The Science of Mentorship

Biochemist Dr. Keith Yamamoto had positive mentoring experiences during his undergraduate and graduate careers where his mentors consistently guided and helped him develop independence in the field. But when he became a professor, he initially struggled to effectively mentor his students. In this episode, Dr. Yamamoto shares key moments of how he learned what tendencies can damage mentoring experiences, the skills that contribute to positive mentorships, and how academic institutions can implement more successful mentoring practices.

Show Notes

Students’ mentoring experiences are shaped by the mentorship skills of their mentors.  However, if academic institutions lack commitment to implementing successful mentoring practices, faculty members often struggle to support their mentees. 

Biochemist Dr. Keith Yamamoto had positive mentoring experiences during his undergraduate and graduate careers where his mentors consistently guided and helped him develop independence in the field. But when he became a professor, he initially struggled to effectively mentor his students. In this episode, Dr. Yamamoto shares key moments of how he learned what tendencies can damage mentoring experiences, the skills that contribute to positive mentorships, and how academic institutions can implement more successful mentoring practices. 

Dr. Keith Yamamoto is a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at University of California, San Francisco. He also serves as the vice chancellor for science policy and strategy, and as the director of precision medicine at UCSF. Dr. Yamamoto has worked on several national committees that focus on public and scientific policy. In 1990, he was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, and in 2003, he was elected into the National Academy of Medicine

To learn more about the Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM report, and for a guide to implementing best practices at your institution, visit

Brought to you by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine


What is The Science of Mentorship?

Mentorship is essential to the development of anyone in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or medicine, but did you know mentorship is a set of skills that can be learned, practiced, and optimized?

In this 10-part series from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, you’ll hear the personal mentorship stories of leaders in academia, business, and the media, in their own words. Learn how evidence-based mentorship practices can help you develop the skills to engage in the most effective STEMM mentoring relationships possible.

If you are a mentor, a mentee, or have a role in mentorship, this podcast is for you.

