Honored with the Endocrine Society’s 2023 Outstanding Mentor Laureate Award, William Rainey, PhD, talks to Endocrine News about his mentoring philosophy, how he’s expanding adrenal research throughout academia, and how his own experiences as a mentee have informed his role as a mentor.
It starts with his belief that mentorship extends beyond the laboratory doors. For William Rainey, PhD, being a mentor to young scientists means creating relationships in the lab that feel like a family. And the family bond doesn’t end when they leave his lab.
The Endocrine Society has honored Rainey with the 2023 Laureate Outstanding Mentor Award for the significant impact he has made on his mentees’ careers. Rainey is the Jerome W. Conn Professor of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he joined the faculty in 2012.
As a renowned adrenal investigator, Rainey has since helped develop Michigan’s Adrenal Research Scholars Program that trains research and clinician fellows from around the world in adrenal-related research. One goal of the highly successful program is for fellows who train at Michigan to return to their home institutions and continue research in the adrenal field.
Through his mentorship, Rainey has elevated the career trajectory of numerous trainees, with his transformational influence on their scientific thinking and writing. Endocrine News asked Rainey what motivates him to guide and influence so many young researchers.
Endocrine News: What did hearing news of the Outstanding Mentor recognition mean to you?
Rainey: I had a phone message to call Trevor Archer, who is the NIH’s acting director of the Division of Translation Toxicology. I assumed we were going to be discussing a research project and was really shocked when Trevor told me that I was being recognized with the award. After hanging up, I just sat in my office remembering the many technicians, students, and fellows who have passed through the lab over the years.
My trainees have always been treated like extended family while in the lab. The fact that this award nomination came from them makes me believe they must also have found our lab-home an important part of their scientific and personal growth and an overall rewarding experience.
“I am also motivated because of my own personal experience as a student, post-doc, and early-career faculty member. At each of these points in my career, there were mentors who sat with me and discussed research ideas and approaches. Without their support and mentorship, my career would have failed to launch.”William Rainey, PhD, Jerome W. Conn Professor of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Internal Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.
EN: What encourages you to offer your time and wisdom to young physician-scientists?
Rainey: At some point in a scientist’s career, they realize that it is time to focus and make a scientific bucket list of projects. My lab maintains a spread sheet of projects that are completed, ongoing, and ones for the future. I have close to 30 projects in the “future” category. There is so much exciting research that remains to be done and that is why I gladly offer time to my trainees. They are the ones that will take the baton and likely make advances that I can only imagine. Maybe they will even complete a few of the projects on my spreadsheet.
I am also motivated because of my own personal experience as a student, post-doc, and early-career faculty member. At each of these points in my career, there were mentors who sat with me and discussed research ideas and approaches. Without their support and mentorship, my career would have failed to launch.
EN: What was the biggest impression that mentorships made on your early career?
Rainey: I am very proud of my past card-carrying Endocrine Society mentors!
It started with my graduate training at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center back in the 1980s. At the time it was a hotbed of endocrine researchers working on steroid hormone biosynthesis. I worked in each of my PhD committee’s laboratories, and they inspired me to believe that our opportunity to pursue a research career is special and a calling for many of us. They also provided the example that a mentor’s responsibilities go beyond that of a job supervisor. My student and post-doc training were full of family dinners, outings, and get-togethers where all lab members were invited. Their mentorship styles are certainly what led me to promote social and work bonds within my research team.
“There is so much exciting research that remains to be done and that is why I gladly offer time to my trainees. They are the ones that will take the baton and likely make advances that I can only imagine. Maybe they will even complete a few of the projects on my spreadsheet.”William Rainey, PhD, Jerome W. Conn Professor of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Internal Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.
EN: It’s been written that you offer “unrestricted access to laboratory resources and personnel.” What resources do you find that students benefit the most from having access in your lab?
Rainey: It has always been my belief that mentorship does not stop when your trainees move out of the lab. For the undergraduates and graduate/medical students, it is still my job to help them to the next career levels. Same is true for my research fellows who are working to get their first lab going and first grant applications funded. They often need more than advice during this critical time in their careers.
I am more than happy to collaborate with my trainees during this stage with resources that might be out of their reach as early-career faculty. This support may be through training their new personnel or providing reagents that could facilitate advancement of their own projects. I guess in some ways, it is important to be a life-long mentor.
—Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.