Two weeks ago, I received news that my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. John Rutledge, passed away. As I am writing this, it will be his memorial service tomorrow. I grieve with his family, and I also want to honor his impact on my life with this tribute.
When other graduate students complained to me about their advisors, it is difficult for me to relate because that was not my experience. I was very blessed to have Dr. R as my advisor, and I felt very cared for. I was not the most motivated or productive graduate student and would probably have difficulty with other advisors. Yet Dr. R was gracious and patient with me, giving me the time and space to get my footing, and trusting me to pursue my interests. I am immensely thankful for his mentorship and would be happy to mentor others, even just a fraction, how he mentored me. Below were the ways he mentored me; a reminder to myself of how to mentor others:
(i) The sky is the limit
During the first meeting with Dr. R to brainstorm ideas for my Ph.D. project, he told me to think hard about what I wanted to do and not have a limit in mind. The phrase he used was, “the sky is the limit.” Because of that, we were able to work on a wide range of projects with blood vessels, brain, and kidney.
(ii) Infectious optimism
My first project pursued ten hypotheses to a prior observation. As one experiment after another failed or was inconclusive, it was difficult not feeling deflated. I used to dread my weekly meeting with Dr. R because I was the bearer of bad news, or so I thought. He would respond by saying, “now we know what did not work, let’s move on to the next one.” He reframed failure into knowing what did not work. I could not always reframe in the same way, but this stayed with me.
(iii) Undaunted by new opportunities
A few times, we had the opportunity to pursue some new projects that our lab did not have expertise in yet, such as Raman spectroscopy, MRI, biomarkers, or kidney physiology. Instead of feeling daunted and turned those down, Dr. R would say yes and entrusted those projects to me. Not all of these worked out, but some yielded results. This taught me to have a growth mindset for myself and for my students: say yes and learn on the way.
(iv) Generosity towards students
Dr. Rutledge actively sought out opportunities for me to present my work and to be recognized. I will always remember presenting my work to the pioneer in metabolic syndrome (and bombed it bad), at the Nephrology grand round (and caught in the crossfire of departmental debate), at conferences. In addition to receiving fellowship and being nominated for awards. I think Dr. R could have used these occasions to further build his reputation, but he generously promoted me instead.
(v) Investment and giving students free rein
I was interested in glycobiology in my first year, and there was a conference in Southern California that year. Not knowing what to expect and mixed with quite a lot of naivete, I asked for support to go even though I had nothing to present. Dr. R graciously supported me, even though it was not a direction the lab was considering then. He subsequently introduced me to a chemistry lab on campus to develop a project (that failed). Looking back, it was a drain on the lab resources, but Dr. R freely invested in me. That is a lesson that stays with me now that I am in a similar position with my students.
(vi) Encouragement and humor
I cherished our weekly meeting. I was sure Dr. R had a lot on his mind when grants and experiments did not pan out, and he was realistic about the challenges we faced. I was also naturally a negative person. Yet after every meeting, I walked away feeling that we could do it and a bit more uplifted to try again. Being encouraging while being realistic is something I still find challenging. To inject the right dose of humor timely like Dr. R did, I wish I could be more of that.
Dr. R was really curious in many fields. From his original research in vascular biology with TRL, he had branched into studying ROS, brain permeability, AD, kidney diseases, biomarkers, MRI techniques, AI, etc. I am aware of these, and I am sure there are more that I don’t know. Not all of these yielded fruit, but the important lesson for me is that to be a scientist is to be curious, regardless of the result.
(viii) Long term relationship
Dr. R was my Ph.D. advisor, but our relationship did not end when I graduated. In the past two years, he had generously donated equipment and supplies to get my laboratory started. My last communication with him was in late 2019/early 2020 about getting my final project with him in print. Even then, he was still being encouraging and advised me on how to proceed.
I am sure I must have missed some other ways Dr. Rutledge had mentored me, but if I could do just a fraction of the above, I would be happy. He is truly a gentleman in every sense of the word. I will genuinely miss his warmth and generosity. I would be forever grateful for his mentorship and care for me also.
Goodbye, Dr. Rutledge.
P.S. During the memorial service, one of the eulogies reminded me how much he taught me to have ownership over my project. That first meeting with him he talked about how I should have two projects: one with him to pay the bills for the lab, and the other what I want to do, the “sky the limit” project.