstein’s guidance and commitment to my success.”
Here is a Q and A with Dr. Rubenstein
What is your mentoring philosophy?
In my experience, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping students reach their goals. Thus, I invest time and effort to build trust-based relationships with each student I mentor and seek to understand each student’s strengths, areas for growth, and ambitions. This allows me to work with each student to develop individualized training plans that leverage their strengths, foster growth in areas of weaknesses, enable them to become increasingly independent over time, and prepare them achieve their goals (whatever they may be) at Ball State and beyond.
What strategies do you employ in your mentoring work?
I meet weekly with each individual member of my lab team and engage them as partners in our efforts to make fundamental cell biology discoveries. In these meetings, we discuss the student’s research efforts from the previous week and look ahead to what they will be doing in the upcoming week. We also establish medium-to-long-term plans for the remainder of the semester and their academic career. Over the course of our relationship, these meetings shift from me leading the conversation to them leading the conversation – by the time my students leave my lab, I aim for them to be empowered to interpret their own results and design the next experiments and projects.
I also provide opportunities for students to go beyond their comfort zones, such as presenting their work in local, regional, and international forums and applying for grants and other awards. In each of these cases, I work with the student to establish timelines wherein they provide their progress to me at regular intervals, and I provide multiple rounds of iterative feedback. My goal in providing this feedback is to provide suggestions on how to improve, rather than just “fix” their work.
Science, like any academic pursuit, is hard, and there will be failures. I tell my students this early and often, so that they will be less surprised and disappointed when experiments fail or grant proposals are rejected. I celebrate every step, including performing new experiments and submitting grant applications before we even know if the experiment has succeeded, or the proposal will be funded. Failure is a normal – and essential – part of the process. The pain of failing never completely goes away. However, our relationship to failure can evolve in positive ways, and our ability to persist in the face of disappointment can improve.
Finally, I remember that my mentees are people before they are students or scientists. In our meetings, I provide opportunities for my students to share (or not) big or small goings-on in their lives outside of our shared scientific pursuits. By the time most of my students leave my lab or graduate, we have developed trust-based relationships that allow me to make more meaningful contributions to their personal well-being and development.
My mentees and I are on a journey. The goal is to grow and improve over the course of this journey. Just as my students will sometimes botch an experiment or not receive a particular grant, I am also a work in progress who might not always execute the above strategies in the way that I would like. I am fortunate that my mentees have extended to me the same grace I strive to give them along our collective journey.
What is your proudest achievement in mentoring for your graduate program?
I have no single proudest achievement. My mentees’ growth and success are my success. I am proud when my mentees design, execute, and interpret their own experiments; when they take the risk and submit a grant proposal or give a research presentation; when they persist through failure of experiments and ideas; when they foster the development of other scientists on our team; and when they reach the next stage of their careers (further graduate study, professional programs, jobs in or out of science).
Although not the only marker of an individuals’ success, I experience a particular thrill when I see my Ball State University mentees’ names as co-authors or included in the Acknowledgments sections of peer-reviewed publications. Their names on our research papers represent an incredible amount of effort, thought, successes, and failures over the period of many months (sometimes years!). I am incredibly proud that our students are contributing bricks in the grand wall of scientific knowledge.
Who has helped you along the way as you have developed your skills in this area?
I have been blessed to have several outstanding mentors and colleagues who have provided specific mentoring advice and have led by example. My undergraduate mentors (Arnie Sodergren and Durwood Ray), my PhD mentor (Martin Schmidt), and my postdoctoral mentor (Mark Hochstrasser) each provided opportunities for me to grow as a scientist and person. They encouraged me to try hard things. They celebrated my successes and supported me through failures. I strive to provide my students what these scientists gave to me. At Ball State, I have learned so much from my colleagues. There are too many to name, but one colleague who has made particularly impactful contributions to my development as a faculty mentor is Sue McDowell. For my first several years at Ball State, my office and lab were next to hers, and she provided endless hours of advice and support. I strived to emulate Sue in the way that she fostered the success of her students.
Anything else you would like us to know?
As soon as I finish writing this questionnaire, I am leaving to prepare for our end-of-the-semester lab party! We will celebrate all we have accomplished together this semester, and we will pay tribute to the lab members who are graduating and moving on to the next exciting stages in their careers!