Interview with Prof. Hazel Dockrell


Dockrell hazel
In this interview, Prof. Dockrell explains the importance, impact and challenges of capacity strengthening schemes and mentorship in consortium projects.
How did you become involved with the topic of mentorship and career development?

I had received training as a mentor at LSHTM (where I also mentor several individuals), so I was happy to build on this experience and to take the lead on this for AE-TBC (the predecessor project of ScreenTB). As participating in AE-TBC was a positive experience for everyone, it was a logical consequence to continue the scheme also in this project – and to extend the set of activities further.

How did you find being the Work Package Leader for Capacity Strengthening in ScreenTB?

I have been very pleased by how everyone, senior to junior, academic and non-academic, has engaged with the capacity strengthening program in ScreenTB. People really value being able to take time to review their personal challenges and goals, outside what is often a very busy work environment. They appreciate the space to think about themselves for once, and to be able to think through how things are going for them. Young African scientists are precious, and the continent’s future leaders, so we need to help them succeed. However, they face particular challenges, including a lack of post-doctoral positions. We included everyone in the capacity building program who attended the meetings or who wanted to take part, and this was unusual too – so research nurses and those organizing the collection of clinical samples were just as much part of our program as the research degree students and more senior researchers.

Why is mentorship and capacity building so important?

Building a scientific career is a challenge for everyone, and opportunities for mentorship and advice can be even more limited within African settings. Projects such as ScreenTB are made possible with the help of local researchers and scientists and we owe it to them to support them in return as well.

Who are ideal mentor and mentee candidates?

There is no such thing as an “ideal candidate” for being a mentor or a mentee, and it is hard to generalize - but there are of course a few things that help optimize chances for success I would say. Mentors should be prepared to be generous with their time and give their mentees space to develop their own solutions, rather than being too prescriptive with their advice. A good mentee is a pleasure to interact with, makes the mentor feel they are spending their time usefully – and above all initiates the interactions.

What defines a great mentor-mentee relationship?

The ability to communicate.

Who benefits the most from mentorship schemes?

It should be the mentee, although most mentors also find being a mentor rewarding. And, mentors can themselves be mentored. One interesting thing we learnt, was that the more senior people really value support too. It is a mark of an open and non-judgmental consortium that senior staff were also keen to take part and to discuss their own challenges. I think we were unusual in that we offered those supporting the project as clinicians/field workers/nurses, managers, to participate in the process, as well as the researchers.

What are the results you have seen over the years in general and in this project specifically?

Partnerships and consortia today are very different from the old-style studies where the project was conceived in the north, samples collected in the south, and then often sent north again for analysis. In ScreenTB the leadership and the testing of samples is all from and in Africa. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a lot to do. Scientists from the north still have a lot to contribute, but this is now in a less top-down way. However, in many African universities and research institutes, processes for supporting both research students and young researchers are less well developed and more informal than in Europe for example. One of the benefits of being a partner institution in these EDCTP consortia is that staff at many levels receive training on how to manage research grants, how to plan field studies and clinical trials, and how to ensure that different laboratories perform testing of samples in the same way to ensure comparability. So we achieved training in research methods and financial management, but also helped the PhD students and young researchers to learn from others in the consortium, and to have the chance to be more strategic about their personal goals by discussing these with someone who was not their line manager in their home institution. Overall, I think the Capacity Building Program has helped ScreenTB mature as a consortium, as well as helping ScreenTB consortium members achieve their own goals.

How frequently should mentors and mentees be in touch ideally?

This depends. When I meet face to face with my mentees in London this can range from say once a month to 3-4 times a year. But not every mentor-mentee-pair has the opportunity to meet that often. In ScreenTB, for example, face-to-face consortium meetings took place only once a year. If this is the only opportunity for a mentor and their mentee to meet, then ideally there would be say 2 further interactions a year by Skype. However, in reality we found that every meeting, we had different people present, and often both the mentor and the mentee were not present in successive years. This meant that we also had to adapt our mentoring sessions at the consortium meetings, to enable those present to have the opportunity to discuss their careers and plans with someone who was present. Even these one-off relatively brief discussions were appreciated and helped the relationships within the consortium to develop further.

Do you currently have mentees?

I am still in touch with my mentee from ScreenTB, although intermittently. Mentoring them gave me an opportunity to use some of the online materials developed to help scientists review their goals, etc. I also mentor/advise a number of ex PhD students on an ongoing basis, and three members of staff at LSHTM. In addition, I now also mentor people through the MRC-funded VALIDATE network. (https://www.validate-network.org/). For me, mentoring is about longer term relationships and not a time-limited activity. It is not about the mentor claiming they were responsible for any success the mentee has in their career, but helping and facilitating.

What were the main challenges in implementing the mentorship scheme?

The major challenge was the lack of opportunities for the mentor and mentee to meet face-to-face, which works better that talking by phone or Skype. As discussed above not all of the mentor-mentee pairs would be present at all the meetings, while new meeting participants were added as the project progressed, so that every meeting then produced a new group of additional people who were keen to have an opportunity to find a mentor and discuss their goals. However, this expanded the number of individuals who had the opportunity to see what having a mentor might be like.

Another challenge is to make people think about how to achieve their goals, and to think through and develop their own career plans, rather than just giving advice and telling people what to do.

How do you evaluate the overall success of the ScreenTB Capacity Strengthening scheme? Do you think it has generated sustainable results and will have a lasting impact on the careers of individual project members?

The Capacity Building scheme in ScreenTB built on our previous experience in the EDCTP-funded AE-TBC Consortium. Perhaps this helped us to start with a better understanding of the needs and challenges in making capacity strengthening work. I was also helped by prior experience at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine where capacity strengthening had been a core activity within the Gates Malaria Partnership and the Malaria Capacity Development Consortium. So, we were not starting from ground zero. But overall, I think we achieved a lot. More importantly, we have shown how young African PhD students and researchers need to be helped to achieve their full potential, just as those living in Europe do. I hope that interacting in an open way with senior members of the consortium will have given many of the younger members of ScreenTB valuable insights into career planning and provided them with role models too. Certainly, the Coordinator of the consortium, Prof. Gerhard Walzl, has been an inspirational role model for many of us.