Mentor has a 'knack' for the big picture, and for guiding

According to some of her students, Suzanne Alonzo strikes a balance between her scientific career and her family, and she has been inspiring and encouraging some of them to continue their scientific research.
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Suzanne Alonzo (center) with postdoctoral researchers Hope Klug and Natasha Kelly. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The following nomination in support of Suzanne Alonzo for the 2011 Yale Postdoctoral Mentoring Prize was written in April by Kelly Stiver, postdoctoral associate in ecology and evolutionary biology.

 To the members of the Postdoctoral Mentoring Prize committee,

 I am writing this letter to nominate Dr. Suzanne H. Alonzo (Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) for the Postdoctoral Mentoring Prize. I have been working with Dr. Alonzo as a postdoctoral associate and fellow since December 2007, and have found her to be an exceptionally driven, helpful, caring, and positive mentor, who sets an excellent example with her own career and the balance she strikes in her life. Dr. Alonzo has pushed me to be a better researcher, and has also modeled how it is possible to be a brilliant researcher and highly contributing member of the academic community without sacrificing your personal life or mental health. Therefore, I strongly feel that she deserves this year’s Postdoctoral Mentoring Prize.

Dr. Alonzo has been extremely enthusiastic about and supportive of new avenues of research that we have embarked on during my time at Yale. Provided that an idea is scientifically well-grounded, she provides all support needed to allow the work to be fully realized. She is also very understanding of the slow initial progress and occasional trial-and-error involved when moving into a new area of research. With her, I have opened up several new innovative branches of my research. As a research collaborator, Dr. Alonzo is all I could hope for and more. She has a knack for seeing through the details and forcing me to examine the big picture, and I have found that her style of guiding, rather than instructing or dictating, encourages myself and the other members of the lab to operate as independent researchers (albeit ones with a strongly supportive advisor), rather than simply as smaller parts of a large research machine. This, I feel, has done a lot to prepare me for leading my own research group in the future.

What is most striking about Dr. Alonzo’s mentorship of myself, and my observations of her mentorship of former postdoctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate researchers, is her ability to be continually supportive, and to adapt her mentoring style to the specific researcher she is working with. She is very good at keeping a calm head and soothing style when an upset student needs grounding, and always has advice about how they should proceed. In my own work, there have been trying times with failed experiments or laboratory work, and she has been supportive throughout. At those times, she is particularly helpful at keeping my own outlook positive, and reminding me to put a temporary downturn in perspective. Dr. Alonzo also quite clearly sees and treats those she works with as equals, rather than subordinates, and in what seems sadly rare in academia, frequently emphasizes the needs of those in her lab over her own needs. Even when she is swamped with her own work responsibilities, she never holds up the progress of her lab members by making them wait for feedback or for discussion of some critical issue. Papers I send her are returned to me with full comments within days, if not by the next morning, and she is extremely accommodating when a lab member experiencing a research crisis needs a meeting to resolve the problem. Dr. Alonzo does this all without micromanaging or being stifling, allowing researchers in her group all the room they need to grow, but maintaining a constant support for those times when they fall.

In terms of career and professional advice, I have found Dr. Alonzo to be an invaluable resource. While a member of her lab, I was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the National Sciences and Research Council of Canada (the top postdoctoral award for Canadian scientists), and her support and guidance in this application no doubt was a large part of this accomplishment. At conferences, she helps me and others make connections with those scientists we should know, but also allows us to operate individually, and does not attempt to control or guide those interactions. Her strong support has been invaluable in building my career contacts. Additionally, she often functions as the biggest booster of the work of myself and other lab members, even for my research that was done prior to my time at Yale.

Possibly the most important role Dr. Alonzo has played in my development as a researcher and future mentor is by being a good example of an accomplished female scientist with a happy home life and successful research career. Before working with her, I had always known academics who were so stressed over their career that they had little time for themselves and their families, let alone for those working with them. However, Dr. Alonzo manages to have high personal research productivity, good contact with those working with her, and a strong commitment to all of her work responsibilities (both to Yale University and to external professional organizations, such as the journals that she works as an editor for), all without sacrificing her family life. This seems a rare quality in an academic who is so committed to their work. Having a model for how someone can balance work and home at a cost to neither has been invaluable for keeping me motivated and optimistic about my own career.

Overall, I could not have asked for a better postdoctoral mentor than Dr. Alonzo, and I hope she will be well considered for this award.

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