Photo courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin
Editor’s note: It is my honor to share Dr. Mary Rowe’s new essay about Nobel Laureate, John Goodenough. Dr. Rowe is an Adjunct Professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She served for almost 42 years as an organizational ombuds reporting directly to five presidents of MIT. A collection of her articles is available at https://mitmgmtfaculty.mit.edu/mrowe/research/. Mary remains extremely influential in the field. The journal Conflict Resolution Quarterly just published an essay called “The Defining Role of Mary Rowe” about her influence.
A Nobel Prize Winner’s Life of Mentoring
© 2023 Mary P. Rowe, PhD, MIT
Fifty years ago, I had a brief conversation about mentoring that was earthshaking for me at the time. I spent a few minutes with John Goodenough, a man with innumerable mentees. Dr. Goodenough later became the oldest person to win a Nobel Prize at age 97; he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for his work on the lithium-ion battery. He died last month at 100.
I met Dr. Goodenough in the early 1970s; he was then a much sought-after Group Leader at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. I had joined MIT in 1973 as a Special Assistant to the President and Chancellor for Women and Work. I had a special focus on helping women thrive at the university—but also was charged “to help humans become more visible” at MIT. As part of that work, I was looking for “apprenticeship” models that could help more young scientists advance in their careers—particularly young scientists who were having a hard time: women, minorities, “first generation,” lesbian and gay, and foreign-born students.
At the time there was much discussion about the importance of role models for young scientists: one should find a successful older person just like oneself and follow their footsteps. However, there are many young people for whom it is not at all easy to find such a role model. Puzzled, I asked myself, how did the “firsts”—the first woman superstar scientist, and the first Black and brown superstar scientists—do so well without a “role model?” I read every biography I could find of “firsts” in science. I discovered that virtually all the “firsts” had a mentor. I discovered what we now know so well: that successful mentors are of all ages—they may be peers or even younger than the mentee—and that they come in every demographic. And many mentorships last for a lifetime.
I began to look around MIT for faculty who were known for being very good mentors, to learn how they did it. I was particularly interested in learning about researchers who had many mentees, so I was intrigued by stories I heard about an MIT Lincoln Lab Group Leader named John Goodenough. I was told that many of the best and brightest newcomers to the Lincoln Lab competed hard to come to Goodenough’s lab. I learned that he was a tough supervisor—extraordinarily brilliant and honorable but tough, and a person who did not waste time on small talk. There was, I was told, a forced turnover of at least 5% a year in his group. He let go anyone who was not doing superbly well.
How did junior people thrive in such an atmosphere?
One day I got into the Lincoln Lab Shuttle that went hourly from the main MIT campus out to Lincoln Lab. I was the only woman on the bus—in my thirties and shy. As the sign-in sheet circulated, I noticed that the man next to me had signed in as John Goodenough. He was deeply engrossed in his notes. I took a deep breath. I spoke softly in the very crowded van.
“Dr. Goodenough, might I ask you a question?” No response. He was lost in thought; I tried again. “Dr. Goodenough, might you have time for me to ask a question?”
He looked at me, astonished, I thought, and just grunted. And turned back to his papers. I tried again. “Is it true sir, that you have a forced turnover rate of 5% a year in your lab—or more? And that a great many young scientists work very hard to join your lab?” He nodded slightly.
“If this is true, sir, how do you do it?”
Dr. Goodenough then turned to me thoughtfully, with a few careful sentences: “I spend about twenty percent of my time making sure that each person who leaves my lab goes to a better job than their position with me.” He sketched out a process of first learning each person’s own interests and skills, and then dialoguing with them, and helping them to be the best they could be. He named assistant professorships at four well-known research universities held by the last four scientists to leave his lab. And then he turned back to his notes. In maybe ten minutes, he had helped me understand what mentoring in science could be like.
At the time, I was profoundly impressed by the value he placed on the career development of the young researchers who worked with him—and the amount of care and effort he put into helping others. When John Goodenough died this year, I learned that he had had dyslexia as a child, long painful struggles at school—and parents who had little time for him. I wondered if this very difficult childhood was what had inspired him to live a life of mentoring and inspiring others—along with inventing the lithium-ion battery and so many other achievements in science.
Mary P. Rowe is an Adjunct Professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She served for almost 42 years as an organizational ombuds reporting directly to five presidents of MIT; a collection of her articles is available at https://mitmgmtfaculty.mit.edu/mrowe/research/.