Details and Transcript

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Timestamps

  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 04:14 - Segment 1: Mentorship (Communication Topic)

  • 30:14 - Segment 2: Talk With Namrata Iyer (Guest Interview)

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my unforgettable family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. We finally made it. Welcome to the 40th episode and the Season 4 Finale of the Metaphorigins podcast.

 

First of all, to show support if you like this sort of content, do follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting every single one of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Now that this season comes to a close, and if you enjoy this format of stupefying storytelling, personal essays and discussions, please do consider rating it on the podcast service you are using, as it takes only about 5 seconds and is certainly helpful in supporting the show. Also, if you have more than 5 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, or a whole minute, consider leaving a review. I read all reviews and DMs to the show, and your feedback will be used to strengthen future seasons.

 

As recurring listeners of this podcast know (which I hope you are by now), this is one of those episodes with some swag giveaways. Displayed on the instagram page was the dazzling, one-of-a-kind custom Guiness pint glass with the Metaphorigins tagline “Skeptical but curious” etched into it, and I will be giving it to one of you lucky listeners, right now! I have done the draw using the current follower list on the Metaphorigins Instagram page, and the winner is… Ghedona Berhane!!! Wooooooo! Congratulations! I’ll shoot you a message following this episode.

 

Your Royal Highnesses. Your Excellencies. Lords. Ladies and Gentlemen. You, listening to this part of the episode, here, right now, are remarkable. I have said this many times. No matter whether I know you or not, I will never be able to fully express how grateful I am for your interest in this project. The Metaphorigins Podcast has already developed quite a lot since its first episode back in 2020 (about drinking the kool-aid), during a much simpler time, a more restricted time, a moment in life where hobbies were pursued and only the ones that aided in personal development remained. Over these four seasons, this podcast has reached over 2500 downloads, streamed in over 50 countries, and in over 350 cities around the world. You have been there during the development of an idea I hope to convey in every one of these episodes, that human communication and the evolution of its fundamental concepts are among one of the most important gifts of our time. Whether we are researchers, or not, whether we are veterans in our crafts or early-stage up-and-comers, we come into this world with a desire to connect with others and make a difference. This was my hope, that by pursuing this podcast I could better understand where we come from, from a language perspective, and how to utilize that knowledge in communicating science. This, obviously, I could not do alone, and expanded discourse to amazing people in the scientific community doing great things both in their professional and personal lives. We are more than the careers we choose to endure.

 

With that said, I am announcing that I will again take another brief break to focus on my academic responsibilities, as I aim to transfer from PhD student to PhD candidate, along with other creative endeavours on my writing side, and the extracurriculars I am involved in (most of them science communication related, so keep your eyes peeled for future updates). Of course, there will be more silly stories, engaging audio essays and conversations with highly motivated people in all sorts of disciplines where communication skills are necessary to succeed. Note that Season 5 will premier sometime in early 2023. But always remember, that if you’re passionate about something and work hard in doing what brings you that passion, I would love to collaborate with you and discuss those topics. I continue to have ideas that aim to grow this platform, so stayed tuned, and thank you again for your invaluable attention.

 

Hoof. A winded and cheese-stuffed intro. We have a special episode today pausing the metaphorical aspect to focus on a topic quite near and dear to my heart. A concept so core to the prosperity of one’s early life, to the development of one’s principles and values, and the aspirations to advance generations farther than we’ve ever been before. And that topic, is mentorship.

 

A statement I have reflected on throughout this season is the following, “Be better than you were yesterday.” Let me say that again, “Be better than you were yesterday.” I first mentioned this in my mid-season special about work-life balance, and I think about it so much that I act very hard on myself when this doesn’t occur. When I make a mistake in my personal relationships, upsetting someone I love, or when I make several similar errors when doing scientific experiments. It takes a toll on my mental health. But under what metrics do we measure this progression within ourselves? Is it not a feeling one gets rating the satisfaction in one’s day? One’s life? Does this become impacted by the thoughts and emotions of those around us?

 

We are more connected to each other than I ever imagined. My entire life has been a quest to become as independent as one can, to reduce personal belongings and pursue opportunities on the fly, or even venture down pathways in wonderment of unexpected circumstances. And with this perception of what life is, I failed to create and keep those deep connections that many of you listeners hold dear. These relationships, platonic, romantic, or professional, have purposes beyond their face value, for they keep you grounded to the world and experience the positive and negative moments that push us towards our greatest potential. It’s the ultimate way to be better than you were yesterday.

