I had been thinking about a blog post on the importance of being a mentor in an academic setting (or any other setting really). Unfortunately I lost one of my early mentors and wanted to write a short story to show the impact that being a mentor can have.
When I was in high-school I was fascinated by tornadoes and electric fields. I still am. I decided that I wanted to research the connection, so I began to read lots of literature on the subject (my first exposure to peer-reviewed papers) and looking for places I could contribute. I landed on the Yahoo Groups page of a group dedicated to ULF/VLF studies. After asking some very basic questions, I ended up chatting with Prof. Schmitter through e-mail. After weeks of communication and beginning to design an instrument, he inquired as to which institution I was at. I replied that I was a high school student, expecting to never hear back from him. The response was exactly the opposite. Ernst re-doubled his efforts to help me undertake a project.
This effort wasn't to check off a box on a funding agency outreach goal sheet, but it was a true excitement to help a student learn. I was very excited about the whole thing! We did design an instrument that I constructed at my home in Arkansas. Some friends and I took it to the field and collected data. After returning, I sent Ernst the data and he suggested we write a publication.
Having never written anything more than a detailed physics lab report before, this was an incredible learning experience. We worked the paper over a few times and had a couple of Skype calls about it. He submitted the paper, absorbing the cost of publication. That was my first scientific article.
Did I mention that he was a professor in Germany? We never met in person. I had seen his recent publications come out and kept meaning to email and update him that I had again been working in electrostatics. I didn't get it done. It had been too many years since we talked. I do have a new instrument that we designed some years ago that still needs to be built and tested, but it will surely be many times more difficult now.
What is the lesson in this other than contacting people before you can't anymore? It's is that you never know who you will inspire. Without pushes from Prof. Schmitter I probably wouldn't have finished the project and published anything. That publication helped me get a foot in the door of the research field. That's how I found out I wanted to do research as a career (thanks to several other amazing mentors). The lesson is that taking the time to talk to interested students is one way to have a lasting impact, even after your time.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had as many amazing mentors and teachers at every stage of my life. I'm in much deeper service debt than I can ever hope to pay off in one lifetime. I want to thank everyone reading this for encouraging me through direct contact or just by supporting this blog with your readership. This post serves to show that everyone of you make a difference in the lives of others everyday.
* I looked back through our emails had we had nearly 200 pages of email exchange before I had finished my first year of college. That's a lot of information!