Mentorship that Clicked

Sometimes, someone who is really, truly remarkable gets recognized in the most remarkable way. 

Carolyn Bertozzi, the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry changed my career and my life. She was my postdoctoral advisor, which is interesting, since I am neither a chemist nor a biochemist. 

I was, however, a disillusioned Mechanical Engineering PhD in the Bay Area in 2001 looking to leave my industry job and return to academia. The startup I went to work for after getting my degree was paying me the big bucks, but I was totally uninspired by the work. In fact I was beginning to think that going to industry had been a mistake, and I needed guidance about changing direction.

I knew things had to change when I started falling asleep on my commute to and from work. Little microsleeps – while driving. Well sort of driving, since back then top speeds at rush hour on the 101 were 25 mph at best. I would stop half way home, rest, and then be on my way again. I discussed going back to academics with my husband and my PhD advisors and determined that getting a postdoc, and taking a huge pay cut, was the way back. 

Carolyn had a collaboration with one of my PhD advisors, so we knew each other casually. I mentioned my situation to her at a Berkeley social event, and she responded, “Hey, I have a postdoc opening in my space at LBL for someone working in biomaterials, you could totally do that.” I immediately took the job and resigned my industry position.  

Carolyn on 14 November 2011 at the Technical University of Darmstadt (Germany), during the Emanuel Merck Lectureship 2011 with Karl-Heinz Derwenskus (Merck KGaA).

My first week, Carolyn was out of town on travel, and the next week was September 11, 2001. When we finally got together in person, she sat down with me and a blank piece of paper and said, “Ok, here is your plan for getting from here to a faculty job.” She sketched out how the experimental work I was interested in would lead me to publications, exposure, and hopefully a job. I wish I still had that piece of paper! 

She then connected me with lab alumni in engineering and sent me off to work on a project over which I had total control. I feel it is important to note here that my work had absolutely nothing to do with any of the Nobel work or the core work of her lab at the time. 

Regardless, Carolyn welcomed me into her group, and thereby back into academics. I became a sponge for all things molecular biology and began to slowly stake out what my own research program would look like after LBL. Carolyn taught me how to apply for academic jobs, how to plan for interviews, how to apply for fellowships. Her support and advocacy was instant and unconditional. Her mentorship was clear and steady and has continued through all the phases of my career. 

What makes all of this all the more amazing is that there are literally 100’s of students and trainees from Carolyn’s lab who have gotten and are getting this same level of mentorship. It is why on a phone call last night to toast and congratulate her people kept typing in the chat things like “I am so happy!” and “I have been excited all day, I still cannot stop smiling!” It is why there are so many tweets and pictures online from her mentees recalling fond memories of science and life while in her lab and beyond. 

Because sometimes, someone who is really, truly remarkable gets recognized in the most remarkable way. 

Congratulations, Carolyn!

Author: Catherine Klapperich

Find me on Twitter @DrKlapperich

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