 

Perhaps you already know this, that dependency on people is not a weakness but a strength so long as you nurture these connections, or in an unplanned poetic recall from this podcast, you water that grass. Of course, this was not something learned on my own. Countless conversations throughout my life have concluded with this rough concept. Funny enough, a lot of people that have impacted me the most are those I don’t speak to anymore; heavy-lifting merchandisers while in retail, selfless policy developers during my government days, sleep-deprived researchers in my scientific career, all culminating in this plethora of knowledge and experience. It was only my obstreperous curiosity that aided in creating such social dialogue.

 

Everyone who has contributed to my once blank slate has been a mentor of mine. And by researching this topic, I realized not only how much mentorship has impacted my life, but how much it is not talked about past a superficial level. For example, in a post by Investors In People, an accreditation organization that supports in enhancing workplace cultures, they mention that “a mentor is someone who successfully develops someone else” and that they have 12 key characteristics about them. These include things like, “is a subject matter expert” or someone who possesses traits such as patience, modesty, discipline. These are axiomatic in a perfect world, but mentors don’t necessarily need to be masters in their craft or even be disciplined. Hell, their number 12 was “free from personal agenda or ideology”, which I feel excludes plenty of passionate mentors. Would a mentor really not have “developing you to your highest potential” in their personal agenda, whether that be for improving work in a team, or even just as a personal confidence boost? C’mon now.

 

Reading articles like these helped me understand that mentors come in all shapes and sizes, both on the outside and within. You could be mentored by someone you don’t even like, or just not get along with. Take my Masters supervisor. One of the most intelligent, dynamic and ambitious women I have ever met. I will speak more on this later, but it was through her belittling me in many meetings that fuelled the motivation to develop my communication skills in science and honestly, everyday life.

 

In fact, the best mentors are the ones that might not even realize the impact their actions and words have on your development. Their raw persona and unfiltered demeanour are the qualities that occupy the once blank portions of your slate. They could also be learning just as much from you as you are from them. Simon Sinek, motivational speaker and author of the Infinite Game, stated in his online book club that people don’t ask others to be their mentor, “like a friend, it evolved […] Mentorship shouldn’t be perceived as mentor-mentee, but mentor-mentor”. If you think about the mentors you have in life, there are undoubtedly characteristics you possess that they can also learn from, even simply by how to best communicate their experiences to others. It is until this two-way bridge of knowledge sharing is constructed that mentorships can bear plentiful fruit.

 

Mentorships are what progress humanity past current frontiers. As the superhero cliche goes, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Professionals and those who have been through physical and emotional relevance have the responsibility to communicate these moments once they themselves have digested them, made sense out of them. Arguably, they have the moral onus to guide us through life’s quandaries in order to see what awaits us collectively. And even if mentors believe they do not have this obligation, they can at least appreciate that these relationships only build their own reputation as influencers, or champions, or sponsors for those worthy to be heard. Carla Harris, Senior Advisor for Morgan Stanley, stated in her 2019 Ted Talk, “The way to grow your power is to give it away”. People who are considered valuable enough to a cause have that power to change lives, and have been given the opportunity to share their insight without interruption. Seize that responsibility, speak up and support those who deserve to follow in your footsteps.

 

Ultimately, mentorships are not just windows into another, but mirrors into oneself. The time and work it takes to be mentors or be mentored can only be productive if for whatever reason you can see you are undertaking this effort for yourself. Why would you want to mentor someone unless it is towards a less experienced version of your current self? Or why would you want to be mentored by someone unless they carry the same vision of how the world should be? It is understanding the nuances of this productive and fulfilling connection that I will dedicate this episode to, how to best achieve this dynamic and what lessons can be drawn from either party. Towards the end, I will discuss the topic with a mentor of my own, someone I highly respect who has achieved a level of understanding I only wish to reach, both in her professional and personal life.

 

Be better than you were yesterday. Together, we can start today.

