Two women sit at a table with notebooks, and look at the camera

Duxbury High School biology teacher Erica Stoloff (left) and Young lab postdoc Alessandra Dall'Agnese who have been partners in the Seminar Series for High School Teachers for two years discussed January’s scientific presentation on the effect that BMI and obesity have on T-cell response in cancer.


Amy Tremblay/Whitehead Institute

Whitehead Institute Mentoring is Multifaceted

Fundamental to Whitehead Institute’s mission of forging new frontiers in science is helping to train and develop the scientists whose curiosity, skill, and perseverance will lead them to make paradigm-shifting discoveries and to create path breaking new research tools. Whitehead prides itself on attracting bright young researchers and providing an environment in which they can do their best work.

We do that by investing an extraordinary amount of time and energy in activities that are often described, broadly, as “mentoring.” But, at Whitehead Institute, that term covers a lot of ground. And it benefits quite an array of people: from some of the world’s most promising postdoctoral researchers and graduate students to local high school students and science teachers. Indeed, the mentors themselves often find great value in the mentoring process.

Mentoring Emerging Leaders

Since Whitehead Institute’s founding in 1982, more than four thousand postdoctoral researchers and graduate students have trained in Members’ and Fellows’ labs. Most have gone on to lead laboratories at universities and research centers around the world. And many have had careers of great achievement – including two who received the Nobel Prize and scores who have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences or National Academy of Medicine.

Beyond the opportunity to work with the Institute’s globally renowned and highly collaborative faculty, postdocs and graduate students are drawn by the Institute’s robust mentoring and professional development programs for trainees.

To start, each trainee receives both scientific and professional guidance from the Principal Investigator in whose lab they work. That relationship often continues long after their work at the Institute ends. Kara McKinley, assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University, offers a prime example: She completed her doctoral research in Institute Member Iain Cheeseman’s lab in 2016 and continues to draw on that experience in leading her own research team. “I think of him as a ‘forever-mentor,’” she says. “I still talk to him frequently, seeking his insight into challenges I encounter as a principal investigator. He’s also a model for how I approach mentorship and sponsorship for my trainees.”

But the mentorship provided by Institute Members is just one element of the organization’s multifaceted support for the scientific and career development of the next generation’s biomedical research leaders.

The Postdoc Training Program

While research is the core of a postdoc’s training, other kinds of knowledge and skills are also needed for individual success in science. The Whitehead Postdoc Training Program (WPTP) provides the opportunity for Institute postdocs to develop them. For example, WPTP has offered training sessions on subjects ranging from research ethics and bioinformatics to networking and writing effective resumes and grant applications. It has also presented career planning seminars, discussions on alternative science careers, and sessions considering how to balance research, family life, and personal development.

Many of these activities are organized by the Whitehead Institute Postdoc Association (WIPDA), which comprises postdoctoral scholars and others interested in creating the strongest-possible environment for postdocs. “In recent years, the WIPDA has been working with the Institute administration toward goals such as increased compensation, improved child care benefits, and equalization of benefits,” says WIPDA co-chair Jullien Flynn, a second-year postdoc in the lab of Institute Member Yukiko Yamashita. “Now, we’re also focusing on postdoc mentoring and on advancing the Institute’s broader initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Last year, the WIPDA helped drive an expansion of mentoring activities. “The newly launched Second Mentor Program aims to enrich the range of guidance and expertise available to postdocs by creating opportunities for formal relationships with second or even third mentors,” Flynn explains. The program arose because she and her postdoc colleagues expressed a desire for greater interaction with primary investigators across the Institute. They also wanted a structured way of gathering perspectives beyond what the heads of their labs could provide. “Some postdocs want to get career advice from researchers who are at various stages of their careers or who are on different career trajectories. Others are looking for guidance from more-senior researchers, or those who share a specific aspect of their identity,” notes Flynn. “And many of us simply need to build relationships with well-respected scientists who can provide reference letters for future grant or job applications.”

A younger scientist stands turned towards her mentor in the lab

Institute Member Mary Gehring (right) with Jullien Flynn, a Yamashita lab postdoc who co-chairs the Postdoc Association and helped guide creation of the Second Mentor Program.


