Dr. Julie Overbaugh has devoted her professional career to studying viral pathogens that cause HIV. But amid publishing papers, running her own research lab, and flying back and forth from Kenya, she has also pursued another professional passion: mentoring.
Overbaugh is one of two recipients of this year’s Nature Award for Mentoring in Science, which is awarded to select scientists in one country or region each year.
A researcher at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Overbaugh was selected for the lifetime award from thousands of nominees on the West Coast of the U.S. A mid-career award also went to Susan L. Forsburg of the University of Southern California, and both awards carry a $10,000 cash prize.
But the money is less important to Overbaugh than the impact she has had on the students she worked with.
“To me this is one of the greatest honors, because some of the people I trained nominated me,” Overbaugh said. “It’s important that they had that confidence in me and believed in what I had been doing, and it helped them. So it means more that it came from them than anybody.”
Overbaugh and her team at the Fred Hutch’s Overbaugh Lab are part of the Kenya Research Program, which investigates how HIV is transmitted and why some mothers do not transmit the disease to their children.
Over her career, Overbaugh has mentored dozens of young scientists. The nature of her work means many of her mentees are African scientists, like Dr. Bhavna Chohan, now a senior research scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi.
“She is such a good listener,” said Chohan, who spent six years studying in Overbaugh’s lab. “And she has this open door policy — unless she’s in a middle of a call or in a meeting, she doesn’t mind you knocking on her door and going and complaining about the minutest thing. Julie takes so much keen interest in your education.”
Chohan met Overbaugh in 1993 when she was a student at the University of Washington.
“For me, coming from Kenya and coming to the Western world was a lot of culture shock,” Chohan said. Overbaugh became a strong role model and a supportive figure for her, she said: “she would always listen to me, she always guided me, so even on a personal level she is such a nice person and a very good listener and a mentor.”
Chohan told Overbaugh that she was interested in HIV research, particularly as the HIV epidemic was starting to take root in her home country.
But Chohan didn’t want to address the epidemic from a lab in Seattle: she wanted to return to Nairobi and continue her work there. The only issue was that there were no resources in Kenya to support it. Not one to be daunted by a difficult task, Overbaugh helped Chohan set up her own molecular lab, drawing on unused equipment and resources at the Fred Hutch.
“Nobody has shown so much interest in African scientists, transferring the technology, setting up labs,” Chohan said.
And on the flip side, Overbaugh said the people she is able to work with are her favorite part of being a mentor.
“I’ve enjoyed the people in our group, and I love seeing what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s been really enriching and I’ve learned a lot. I think this idea of giving feedback to people and constructive criticism is something that you have to learn to do.”
Sir Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, told GeekWire that this kind of mentoring relationship is important to encouraging the next generation of scientists.
“Good mentorship helps ensure that younger scientists understand the ethos of good science: strongly self-critical thinking, high technical standards of robustness, high standards of ethical integrity, combining critical thinking with collegiality in working with others,” Campbell said in an email.
Overbaugh cited similar values that she encourages in her mentees: creativity and critical thinking, allowing learners to grow independently, and also giving students motivation and confidence to carry them forward. But, she said, the most important skill is to treat each student as a unique individual, and allow them to find their own path forward.