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

Some of this information was obtained or inspired from articles and videos discussing the different aspects of mentorship. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

In the most archetypical introduction to such a monstrous topic, it was Sir Issac Newton who once stated, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Coming from one of the greatest giants who ever lived, the most prolific name linked to genius only contested by a select few, like Leonardo Di Vinci, Marie Curie, or Albert Einstein, or more modern associations like Stephen Hawking or Ruth Lawrence; it speaks volumes. But the statement also emphasizes the lack of appreciation to chance. It was by pure happenstance that Newton or Eistein or Lawrence were born in the right environment in order to facilitate their genius, whether that be the isolation they required to study the leading theories at the time, or the support of experienced giants, placing them on their shoulders to squint at the abyss.

 

It is by necessity that we hold these individuals so high up on pedestals, for they are our giants navigating civilization through the unknown. Now, these exceptional examples just happen to be associated with the scientific method, but that doesn’t need to be the case. There are plenty of giants with the ambitious will to change the course of history. Genius is found within the actions of Martin Luther King for the racial justice movement, of Mark Zuckerberg for social networking, of Michael Jackson for musical talent, of Greta Thunberg for climate activism. It’s almost like the individuals of highest esteem are ones that have the ability to inspire those of the present to see further than ever before.

 

Could everybody be like these giants? No, of course not, because then they wouldn’t be giants at all. One who desires to make such an influential impact can only hope to gain the knowledge and skills required to fulfill such roles, and be placed in the right environment, at the right time. One could argue that these factors are all based on chance, that there are many Zuckerbergs and Thunbergs alive right now that didn’t have a key piece of knowledge, weren’t raised in identical upbringings, or missed one crucial networking event. These are understandably not always under our control. But you can certainly imagine that there are ways in which one could increase the probability of certain things occurring and facilitate their succession.

 

It took me so long to write this section because I felt that my answer to this, mentorship, was such an overhyped, superficial concept in the ways it is discussed in various source,s that there doesn’t seem to be any value in speaking on the theories of mentorship. Theories like, for example, one found in a 2014 study in the Journal for the Royal Society of Medicine, which stated in their conclusions, “Our evaluation demonstrates that both mentor and mentee value mentoring and that careful planning of a scheme including preparation, training and ongoing support of both mentor and mentee addressing expectations, building rapport and logistics are likely to be helpful in ensuring success and benefit from the intervention.”. I suppose it’s always great to back up any statement with qualitative and quantitative measurements, but anyone would have arrived at this conclusion, so long as the mentoring is “good”. What makes mentoring good? Yes, this is the core question of this segment.

 

The word mentor came from, like many things, Ancient Greek, in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. Odysseus places his son Telemachus under the guardianship of his friend Mentor as he ventures to fight in the Trojan War. It is the relationship between Mentor and Telemachus, of mentors and mentees, that is the foundation of mentorship. Thus, what makes a good relationship? What title does the mentor need to hold for the best relationship dynamic? Does it mean that mentors are available and can devote their time to addressing mentee inquiries? Does it mean that mentees are recording ways of applying new insight to demonstrate progression? Does the relationship between mentor and mentee remain strictly professional, or can it grow into something more friendly and informal? Should one pay someone to mentor them? What happens when both parties are competing within the same field or consumer market? These are the questions I tried tirelessly to address through researching mentorship over the last few weeks.

 

What I’ve decided to do is to address these topics indirectly, via instances that have brought me to this point in my life, doing the Metaphorigins Podcast (laugh). While reflecting on this, I hadn’t realized how influential some unusual mentors in my life were, who shaped the person I am, with much more development still needed of course, but yes, brought out the potential I know is somewhere within. And therefore I think this will be a more interesting exercise, rather than reiterating obvious findings that would only benefit coordinators for such professional programs.

 

Let’s start with an obvious mentor, my 6th grade teacher, notorious for his energetic teaching style and banter between his students. Throughout all six years of my elementary school, you are awaiting the final year where you finally sit in his classroom on the far right side of the school, closest to the playground for recess. As seniors, once in his class, you get to be in charge of intramural sports during lunch time, get to act in the school’s Christmas play, compete to entertain the student body during the annual public speaking competition, and so much more. I remember one activity every Monday morning we would begin the week with a word game, in which groups of students are given a large scrambled word and are given time to think about words that can be spelled using those letters, with points given to those who come up with words no other group had. There was also that time he told me and a friend to make a lot of noise during our class’s hour of quiet reading in order to test an upcoming teacher’s way of dealing with the situation. Hell, I can still recall every rainy day where we had to stay inside during break, and he would take a deck a cards and do his mind-reading magic trick to guess the card you had picked randomly from the pile. All of these moments were various opportunities in which he subtly delegated responsibilities to his students in fun interesting ways, devising lessons mixed in with fun attention-stealing engagement. We were curious, we were looking for the things that interested us, finding ourselves in one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods of the city. We were kids, and he knew that, understood it, distilled it and incorporated it into the curriculum he had to teach. It was magic.