Madeleine Turner/Whitehead Institute

To address those needs, Flynn was guided by a group of postdocs in sketching out an approach for a broader mentorship program, then led a formal planning-and-implementation team comprising WIPDA representatives, Human Resources staff, and members of Whitehead’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. The group included Institute Member Siniša Hrvatin, who says, “This new mentoring program is a great example of how listening to our trainees’ ideas leads to programs that benefit our community.” The planning team also had whole-hearted support from Institute director Ruth Lehmann, who has mentored scores of students and research fellows and, earlier in her career, developed a mentorship program specifically designed to encourage and empower junior faculty in science.

Hrvatin observes, “As a junior faculty member who was a postdoc not long ago, I am excited to share what I’ve learned about applying for faculty jobs and transitioning into a faculty role. I’ve also found that my interactions with postdoc mentees are highly engaging, scientifically, and contribute to building stronger connections with other Institute labs.”

The Second Mentor Program was formally launched at the 2022 annual Scientific Retreat. “Our initial goal was a 25 percent participation rate; but half of Institute postdocs are already engaged in the program,” Flynn reports. “We’ve also hosted 10 sessions where postdocs give practice faculty job talks and receive feedback from their second mentors and other Institute scientists.”

Flynn herself has two “second” mentors, Institute Members Mary Gehring and Peter Reddien. “Because I’m a Canadian citizen here on a visa, my postdoc is limited to three years,” she explains. “I need to concentrate the experience, knowledge, and guidance I receive. Mary and Peter will help me gain additional perspective on potential career trajectories, and on how to prioritize and balance my professional and personal goals.”

“This new mentoring program is a great example of how listening to our trainees’ ideas leads to programs that benefit our community.” - Institute Member Siniša Hrvatin
Casting a Wide Net(work)

All of WI’s primary investigators are participating in the Second Mentor Program. But, because the Institute’s mentoring programs aim to provide connections to scientists in a broad range of fields, organizations, and career paths, the Institute brought another resource to bear: the Whitehead Institute Networking Directory (WIND), a growing database of former and current Whitehead postdocs. Collectively, the Institute alumni included in WIND represent a great resource for advice on career and research questions – as well as an expanding professional network for current and former postdocs preparing for the next stages of their careers.

“WIND is one way we are harnessing the diversity of experiences and expertise from our growing community of alumni,” says Institute Member Iain Cheeseman, who advocated for the Directory’s development. “It’s a fantastic way for our alumni to pay it forward to help others on their paths and make mutually beneficial contacts.”

The Directory has 163 registered participants and the list is steadily growing. Participants’ professional paths range from academic research labs and biotech/pharma to finance, intellectual property, science communications, and public policy. “The range of participants makes this a potentially important source of Second Mentors for Institute postdocs, especially considering the outstanding array of career paths available to individuals with such strong training in biomedical science. Those paths may include exciting positions where a postdoc’s PI might not be well placed to offer deeply informed advice,” Cheeseman observes.

Current and former Whitehead postdocs can register with – or ask questions about – WIND by sending a note to

Postdocs as Mentors

Another new facet of the Institute’s mentoring activities is the Postdoc/Graduate Student Mentoring Initiative. Launched in 2022 as a collaboration of the WIPDA and the Graduate Student Committee, the Initiative pairs individual postdocs with Massachusetts Institute of Technology students conducting their PhD research in Whitehead labs. Its primary goal is to support graduate students at a crucial point in their budding scientific careers. But it quickly became clear that the benefits are mutual.

Two men sit turned towards each other on a couch, smiling.

Bartel lab postdoc Kehui Xiang (left) mentors graduate student Pushkal Sharma (right), who is conducting PhD research in the Jain lab.


Madeleine Turner/Whitehead Institute

Pushkal Sharma, a fourth year PhD student conducting research in the lab of Institute Member Ankur Jain, is one of the inaugural mentees. “Our lab is fairly new,” he says, “so I joined the program to connect with someone who could provide another perspective.”

