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From: The Rheumatologist, March 2011

The REF: A Facilitator of Mentoring

by By E. William St.Clair, MD

The ACR Research and Education Foundation (REF) has made a substantial commitment to supporting career development through its many grant programs, such as the preceptorships for medical and graduate students and residents, the Rheumatology Scientist Development Award, the Rheumatology Investigator Award, and the Career Development Bridge Funding Award, provided in collaboration with the Arthritis Foundation. Also integral to this portfolio is our Clinician Scholar Educator Award, which supports physicians and health professionals who are dedicated to the goal of enhancing the educational experience. While these funding opportunities help to ensure the future of rheumatology, they are only a piece of the puzzle. An equal, if not greater, investment is needed to ensure the presence of both formal and informal mentoring relationships that guide us through our careers.

Reflecting on my own experiences as a mentor and mentee, these roles are ever shifting in life’s journey. What skills do I need to be a good mentor? What lessons are learned from my mentoring mistakes and successes? What are the dilemmas faced by mentors today? What motivates me to be a mentor?

I have grown to appreciate effective mentorship. My mentors took the time to know me personally and understand where I stood in my development. Each provided a climate conducive to learning, involved me in formulating my goals, and encouraged me to identify a variety of resources to accomplish my learning. We learned collaboratively in a supportive and challenging environment. I discovered in the process that mentoring is not simply an intellectual transaction.

Although I never took a formal course, I have learned about mentoring from my own mistakes and successes. One mistake I have made is failing to establish specific learning goals, making it difficult to determine if the mentee is properly focused. I have also agreed to overly ambitious goals or sorely underestimated the time to realize these goals, setting up a failure scenario. I also fight constantly to avoid projecting my own priorities, albeit with good intentions. The effective mentor must encourage mentees to formulate their own learning objectives while steering clear of the temptation to “clone oneself.”

I recall one recent experience acting as a clinic preceptor for Erin Wilfong, an MD/PhD student at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Erin began working with me on a weekly basis after her first year of medical school while completing her PhD research and dissertation in chemistry. Erin worked hard to earn my trust—reading about the patients and their diseases ahead of time, enduring the entire day’s schedule, and rarely missing a clinic. This time allowed me to get to know Erin. She has a natural inquisitiveness about her, likes a challenge, makes the extra effort, and does not give up easily until she finds an answer. This mentoring relationship probably worked so well for both of us because it fit so nicely to my natural style of teaching. I am gratified to report that Erin has decided to pursue a career in rheumatology.

Apply to Be a Mentor

Mentor the next generation. Become a rheumatologist preceptor. Applications for REF Preceptorship awards are due May 2, 2011. Please visit for more information.

What roles do the ACR and the REF play in the mentoring process? Both organizations strive to facilitate good mentoring, which I am proud to say has occurred on several fronts. The REF offers a diverse portfolio of funding opportunities for career development. The REF fosters a climate conducive to good mentoring by insisting its grantees set specific research and educational goals, organize a timeline for achieving these goals, and prepare annual progress reports. The REF also holds its Within Our Reach: Finding a Cure for Rheumatoid Arthritis Investigators’ Meeting simultaneously with the ACR-sponsored Rheumatology Research Workshop, bringing together established investigators with early career rheumatologists to create mentoring opportunities. The ACR has a Fellow’s Fund to support travel for rheumatology fellows to the ACR/ARHP Annual Scientific Meeting so that they may intermingle with our members.

The future of rheumatology depends not only on the success of the REF but also on building good mentoring relationships, which is something all of us should continue to think about and embrace.

[Author‘s note: For additional reading on this topic, I recommend The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Mentoring Relationships by Lois Zachary (Jossey-Bass, 2000).]

Dr. St.Clair is president of the ACR REF and interim chief of the division of rheumatology and immunology at Duke University. Contact him at


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