ALS TDI CEO & CSO Steve Perrin discusses mentoring in the workplace

Throughout National Mentoring Month, we will be highlighting different perspectives on The Mentor Effect from community leaders across Massachusetts. Today's perspective comes from Steve Perrin, Ph.D., CEO and CSO of ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI), a nonprofit biotech in Cambridge that is dedicated to discovering and developing effective treatments to end ALS. Steve has helped the Institute become the world's leader in preclinical drug development for ALS.

PhotoWhy do you believe mentoring is important?
Mentoring can help any individual to develop skill sets and beliefs for how you should conduct yourself, both in your business and personal life.  It can help you foresee and avoid potential pitfalls and also arm you with the know-how to navigate around and manage successfully through difficult situations. Additionally, by having multiple mentors, you can gain numerous perspectives on problem-solving involving tactical decisions, strategic planning and the execution of one’s goals. Mentoring also can have a dramatic impact on developing language and behavioral skills in the work environment and a self-awareness on how that may impact others – skills that are not acquired in the classroom.

It is also important to define what mentoring is not, especially given that I have two young and easily influenced children of my own. Mentoring is not trying to imitate the lifestyle or behaviors of a rock star, celebrity or sports figure. All too often we come to realize that these are personas and not the real people. In order to consider a person to be a mentor, you need to have some level of personal contact and communication with the individual. The person does not have to be a direct supervisor or colleague, but in order to learn from the person and exemplify the attributes that you find admirable in someone, you need to observe them first-hand and emulate the real person. I should also add that it takes time to understand who may be a mentor for you. It doesn’t necessarily happen overnight.

Who are some of your mentors and what impact did those individuals have on your life?
For me, realizing all the mentors in my life and career was a challenging exercise, and one that I know continues to evolve.

I’ll start off with the easiest one first: my father. He taught me at a young age that nothing in life that’s worth achieving is easy, and if you expect to achieve it, you had better want to work hard and stay focused on the objective.

The next important mentor in my career was Judi Foster at Boston University Medical Center. Judi was Department Chair of the Biochemistry Department, and I did a post doc in her lab. Judi taught me that science is an exciting and unpredictable art and to follow the data, not the other way around.

Then there’s Kathy Call. I worked for her for a number of years at Hoechst Marion Russell and through the merger with Rhone Poulenc into Aventis Pharmaceuticals. Kathy taught me the critical aspects of project planning and of being realistic about timelines and deliverables in long-term science initiatives with lots of moving parts.

There also was a critical time in my career when I was implementing platform technologies in gene expression profiling technologies, some of which were not yet “ready for prime time.” Here is where I’ll use an example of a mentor from afar: Mark Zoller, the Director of the Hoechst Marion Russell Genomics Center. I didn’t work directly for Mark, yet he had a profound impact because of the zeal in which he stayed focused on the science in decision-making. Watching Mark made me realize that if you are not passionate about a project and the data, then you will never really get behind it and move it forward during the challenging moments.

Additionally, my story wouldn’t be complete without a mention of John McCoy during my years at Biogen Idec. John was Director of Discovery Biology at the time, and I learned a lot by watching John let scientists follow their hunches. John fostered the creative aspects of the scientists around him, to let them dig and interrogate the biology in their research endeavors which can be challenging in the pharmaceutical business.

Finally, Mike Gilman, who was VP of Research at Biogen while I was there, is another example of one of my mentors from afar. Simply put, I liked the way Mike cut through the “male cow dung,” if you will. Let the data drive the decisions. It’s not personal.

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