Narrator (00:10):
Welcome to The Science of Mentorship. Academic institutions tend to place the sole responsibility of mentoring experiences on the mentee. Mentoring experiences, however, are affected by how well faculty members tend to their mentees. When an institution lacks commitment to successful mentoring practices, faculty members often fail to effectively support their mentees. Biochemist Dr. Keith Yamamoto experienced this, not as a student, but as a professor. A professor who at first struggled to mentor his students.
Narrator (00:46):
Dr. Yamamoto had positive mentoring experiences in his undergraduate and graduate careers. After earning his PhD from Princeton University, Dr. Yamamoto joined the faculty at University of California, San Francisco as a Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology. It was when he joined UCSF, that he realized there were certain approaches a mentor should take, and some they shouldn't. Through learning from failed experiences at mentoring, Dr. Yamamoto strives for academic institutions to consistently implement effective mentoring practices.
Narrator (01:21):
Dr. Keith Yamamoto also serves as the Vice Chancellor for Science policy and Strategy, and as Director of Precision Medicine at UCSF. He has worked on several national committees focused on public and scientific policy. In 1990, Dr. Yamamoto was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, and in 2003, he was elected into the National Academy of Medicine. When it came time to decide where to go to college, Keith made what he considered an easy decision.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (01:59):
I went to Iowa State University because it was close to home. I was born and grew up in Des Moines. Ames, where Iowa State is located, is 35 miles north of Interstate 35. And I was too timid to try to go be adventurous beyond that. I was a biochemistry major. Biochemistry was a relatively new major at Iowa State when I began my undergraduate career in 1964, and I lucked out. I was assigned a mentor named Jack Horowitz, who was an assistant professor at Iowa State. He met me and my parents on the first day, and he began to interact with me on a regular basis. Even though I was just a freshman, he was just getting his lab going. And so when I was a sophomore, I began working in his lab washing glassware. And very quickly after that, he began to give me some research to do, small little projects to work on. And so I worked in his lab throughout my undergraduate career, beginning as a sophomore.
Narrator (03:10):
Dr. Horowitz's consistent interaction not only helped Keith learn new techniques, but pushed him to develop professionally in ways he didn't expect.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (03:19):
I learned an enormous amount from him, but among the things I learned, was that he pushed me hard to look far and wide for graduate programs, and basically said, "Get out of Iowa. There's a lot of other exciting stuff going on." And we were working on ribosome structure and function in Dr. Horowitz's laboratory. And I just got really enamored of some work going on at Princeton by an outstanding molecular geneticist there. And so when I applied to graduate schools, I applied to many, but I was really hoping that Princeton would come through and it did.
NASEM-Yamamoto-Final Transcript Page 1 of 5
Narrator (04:04):
Dr. Horowitz's support equipped Keith to leave Iowa and follow his dreams to study elsewhere.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (04:10):
After I finished my undergraduate research, a paper we were working on, I got in my car, drove out to Princeton. I'd been there for interview, but otherwise have spent no time there, and took advantage of a program that they had whereby you could get your first rotation out of the way by going the summer before classes started. I thought that's cool. I'll do that. The only catch was, you didn't get to pick your mentor. It was assigned to you. So again, I went there and they assigned me to this mentor that was an assistant professor at Princeton, and I'd never heard of, of course, and his name was Bruce Alberts.
Narrator (04:48):
At first, Keith wasn't exactly hopeful about his new mentor's ability to guide him.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (04:53):
I walked into his lab. He was just starting his third year at Princeton. And he only had a technician and one graduate student. And I thought, "This guy's dead meat. He's must not be any good. He hasn't been able to build a lab group. What's the matter with him? But, oh well, here I am, sort of stuck with this rotation. It's just the summer, it's not a problem." And I immediately totally fell in love with the guy. His research was not tremendously compelling to me. He was working on T4 phage DNA replication, but the way that he did his research, the way he planned his experiments, the ways that he thought about the big ideas to work on, and how he related what he was thinking and doing to what had gone before, the work of other scientists, and how he talked about their work. Even those with whom he was competing strongly, was always in a very respectful tone.
Narrator (06:00):
When Dr. Alberts lab invented a new method, he opened up opportunities for Keith to explore his independence and competency in biochemistry.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (06:09):
Actually, the crowning moment was that he called up Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and said, "We've invented this new method for isolating bacteriophage. This is the Bacteriophage Meeting at Cold Spring Harbor. It's the great Phage Meeting. It still is. And maybe your people will want to hear about it." And the organizers said, "Yeah, great. We'll give you a 10 minute time slot. When would you like to come?"
And Bruce said, "Oh no, it won't be me. It'll be my student who did this work." And so here's this assistant professor nominally struggling, I guess. But he sends me off on a project he assigned me to, he suggested. I did the work, yeah sure. But no, he sends me off to give this talk at the Cold Spring Harbor meeting.
Narrator (07:02):
Dr. Yamamoto had two positive mentoring experiences as a student, but when he became a faculty member at UCSF, he struggled with his new role as a mentor.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (07:13):
NASEM-Yamamoto-Final Transcript Page 2 of 5
