An interview with the 2017 AACC Outstanding Contributions in Education Award winner, Eleftherios Diamandis, MD, PhD, FRCP(C), FRSC

I was born on the Island of Cyprus and did my undergraduate, graduate and medical training at the University of Athens, Greece. I then trained as a Clinical Chemist in Toronto and emigrated to Canada to have the opportunity to conduct top-level research in biomedical sciences.

When I first started, I realized that in order to achieve my goals, I needed to work with young scientists. Early in my career I organized courses at the University of Toronto with a purpose of educating myself, and others, in new developments such as molecular diagnostics, pathobiology etc. I always loved education. My research group slowly grew from 2-3 people to approx. 30, and many of my current associates are graduate students. Although not my major goal (research was), I slowly but steadily completed a large number of theses, which now count to approx. 25 MSc and 35 PhD, in addition to approx. 100 post-doctoral trainees. My tremendous exposure to young talent allowed me to learn a lot from their work, their scientific (and sometimes more personal) difficulties and their expectations on how their training affects their life, in general. I have seen a few relationships building in my laboratory, weddings and a few children. In the end, I realized that my 30 years exposure to these people created an extended family, with many of whom I still have close contact.

About 5 years ago, I began writing short educational and mentorship pieces based on my diverse experiences with many subjects related to education and training, including the difficulties of young scientists to enter a successful career, how to face failures, to be persistent, how to interact with supervisors, how to develop a good CV, how to write scientific papers, how to win grants, and many other subjects. Some of my mentorship pieces were published in prominent journals including Nature, Science, Clinical Chemistry, Clinical Cancer Research, ASBMB Today and other outlets. When I collected all these pieces together, I was surprised to see that it was a voluminous contribution, counting more than 100 items.

I never imagined that I would be writing about mentorship 25 years after I started my scientific career. But I now realize that it was a natural progression, based on the experience that I built over many years, with countless young individuals and scientists. As I reflect back on my career, and having published over 700 scientific papers and over 100 mentorship pieces, I consider the mentorship pieces probably more valuable than my scientific contributions: they are more widely read than my scientific papers, and share experiences and so are very likely quite useful to younger scientists entering the field.

I received many awards for research and contributions to clinical care, but I must admit that the recognitions regarding education are the most rewarding, since they underline that my activities over the years have affected the lives and careers of hundreds of young scientists and professionals. I am very pleased that the AACC recognized my contributions to education and mentorship with the 2017 Education Award.

What were the key steps in your path to becoming a mentor and education leader?

For me, the key step was access to a large number of undergraduate, graduate and post graduate students. I was fortunate to supervise 25 MSc theses and 35 PhD theses over my 30 year career and this gave me a chance to observe and understand where students are coming from. Through these observations, I developed my own style of mentoring young students, based on the following principles:

  1. Be able to listen and understand the concerns and anxieties of students.
  2. Develop a friendly and trustworthy relationship, so that students can open-up and discuss their difficulties with comfort.
  3. Let the student come to you, rather than you going to them

What aspects of mentorship and education have you found most rewarding?

The most rewarding aspect, in my own experience, is that I was given the privilege of working with proven smart and creative young individuals who have their own ambitions for the future. The learning experience with mentorship is a two-way street. While I share with them my own ideas, at the same time, I learn from them, I am energized by their youth and from their own ideas which, most of the times, are better than mine.

What advice would you give someone looking to become a mentor/educator?

I believe that the most valuable advice is for mentors to listen more and talk less, or only when necessary. Mentors who jump on every opportunity to talk and give advice will not be effective unless they listen carefully to the concerns of the students and understand where they are coming from. In short, mentors should be great listeners and good talkers.