 

In contrast, now in high school, I had very little true friends. And because of this I jumped from group to group, hoping to blend in as one of their own. I didn’t care if I wasn’t given the opportunity to speak, or if I was the last to find out about plans after class. I was thrown into an exponentially larger society of teenagers and just wanted to belong. Some of these groups were brutal in their demonstration of hierarchy or power, through derision or physical violence. There was one student who, as if destiny was indeed a true phenomenon, was not only a star athlete but one of the biggest bullies in my age group. I remember he would punch my arm numb if I ever said something remotely feminine. There was one lunch period where, amongst a large group of students, he grabbed me from behind and fought me in the boys washroom for no reason other than play. And to top it all off, it didn’t help my mental health that, to complete the sob childhood story, he was also dating the girl I had feelings for at the time. This dynamic helped shape my worldview that not everything makes sense, and that external pain is minuscule to pain within the spirit. These combined moments in the dangerous jungle of early schooling that already test one’s ability to cope with trauma.

 

We jump ahead, around the late 2000s, my family and I took a trip to Germany to visit my aunt. It was my first time seeing her again since her visit to Canada several years prior, moments that are forever lost in my past despite photo evidence. During that holiday, we got to travel around Germany’s biggest cities, including Koln, Berlin, and even ventured to the neighbouring country of Austria to see my uncle in Vienna. It was my aunt’s 70th birthday as well, and it so happened to be her last. For during this fantastic vacation, I witnessed the gradual decline in my aunt’s health due to a cancer that had spread all throughout her body. See, my brother and I didn’t know that my parents had arranged this trip with the idea that this may be the last time we got to see her. At the end of that month, we were saying our goodbyes as she lay in her hospital bed, and I witnessed what, to this day, is the saddest thing I have ever seen: my aunt unable to embrace my brother, but desperately trying to. Upon her death, along with the death of her husband also around the same time, associated families became engrossed in legal battles over their estate. I remember my mother calling lawyers, translators, financial advisors, day after day, paying out of pocket to get what her side of the family rightfully deserved. I recall asking my mom, “Why spend all this money in order to get less than what you are trying to obtain?” Her response stayed with me, “I don’t care how much it takes,” she said, “it’s because of principle”. It was this realization that honouring the legacy of those we cherish should be a priority, because we are a community of people bound by love and respect.

 

Now, in late undergrad, I had a friend who I met in my biochemistry program. To this day, I think she is the smartest person I’ve ever met in my entire life, and someone with outstanding, unique spirit. Someone who I thought was a lot like me, but was actually much more than that. She was someone who I wanted to be. Someone who thought critically about her experiences, and did not shy away to delve into real world issues. Someone who treated others equally with respect, and valued her time spent with family and friends. She was a friend who loved me for being, well, me. Unfortunately, there were so many external things happening in parallel at the time. Since I was not initially accepted into a graduate program, I decided it would be best to get employed and start paying off my student debt, while also providing some funds for the family. I accepted having two jobs: one part-time retail job and another full-time job at a government agency. I chose this path: to work seven days a week, sometimes working a double shift. I don’t know how to elaborate on my mood at the time, but it was completely overrun with determination. Yet, I failed to understand the strength of my own mind in handling all the different things going on: school, work, family and this relationship. My lengthy conversations with her required me to be there both physically and mentally. Despite the way I treated her, it was her empathy that saved me from advancing past rock bottom, to put it lightly, accepting that life is not more miserable than the unknown.