I have not had formal mentoring training. This is something that I think is really needed universally, but in the period that I was training and then becoming a mentor, it just didn't exist. And I learned by my own mistakes in mentoring. Being a faculty member is a lot like being a parent. Everything is new. You've never done it before. So when I started my lab, I didn't actually think about what the role of a mentor was, except what I know I expected. I remember expecting this, is the definition of my success as a mentor will be to crank out people just like me, and people who are as kind of crazy about doing their work as I was. I worked all the time, and was engaged by a certain set of problems that I was engaged by. So I would now describe that relationship, not as a mentor, but as a cloner. Crank out clones of yourself.
Narrator (08:18):
He tried supporting his students by methods he thought worked. What he found though, was that his students didn't agree.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (08:25):
Whenever I would travel and go to a meeting, or go to a review panel or something, I would call my lab every day, and talk to whoever answered the phone about how their experiments are going, and then to the next, then hand me off to the next person. And I would kind of go through this after every day. And finally one day, I came back from a trip and my technician took me aside and said, "You got to cut that out, man. That's not okay." I said, 'What do you mean? It just shows how dedicated I am to these people, and how I'm providing them support and advice. And I'm not really away." And I'm thinking I'm being wonderful. And she said, "No, you're being a cop. This is not okay. They just feel enormous pressure from these kinds of calls, because in fact, it doesn't come through that you're being supportive. It's coming through that you're making sure that they're in the lab."
Narrator (09:23):
The criticism caused him to wake up to the fact that what he considered support did not align with how his students perceived support. He had to confront another negative method of mentoring when he took on more supervising roles in the lab.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (09:37):
My second point of confusion was that I got a grant right away, lucky. And so I wanted to make sure that the people in my lab would carry out the experiments and pursue their work in a way that would allow the grant to be seen as successful through its publications and the research progress that we made. And so I would describe that kind of relationship as a supervisor. So a supervisor is somebody who specifies the goals of their trainees to align with my goals, the supervisor's goals. And so you talk them into doing the things that will allow my own program to succeed.
Narrator (10:30):
It took these failures for Dr. Yamamoto to understand how to be effective in mentoring.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (10:37):
I learned by experience and from some good advice and some well-placed criticisms, that mentoring is not cloning. It's not supervising. A mentor is someone who works with the trainee, works in a partnership with a trainee to identify the aspirations and goals of the trainee, and align those with the
NASEM-Yamamoto-Final Transcript Page 3 of 5
talents of the trainee, to help develop the talents, to be able to succeed with those aspirations and goals.
Narrator (11:14):
Dr. Yamamoto discovered that effective mentoring involves guiding the trainee to cultivate their own identity, based on their aspirations and goals within the STEM ecosystem. Unfortunately, faculty members in academia often face a dilemma when it comes to personal success and supporting their mentees.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (11:34):
Being a faculty member and a mentor really has these internal conflicts built into them, because as a faculty member primary responsibility and the major criteria on which your evaluation and promotion and tenure are based, is the progress and success of your research. And so tremendous motivation to have your students and trainees, and post-docs in the lab, cranking out stuff all the time, and to allow
your funded projects to be successful. And so that really conflicts with setting aside time, or appears to conflict, I think. Setting aside time to be a good mentor, to provide support, to help define, as I said, the goals and aspirations of your trainees.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (12:24):
And so whenever that then is seen as a conflict, then I think the chances of kind of getting it wrong go up. And so if we can align the reward system, the recognition system to be able to say, "No, no, this is really a critical part of how we define you as a successful person. This is an academic institution, we are training the next generation of scientists and other PhD recipients who will go on to do other things that are relevant to the scientific endeavor, not just to be the next professor just like you." Then I think we can begin to change that equation, and to remove some of the intrinsic conflict that is now seen.
Narrator (13:07):
Many institutions face barriers where effective mentoring might be valued, but not consistently practiced. When academic institutions train faculty to value a mentee's whole being, these barriers can be removed.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (13:21):
Do we have mentoring training available at UCSF? Yes, but in the basic sciences, it is not something that is kind of in the culture, to go through these formalized courses. And I think that it is something that should become part of the normal course of events. And so that that training is available, but not really regularly adhered to. I would like to see that change.
Narrator (13:54):
Dr. Yamamoto's early mentors sometimes had different professional goals. It didn't matter. They still guided him to use these experiences to follow his own dreams in science. Barriers can go down an academic institutions when mentorship becomes more ingrained in STEM culture. Faculty can and should learn to mentor effectively, not by methods that attempt to clone students, or methods that only align the students' goals with their mentor's goals, but with methods that create opportunity for the mentee to accomplish their unique goals as they journey through STEM.
Narrator (14:37):
NASEM-Yamamoto-Final Transcript Page 4 of 5
Before we end this episode, we want to inform our listeners to tune in next episode for details on special upcoming virtual events on mentorship from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. To learn more about The Science of Effective Mentorship, and for a guide to implementing best practices in your STEM environment, visit
NASEM-Yamamoto-Final Transcript Page 5 of 5