Richmond, VA (March 3, 2017) – Henry J. Donahue, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, will receive the Orthopaedic Research Society’s Outstanding Achievement in Mentoring Award for 2017. The award will be presented at the ORS 2017 Annual Meeting, which takes place in San Diego, California March 19-22.
Donahue came to the VCU School of Engineering in January 2016 from Pennsylvania State University, where he mentored numerous new researchers and junior faculty over the course of his 20-year career there. Alayna Loiselle, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, spent four years as a postdoctoral fellow in Donahue’s lab at Penn State. She said that Donahue “takes his mentees’ success personally” and said that he nurtures mentees’ strengths while providing training in areas of weakness. Loiselle recounted that Donahue opened his lab to a displaced researcher in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and went on to mentor her to successful completion of her PhD in 2009. “The tight-knit network of Donahue lab alumni has provided outstanding opportunities, and he continues to serve as a trusted friend and mentor. I continue to use his expertise for feedback today,” she said.
That network is expanding as Donahue mentors emerging scholars at VCU. Otto “OJ” Juhl, chose VCU Engineering for his Ph.D. specifically to work with Donahue on research in nanoscale surfaces on substrates and their effect on bone healing. Juhl wanted to see if placing nanoparticles throughout the substrate — instead of merely on its surface — would increase the method’s effectiveness. “I was at a loss about how to do this,” Juhl said. Donahue suggested a way to achieve this by 3D printing a polymer to suspend the nanoparticles throughout the substrate. ”He’s more of a facilitator than a manager,” Juhl said. “Whereas a manager oversees your idea and controls your work, a facilitator like Dr. Donahue encourages you to step out and, if necessary, helps you learn from mistakes.”
Seyed Mohsen Latifi, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Donahue’s VCU lab, has also benefitted from Donahue’s ability to encourage scholars’ best work. “It’s essential for biomaterials to be tested in real applications, so a mentor with [Donahue’s] expertise is a huge support,” Lafiti said. “At the same time, when I express a new idea, he’s always listening and helping me with ways to make it happen.”
Yue Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering who came to VCU with Donahue from Penn State, has seen this many times. “He supports your ideas, whether they are good or bad initially, and helps you refine those early ‘bad’ ideas into good ones,” Zhang said.
Donahue acknowledged that mentoring is a significant investment of time and energy but sees a number of returns on that investment.
“Why mentor? First of all, it’s fun,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to continue to develop young scientists, a way to have more impact on the field than I could have just through my own work.” He emphasizes that mentorship is a two-way relationship, and one that sometimes carries additional, delayed benefits. “I was just at an NIH meeting and discussed a research collaboration with a former mentee. These are ongoing relationships that are good for us both,” he said.
A culture of mentorship also benefits the institution, and even the discipline, Donahue said. He is an advocate of convergence research, a paradigm that pushes to integrate the content, methodologies and mode of inquiry of diverse disciplines. “Every opportunity I have, I advocate that concept,” Donahue said, adding that working with researchers in medicine, biology and engineering has supported convergence approaches to those fields.
As VCU and the School of Engineering grow, he said it is important that mentorship networks grow, too, because, “if you grow and don’t build in things like effective mentorship, there are more cracks for people to slip through.” He is especially interested in formal mentorship for junior faculty and views his role as department chair as an opportunity for service leadership.
“I want to create an environment where people can be successful and help researchers get to the next level in their work,” he said, “And I’d love for them to stay at VCU their whole careers.”