When you do research, a lot can go wrong: Your experiment fails. Your funding is denied. Your experiment fails, again.
“In research, you need a lot of perseverance. You need to be smart and organized, but you also need to have passion — and grit above all else — to get past the setbacks,” says Liz Swisher, M.D., Res. ’93, a UW professor in obstetrics and gynecology.
When Swisher finds someone who has that grit — she helps them. After all, that is what her mentors did for her.
I have your back
UW Medicine faculty member Barbara Goff, M.D., was the first person to really encourage Swisher to become a clinician-scientist — a doctor trained to care for patients and conduct research.
Swisher rose to the challenge. However, she discovered how quickly patient-care duties can encroach on research time, making it difficult to succeed in the lab.
That’s when she asked for a favor from another mentor — Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., UW professor in medicine and genome sciences, renowned for identifying the germline BRCA1 mutation associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
“I went to Mary-Claire and said, ‘I want to take a year off to focus on research,’” says Swisher. “She said, ‘What do you need from me?’” Swisher asked if King would talk with her chair.
“As a surgeon who cares for women with ovarian cancer, Liz thinks about the problem of inherited ovarian cancer in ways that are beyond my experience,” says King. That said, she was interested in the younger woman’s research, and she advocated on Swisher’s behalf.
Soon thereafter, Swisher had her year for research. It was a turning point in her career.
“Sometimes, you need someone to tell you how to do an experiment; other times, you just need someone to have your back,” says Swisher.
Returning the favor
Swisher has been generous in mentoring others — including 18 fellows and many residents and students at UW Medicine. Her gift of time and talent was recently recognized with the 2019 UW Medicine Mentoring Award, given to only one or two recipients a year.
Among those Swisher has mentored most closely is Barbara Norquist, M.D. ’04, Fel. ’12, UW assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology. They met when Norquist was still a resident and searching for a research project.
“I knew I liked Barbara right away. She seemed capable and willing to put in the work and focus,” says Swisher. She offered Norquist an ambitious project for a resident.
“Liz gave me this off-the-wall project on the fallopian tube that was really interesting. I thought, ‘Oh, I actually want to do this. I’m going to learn a lot,’” says Norquist. Swisher also introduced Norquist to King with the idea that she would benefit from having additional mentors with other interests and projects.
“Barb Norquist is the scientific “little sister” of Liz Swisher,” says King. “It’s a joy to plan projects with them both. And now that Barbara Goff is chair of their department, the infrastructure is in place for surgeons to have time for research and to care for their patients. Liz and Barb’s research in genomics has direct benefit for their patients, and their department is richer for it.”
Mentors, Swisher and Norquist agree, can help in so many different ways — showing someone how to run an experiment, apply for a grant and even how to balance a career with family life.
“People who say they do it all on their own, I just don’t believe them,” says Norquist. “They probably aren’t crediting all the people who are helping them.”
Looking forward to mentoring
Mentorship, it turns out, does not just benefit scientists — it also benefits science itself by enabling collaboration among researchers with different kinds of expertise.
“Sometimes, we can take something we’ve learned in ovarian cancer and apply it to breast cancer,” says Swisher. “It’s all team science now.”
That said, part of the job of being a mentor is knowing when to cut the cord.
Swisher remembers when King told her there would come a time when she could no longer be the senior author on Swisher’s papers. “That was generous and smart,” says Swisher. “She was thinking about how I needed to develop my career to be different, not just contribute to her career.”
Like Swisher, Norquist feels incredibly grateful for the guidance and mentorship she has received, and looks forward to mentoring others.
“I’m trying to learn from the amazing role models I have. I can only hope to be as good a mentor as they are to me,” says Norquist.