He was paired with Kehui “Coffee” Xiang, a postdoc and Cancer Research Institute Irvington Fellow, who is investigating RNA regulation of gene expression in the lab of Institute Member David Bartel.

“Touching base with Coffee on a longer time-frame, perhaps every few weeks, helps me view the challenges I’m dealing with from a different vantage point,” Sharma explains. “Oftentimes, he would provide very useful insights, especially on day-to-day project management.”

“There’s no set agenda for our conversations,” Sharma notes. “Sometimes we get very concrete, discussing nitty-gritty aspects of our projects. Other times we talk about general experiences we’ve both had and how we each dealt with them.”

“The fact is,” Xiang notes, “while we have this formal mentor/mentee relationship, I see Pushkal as a colleague too... So, in many ways, we’ve been learning from each other.”

For Xiang, there are multiple benefits from being a mentor. “To start, I enjoy and learn from the conversations that Pushkal and I have. He’s doing interesting work, and he’s getting a very different kind of lab experience than what I’ve had,” Xiang says. “But this also gives me experience in a formal mentoring relationship and that’s important for me: I hope to run my own lab in the future and I’ll need to be able to provide guidance for the students and postdocs working with me. The interactions Pushkal and I have are helping me understand how to be a good mentor.

“The fact is,” Xiang notes, “while we have this formal mentor/mentee relationship, I see Pushkal as a colleague too. So we talk about science and the lab and also about life. He’s given me advice based on his own life experience. And he’s helped me think about my career too. So, in many ways, we’ve been learning from each other.”

Mentoring for Middle and High School

Helping build the pipeline of future biomedical researchers is an important facet of Whitehead Institute’s mission of forging new frontiers in science. The Institute has an expanding series of programs that mentor middle and high school students (and teachers) in learning about cutting edge biological research.

Two women sit at a table with notebooks, and look at the camera

Duxbury High School biology teacher Erica Stoloff (left) and Young lab postdoc Alessandra Dall'Agnese who have been partners in the Seminar Series for High School Teachers for two years discussed January’s scientific presentation on the effect that BMI and obesity have on T-cell response in cancer.


Amy Tremblay/Whitehead Institute

For years, individual labs have offered informal opportunities for motivated high school students to experience biomedical research, guided by graduate students, postdocs, and primary investigators. This coming summer, the Institute is launching a formal program of six-week, paid internships for high school students from Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Designed to help increase the number of underrepresented students in life sciences, the program was developed in partnership with Boys and Girls Club of Boston’s (BGCB) Ready to Work Program and the City of Cambridge’s STEAM Initiative.

Jennifer Medina, the Dana Smith Director of Workforce Readiness at BGCB, says, “Internships such as the summer opportunity at Whitehead Institute allow the participants to independently navigate through new spaces and build their soft and hard skills – gaining experiences that shape them personally and professionally.”

Valhalla Fellow Tobiloba Oni, who leads his own lab as a member of the Whitehead Fellows Program, will host an intern. “These kinds of hands-on experiences – working directly with scientists, using advanced research techniques – are extremely valuable for students considering a career in science. Beyond engaging in work beyond anything they might experience in high school, they’ll experience collaborating with scientists ranging from college students to primary investigators.”

The internships build on a longstanding series of Institute programs offering middle school and high school students exposure to state-of-the-art research through intensive, school vacation-time activities. For example, Expedition: Bio is a two-week experience for rising 7th and 8th grade students; it includes interactive laboratory modules, activities inside and outside the classroom, and discussions with experienced scientists. The three-day Spring Lecture Series introduces high school students to cutting-edge topics in biomedical research; it features lectures by prominent researchers, hands-on laboratory workshops, and learning modules.

The Institute also runs a monthly Seminar Series for High School Teachers, which enables 60 high school educators to explore topics at the forefront of biomedical research, and helps them incorporate new research ideas into their classrooms. In addition to monthly science lectures and discussions at the Institute, each teacher has a scientist-partner who serves as a technical resource and sounding board throughout the academic year. 



Communications and Public Affairs
Phone: 617-452-4630

Related News