The importance of mentors: A life-changing encounter pt. 1

By Thomas Crowther

I have always been obsessed with the magic of life. Mathematically, its existence makes no sense. Indeed, science lacks even a most basic understanding of the reason for the biodiversity and variety present all around us. Yet, one must only look outside the window at the impossible combination of spectacular organisms to experience life. I find this incredible, and as a child, spent many hours looking at bugs, fungi and dents in trees. This fascination has led me to my absolute dream job. Today, I work with biodiversity and its conservation, and I get to witness the magic of life the every day. However, I would never have gotten this far with only my childlike curiosity, it took the overwhelming influence of spectacular supervisors and mentors. 

But let me start from the beginning. I am dyslexic. While I don’t think this held me back in fully tangible ways, it did not make me the most confident student. It was never encouraging to have the entire class amused by my attempts to read aloud, and feedback on my school work was not great. School did not seem like “my thing”. I was, however, having a great time on the football pitch and the tennis court. As a result, I became a slightly difficult student – difficult to motivate and keep interested – and was one of six students in my school year that were on “report”, which meant my parents had to call my teacher once a week to check in. I ended up doing what probably most in my situation would have done – I invested far more energy in things I excelled at, like sports, and faded at things where I didn’t, like school work. 


This theme continued into University. I loved my student life at Cardiff University, the sports, the socializing, and the friends. But with a pre-disposed fear of schoolwork and low confidence in my academic success, I started off with low interest and focus. I struggled to keep up with classes and missed a lot of lectures that would have helped. It wasn’t until the end of my first year in Cardiff that something changed. I encountered a mentor that transformed my fortunes forever. And the best thing about it? As significant as the change was for me and my career, my mentor was not attempting to change who I was in any way. He just made me realize that I could achieve anything I want to – if…

Our football team at ETH Zurich (with Lidong, our manager)

Today, I am a professor at ETH Zurich. I work on topics that fascinate me – the magic of life, biodiversity, and nature conservation – and I do so with friends and colleagues in the most rewarding and entertaining environment. And even better, I still get to play all the sports that I always loved – we’ve even invented our own smashing game in the lab, a combination of Ping-Pong, volleyball and squash. But as much as I enjoy doing what I do, I assure you: I am nothing special, neither particularly smart, nor hard-working. I am where I am today, simply because of a life-changing encounter with a mentor. This has changed my perspective on how to do science forever. Actually, as professor I see a big part of my job in being a mentor to the people in my lab and if I only ever do a fraction of what my mentor did for me, I would consider myself successful – this is how important my mentor was for me in particular and how important I believe them to be in academia in general.  

But wait, what advice turned me from a demotivated (and, in consequence, lazy) student with very low aspirations for academic success into someone actively pursuing a career in academia? And who was this mentor? FIND OUT MORE NEXT WEEK IN PT 2.