If I had to pinpoint the moment that my life began the path down science communication, it would be my first lab presentation of my Masters degree. I was part of a new professional development program called TechnoMiSE (one of the more questionable academic abbreviations, standing for Technologies in Microbiome Science and Engineering), and accepted leading a project in a yeast lab. After the first four months, it is mandatory for trainees to submit a brief report and give a presentation on their project goals to a committee of professors who not only decide whether the project is worthwhile, but also if the individual understands what the heck they are trying to achieve. I was asked by my supervisor to deliver a practice presentation for the more official one happening shortly afterwards to my committee. During this presentation, I was meant to introduce my project, elaborate on my methodology and showcase a timeline of expected milestones to be achieved throughout my program. Let’s just say I couldn’t even get past the first slide of my methods section. My supervisor was soul-crushing in her criticism, ruthless against my inability to properly communicate what I had done in my experiments. I remember sitting outside of my institute that day contemplating whether I truly had the fundamental skills to continue in the program. Critistism hurts most when one doesn’t have the confidence to support being vulnerable. My obsession with developing communication skills in speaking and writing within the domain of science grew, and I took every opportunity to learn how I can convey complicated topics in engaging and unique ways, through poetry, through dynamic publications, through podcasting about metaphors and science.

 

I can continue on with mentor after mentor in my life, with teachers, students, parents, friends and scientists, helping myself and those around me discover the origins of, well, me. But the fact of the matter is, and what I hope to have exemplified through anecdotal evidence, is that you have been a part of mentorship relationships for practically your entire life. Mentorships or relationships that shape you do not need to be conscious connections but successive moments with individuals who have shaped your principles and values. Mentorships are these weird strings of incidents where we’ve all learned incredibly important lessons, taught, felt, shouted in one’s face, from shoulders upon shoulders of giants aiming our sights into every direction. Perhaps we are hoping to extend our vision outwards, when we are actually looking inward into ourselves, only correctly identifying that from such heights. There’s no program that works for everyone, no perfect mentor for no ideal mentee. The best we can aim for in mentorship is to be the role model which we ourselves seek.

 

You see, mentors could be anyone, criss-crossing through your timeline, acting overall positive or negative to your well-being. It wasn’t by accident that I chose clear examples that the concept of mentorship would not usually fall under. In an unusual 2017 speech to his son’s graduating high school class, American Supreme Court Judge Justice John Roberts summarized this notion best, saying “From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”.

 

Perhaps mentors aren’t always giants themselves, but also the ones trying to test our giants’ outstanding, towering abilities. It’s not the mentor’s responsibility to dictate what you learn from them but it’s completely up to your discretion. We always try and find people that can tell us their secret formula and squash what holds us back from our full potential, to be better than we were yesterday, but it’s not that simple, and it will never be, for we will inevitably miss the incredible life moments only giants had the strength to recover from.

 

*Theme Music*

For today’s special episode, I’ll be interviewing someone who not only has been through a majority of what academia throws at you, but as an early career researcher herself, now supports those around her in science to succeed, whether in her immediate research group, past collaborators like myself, and even those who dream of learning fields in STEM.

 

She is a senior postdoctoral researcher at APC Microbiome Ireland in University College Cork. She completed a PhD at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore studying disease-causing microbes, and transitioned to studying the beneficial microbes that inhabit the body with a lens of immunology. Apart from research, she is passionate about teaching, communication and dance, but what she loves most is stories and story-telling. Her main goal and hope in life is to be a part of people's stories, which will form and nurture real connections, even if it's just a handful.

 

Please welcome the exceptional educator, Namrata Iyer.

 

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

*INTERVIEW*

And that’s a wrap! Thank you, you wonderful, beautiful person, for listening to this special Season 4 finale of Metaphorigins! This was such a fantastic journey from discussing podcasting, to illustrations, to work-life balance, even to hit song science, and finishing off with mentorship. As mentioned, I will be taking a brief absence to focus on my PhD here at Trinity, and actually get to work on other local SciComm initiatives here in Dublin. For example, I have just been elected Co-Director of Pint of Science Ireland, where we bring researchers to local pubs and talk science with the public, which will be a lot of fun, or craic as they say here. Additionally, keep an eye out for a fiction story being published about the attitudes around climate change (which will be promoted on my Scalene Writing Instagram account, which you should totally check out!).

 

Otherwise, there will of course be more Metaphorigins coming to you sometime in early 2023. Note that if you’ve got interesting stories to tell, I’m always open to collaborate on creative projects. Rate, subscribe, share, message, megaphone this episode to your family and friends, and follow the Metaphorigins Instagram Page for exciting visual updates as we get closer to Season 5. I have some more ideas that will grow the platform, so stayed tuned, and hope you continue being inspired about communication, language and science! Until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

*Theme Music*