PASPCR Pigment Research

The Importance of Mentorship

By John D’Orazio, MD/PhD, PASPCR President-Elect

I’ve been thinking about what PASPCR represents and what the Society has meant to me in my journey as a pigment cell biologist. Thanks to all of you and to those who came before us, the PASPCR is a robust group of collaborative scientists united by all things “pigment.” We study melanin chemistry, melanin regulation, melanocyte development melanocyte biology, melanocyte response to environmental stressors, diseases of disordered pigmentation and, of course, melanoma. We appreciate that melanocytes and pigmentation can be excellent model systems to study general processes of cell biology. We’re a small Society, yet there is hardly a meeting I enjoy more than our annual meeting to catch up with old friends, explore new collaborations and see each other grow in our careers.

But to me, the biggest gift PASPCR has given me has been the gift of mentorship.

“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson


I am a non-conventional pigment cell biologist, and came into the field by good fortune. Trained as a physician scientist, I identify first and foremost as a pediatric oncologist rather than a dermatologist or dermatopathologist. I had no idea that I would end up studying melanocytes and melanoma. But by chance, I was assigned to be the pediatric oncology fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital during the month when Dr. David Fisher was the ward attending. As you all know, David is one of the top melanocyte/melanoma biologists in the world, but when he approached me to consider his lab in which to do my fellowship research, I told him “David, thanks but melanoma really isn’t an oncologic disease of childhood; I need to be doing leukemia or brain tumor or sarcoma research.” He was ready for this. “Yes, John, that’s true, but the UV that people get in their childhood really impacts their melanoma risk later in life. Also, melanoma is being diagnosed more and more in adolescents and young adults. And I have this really cool idea...”
He then told me about the paradox that while melanoma is diagnosed much more in fair-skinned people than in dark-skinned people, melanoma risk can’t just be all about eumelanin levels. He told me about how individuals affected by albinism hardly ever get melanoma even though they have essentially no melanin pigment in the skin yet have the same number of melanocytes and get a lot of keratinocyte UV- induced malignancies. He then told me about eumelanin and pheomelanin and how he thought that pheomelanin expression might be pro-carcinogenic. That’s about all it took. I ended up joining the Fisher lab, developed a suitable animal model to study epidermal UV responses in eumelanotic vs. pheomelanotic mice, and helped clarify the importance of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) in pigmentary and UV responses. It was a great post-doc and I will always look back on my years in David’s lab as among the most scientifically productive and important in my career.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” - Benjamin Franklin

David proved to be an outstanding post-doctoral mentor for me. He got me excited about my project, provided all the support I needed to make progress, met with me regularly to go over data, refine experimental plans and helped mold me into an independent scientist. Now almost 15 years after I left his lab, I know he still “has my back” and I am nothing but grateful. It was David who introduced me to PASPCR. He suggested I attend my first annual meeting back in the early 2000’s, to meet many of the scientists whose papers I had read and whose work I was following. To be honest, I was filled with apprehension to go to the meeting. Would it be “sharky”? Would I get scooped if I shared our data? Would there be cliques like back in high school? Would I look stupid (after all, I wasn’t really a dermatology-trained scientist)? Within a few hours at the meeting, however, most of my fears were allayed. I learned that the field of pigment cell biology is big and the number of pigment cell biologists relatively small so that that the atmosphere wasn’t competitive or cut-throat. Rather, PASPCR was a group of collegial researchers who seemed to delight in getting together and talking science. Senior scientists mixed with trainees and young investigators and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Happily, this dynamic persists to this day.
As most of you probably know, we started a formal mentorship program within PASPCR back in 2018. The germ of the idea happened the year before at the 2017 IPCC meeting in Denver. I was talking with a post-doc who shared with me the challenges s/he was facing in trying to launch into an independent position. As we chatted, I recalled the uncertainty I faced as I left David’s lab to come to the University of Kentucky to start a group of my own. It became clear to me that although his/her post-doc mentor was doing all s/he could to help his/her trainee, perhaps there was a hole that could be filled by PASPCR. After all, PASPCR colleagues had been generously helping me with career advice and opportunities for years. With the help of many colleagues and backed by the support of the Society, we designed a “PASPCR Mentorship Program” over the next many months, rolling out the program at the 2018 Montagna/PASPCR meeting in Oregon. The organizers graciously provided space, administrative support and even food and drinks to turn the Mentorship Mixer into an inviting “cocktail party” like event. About 60 people participated and it was a resounding success. Conversations flowed, introductions were made, and connections (which I hope will be lasting) were established. Twelve mentor-mentee pairs were formally identified and the Mixer had the effect of breaking down barriers between young and more seasoned investigators that lasted the rest of the meeting. The program is personalized to the needs and capacities of the specific mentorship pairs to include any or all of the following:

  • “In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care... care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.” – Maya Angelou
  • Career guidance – things like strategies for funding success, advancing through the promotion/tenure process, taking advantage of networking opportunities, careers in biotech/industry/education.

  • Scientific guidance – where and when to publish, grant/manuscript feedback/critiques, lab management issues.

  • Networking – help the mentee get better known in the field

  • Identifying speaking opportunities, publication opportunities, grant and review opportunities, etc.

  • Help with moving science beyond the lab – commercialization, translational, clinical work, education.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” - Benjamin Disraeli

A few months after the meeting, I reached out to the mentor-mentee dyads to get a sense of whether this program was being used. Happily, many of the dyads had been in communication with one another and their activities ranged from general career advice/support to manuscript and grant reviews. One mentor wrote “I really wished I had this when I was starting out, or had anyone at all.” Mentorship has been acentral part of what PASPCR has been about since I joined in the early 2000’s and I’m certain long before that. Our plan is to keep mentorship a central mission of the Society. We plan to host a second Mentorship Mixer at the 2019 annual meeting in Bar Harbor and provide further opportunities for mentor-mentee pairs to be created. Please consider coming and sharing your knowledge and experience with others. What I’ve learned about this process is that mentorship is most definitely a two-way process and that the teaching goes both ways. Now a mid-stage investigator, I remain grateful to my PASPCR colleagues who help keep science fresh and enjoyable. I hope I never will stop being mentored by my colleagues.

Thank you!