Q&A: LSU Boyd Professor Isiah Warner
Upon accepting his lifetime achievement Nature Award for Mentoring in Science this afternoon, LSU Boyd Professor Isiah Warner elaborated on the method that made the LSU Department of Chemistry the top producer of doctoral degrees in chemistry for both women and African-Americans in the U.S.
First—congratulations! I see you here surrounded by some of your former students who have gone on to do great things. Your award was presented today by Meredith LeMasurier, Executive Editor of Nature Research Journals, Life Sciences, who in turn was introduced by LSU President F. King Alexander and Kalliat T. Valsaraj, Vice President for Research & Economic Development, who originally nominated you as one of the university’s strongest candidates for this award. It was eventually your own students, however, who brought this home by showing their support. How do you feel about receiving this lifetime achievement award?
I feel very honored.
Why is mentorship important to you?
I mentor because there were always people there for me. I didn’t have any role models in terms of science when I grew up in Bunkie, Louisiana, with segregated schools, but there were people along the way who helped me figure out the path I wanted to go.
Who has been your own greatest mentor?
I always point towards my wife. She took a country boy and made him into the man I am—a country boy who knows how to do other things.
Also, my English teacher in high school. She asked me around graduation time what I wanted to do and she’s the one who suggested chemistry and worked to get me into a summer workshop with Dr. Vandon E. White, who was the Chair of Chemistry at Southern University across town. He told me, ‘Mr. Warner, you’ll have your Ph.D. before you’re 30.’ And I looked around to see if anyone else knew what a Ph.D. was. I said, ‘Dr. White, what’s a Ph.D.?’ I thought we were calling him Dr. White because he had some kind of medical degree or something—I didn’t know. I was going to college and didn’t know what a Ph.D. was.
That summer workshop was $120—for the whole summer, including boarding and eating and everything, it was a bargain—but I had to come up with $60 on my own, and that was hard for me. So, I went to my father who said, ‘I’ll try to get it,’ and he ended up borrowing the money from my grandfather. That whole experience changed my life.
How do you feel about your own mentorship style?
I never thought of what I do as mentoring. It’s just a natural instinct of mine. Then I started winning these mentoring awards and realized, maybe I am doing something different. I never thought of myself as doing something special.
I hear you have a method, however. Can you describe your method?
Not everyone requires the same input to get them to function. You have to vary what you’re doing from person to person. So, how can you call that a method, really? There are students who think I’m too strict, that I have these rules, but it’s a matter of finding rules they can accept.
So, what are the rules?
There are no rules! [laughs] I just try to find out what each student needs.
There are people who join my group thinking, because they’re black and I’m black, that I’m going to give them a free pass. But I don’t give anybody a free pass. Also, there are people who say I’m harder on African-American students than I am on white students. I don’t see that, and I certainly don’t feel that way, but I do recognize that there’s not an equal playing field in this country yet. There are people who will treat you differently—not all, but some—and you have to be prepared.
If I was simply a research advisor, everyone in my group would be treated the same. I would simply say, ‘Here are the rules. Follow these rules. Get me results.’ But I adjust to the needs of each particular student.
Lately, a lot of female students have joined my group. Out of 15 students, 13 are female.
Do you feel at this point in your career that you fully understand the dynamics of mentorship?
Ha! Let’s just say I understand it better than I used to. Like I said, I never thought of what I do as mentoring. I’m just trying to help other people. And that’s my wife’s natural instinct also.