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Mentor of the Year creates strong bonds for good science

Alyssa Strumbly
Tue, 2018-10-09 06:00

In a human nutrition lab in Campbell Hall, laughter mingles in the air with a buzz about birthday celebrations coming up. This is not your average research lab environment; it is run by the not-so-average Leanna Perez, recently voted Ohio State’s 2018 Postdoctoral Scholar Mentor of the Year by her students.

The lab’s white concrete walls are adorned with brightly colored paper flowers and bulletin boards filled with photos. Don’t be fooled by the frills and banter; these women mean business.

Perez and her all-female crew of students — eight undergraduate and one master’s — are coordinating a clinical research trial using multi-nutrient supplements to treat ADHD in children.

Catherine Panchyshyn, left, and Stacy Lu, center, have a light moment while working on nutrition research under the direction of Postdoctoral Researcher Leanna Perez.

‘Science is only as strong as the team behind it’

Perez’s team is involved, start to finish, in the four-month trial. They help develop questionnaires for parents and children in the study, schedule families, conduct phone screenings and facilitate biological sample collection. They develop relationships with children taking the supplements, and look for behavior changes in them as they gather data about them for the study.

“Long story short, they have been exposed to multiple phases of clinical research, from development to implementation and follow-ups,” Perez said. “I can honestly say I feel like they function more like part-time research assistants.”

She takes pride in getting to know her students’ stories and strengths. Not only is she creating lasting bonds with her students, but she’s finding ways to help them succeed both in the lab and in life.

“I owe them so much,” said Perez. “They are the Robin to my Batman. I would not be functioning without all of them.”

She encourages open communication because it adds value and reinforces the integrity of the data, she said.

“An environment that supports sharing allows us to be open, honest, prompt and responsible. This really helps our team function efficiently, especially when you have so many hands in the pot.”

Perez works in Irene Hatsu’s lab in the Department of Human Science's Human Nutrition program, and serves as the current chair for the Advocacy Committee of the Ohio State’s Postdoctoral Association.

“Leanna’s style of mentoring is very hands on.…” Hatsu said. “She is a good listener and provides support to the best of her abilities. More importantly, Leanna uses personal experiences to help her mentees learn from good decisions and avoid mistakes.”

Having little experience with mentoring before her postdoctoral position, Perez never expected it to become a passion.

“I fell in love with mentoring as much as I fell in love with science. I realized how mentoring was a fundamental part of my position, and I really enjoy getting to know each of my student’s stories.”

Postdoctoral Researcher Leanna Perez, center, with the students who nominated her for Postdoctoral Mentor of the Year.

'We look out for each other'

Being a postdoctoral researcher means working with many students who appreciate genuine guidance. The research remains important, but Perez prioritizes mental health and individual interest to be just as significant.

When congregating in the small lab, Perez takes the time to ask each woman how she is doing. She encourages them to express opinions around the discussion.

Many science fields remain male-dominated. Perez is aware her all-female lab may not reflect her students’ work environments in the future, but sees it as an advantage now.

“We have created this safe space,” Perez explained. “We can talk about a lot of things, in science specifically, that relate to women trying to advance their careers and the challenges that we can face.”

“I want them to leave my lab feeling even a little bit more empowered.”

Stacy Lu, a senior studying health promotion, nutrition and exercise science, nominated Perez for the mentor award. She credits Perez as a source of inspiration and encouragement who has lead her to consider getting a PhD.

“I’ve never had a mentor who was this dedicated to taking care of us. It’s been amazing to have someone like her in our corner,” Lu said.

Students are under a lot of pressure these days. Perez wants to alleviate as much stress as she can. These undergraduate research opportunities can become great support systems for students at Ohio State University.

“I want whoever comes through this lab to get something out of this experience, whether or not it is related to science,” Perez said. “I want them to come out of my lab feeling more independent and confident in the decisions that they make about their future.”

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