Feb. 25, 2021

Mentorship matters

Formal, informal mentorship critical for Institute success

The Libin Cardiovascular Institute has a nationally recognized education program. Libin members work with students of all levels from undergraduate to residents and postdoctoral fellows, training the next generation of cardiovascular researchers, specialist physicians and surgeons. This training runs the gamut from bench science to advanced clinical training.

Mentorship is a critical component of the Libin’s education offering, says the Libin Education Director Dr. Jennifer Thompson, PhD. This mentorship is largely informal, occurring between supervisors and their trainees or between students of different levels.

“Effective mentorship is a critical component of the organizational culture of a successful research institute,” says Thompson. “A supportive mentor-mentee relationship has a positive impact on academic and career outcomes and helps to buffer the stress that comes with all the rigors of graduate or postdoctoral studies.”

But the need for mentorship doesn’t stop at graduation. Thompson say it continues to be important at the faculty level.

Read on for a sneak peek into the lives of two Libin members who were recognized for their mentorship at the national and international level in 2020.

Dr. Sofia Ahmed, MD

Ahmed, a kidney specialist and researcher, received a Distinguished Mentor Award from the American Society of Nephrology (ASN) in the fall of 2020.

Receiving the international award is an honour for the mid-career researcher, but not a surprise for those who work with the inspiring and passionate leader.

Ahmed’s acumen for mentorship is evident through the many successes of her students. She has trained numerous award-winning students, including her current PhD student, Cindy Kalenga, who received a UCalgary-wide 2020 Women’s Resource Centre Distinguished Graduate Student Award for her work examining the associations between estrogen use and blood pressure.

Kalenga attributes much of her success to Ahmed’s ability to bring out the best in her trainees, saying, “Dr. Ahmed has the unique ability to push her students to beyond their limits while remaining encouraging and supportive.”

Besides supervising her own trainees, Ahmed serves on the Nephrology Residency Training Committee at the University of Calgary, is the Education Chair for the international Organization for the Study of Sex Differences, is a member of several graduate student committees, and has served as a doctoral external examiner. She is also the former education director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, and is currently the lead of the Institute’s Women’s Cardiovascular Research initiative, CV&Me.

Her hard work and dedication to her students has been noticed. Ahmed has received numerous accolades for her supervision, including the CSM Faculty of Medicine Award for Mentorship (2018).

She explains that she learned the importance of mentorship during her own studies and is grateful for all her supervisors.

For Ahmed, mentorship doesn’t end—or begin—when one receives their degree. Instead, it’s a way of life.  

“I have learned so much from my wonderful colleagues at all stages of their careers,” she says.

Dr. Robert Sheldon, MD, PhD

Sheldon is a cardiologist and researcher with numerous accolades, including a Canadian Cardiovascular Society Annual Achievement Award (2016) and an Arrhythmia Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (2018).

Most recently, Sheldon received the 2020 Region 1 Mentor of the Year Award from the Royal College. It is no surprise that the nomination came from several colleagues and trainees, individuals who have been mentored, both informally and formally, by the Cumming School of Medicine professor.

Sheldon is humbled by the recognition and quick to point out mentorship is a privilege.

“Mentoring is really fulfilling,” he says. “You get to see people thrive and grow.”

As a mentor, Sheldon has connected individuals with resources, helped them solve problems in both their studies and personal life and provided advice on career direction and work-life balance. Formally, Sheldon has been a mentor for two decades.

But his mentorship has also been informal – taking the form of encouraging relationships between colleagues. He has also been on the receiving end of informal mentoring.

“It’s all about relationships,” he said, noting that having a small network of peer mentors has been critical in his success. “Mentors must be invested in their mentees’ lives and be comfortable talking about anything. You have to be able to get into their soul a bit, to help them sort out their issues.”

Sheldon says he learned a great deal from his own mentor, Dr. Henry Duff, MD, who helped Sheldon establish his molecular pharmacology research program in 1982 when Sheldon was still a medical resident.

“We are still close,” says Sheldon of Duff. “He is always there, and that is all you can ask for in a mentor.”

Libin Institute cardiologist and researcher Dr. Satish Raj, MD, met Sheldon when Raj came to Calgary as a Cardiac Electrophysiology fellow in 1999. The two have had a mentor-mentee relationship ever since.

Raj credits Sheldon for being instrumental in his decision to continue his research training at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where Raj was on faculty before returning to Calgary where he has established a world-class research program. 

Raj values the mentorship relationship and friendship he has with Sheldon, explaining he still goes to his mentor for advice on his career, work-life balance and research. 

“We often think of the role of mentor as needed by someone when they are first starting out, but the truth is, even to this day, I view Bob [Sheldon] as a mentor, a collaborator and a friend, and I still go back to Bob and ask advice,” says Raj.

For Raj, the key to a great mentor is someone who feels genuinely happy when their mentee is successful – a characteristic he sees in Sheldon.

“I think Bob [Sheldon] is motivated by the success of others,” he says. “He is invested in my research and I trust his advice.”