Sue Fenton, Ph.D., leader of the Reproductive Endocrinology Group at NIEHS, has received a rare honor: a Graduate Partnerships Program Outstanding Mentor Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Intramural Training and Education Graduate Student Council.
“It was quite a surprise,” said Fenton. “Mentoring is a special part of what I do. It’s really important.” See sidebar for more on her mentoring style.
In the past 25 years, Fenton has mentored some 50 young researchers, from her time as a postdoc at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), through 11 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, and the past 11 years at NIEHS. Currently, Fenton mentors four students.
The important part of mentoring is providing encouragement and being available to listen, she explained. “A lot of trainees doubt themselves at some point,” Fenton said. “Encouraging them to use their strengths is a big part of it.”
Fenton was nominated by Bevin Blake, whom she has mentored for five years. Blake is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow at NIEHS and a Ph.D. candidate in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine at UNC.
“Sue inspires her trainees to develop their unique research interests and provides them with ample support on their journey,” wrote Blake in her nomination letter. “I have benefitted immensely from having Sue as mentor.”
Blake was thrilled to hear of the award. “Sue has always advocated so unfailingly for me and all of her trainees,” Blake said. “Her incredible mentorship deserves to be recognized.”
Blake was herself a winner of an NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence award for 2020. She also won a Big Picture, Small Talk Communication Challenge in 2019 for her three-minute presentation about her work. That same year, Blake won a travel award to attend the Society of Toxicology annual meeting.
“Bevin is amazing,” said Fenton. “She works really hard and is an overall standout graduate trainee.”
Officials were equally delighted to hear of the award. “Dr. Fenton devotes boundless energy into training students,” said Alex Merrick, Ph.D., acting chief of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Laboratory. “She imparts an enthusiasm for scientific inquiry that leaves a lasting mark on her trainees.”
The program bestowed just three outstanding mentor awards across NIH this year. Nominee evaluations are based on their nominating letters and for their scientific, communication, leadership, networking, and career development skills.
Fenton will receive the award at the 16th Annual NIH Graduate Student Research Symposium Feb. 20 in Bethesda, Maryland. She is just the second awardee from NIEHS. Dale Sandler, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, won last year.
Fenton also gave a nod to those who had mentored her, including Scientist Emeritus Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., the former head of NIEHS and NTP, as well as the just-retired Sally Darney, Ph.D., former editor of Environmental Health Perspectives.
“I hope I make them proud,” said Fenton. “I know it’s nice to see my own students grow in their careers as successful independent scientists leading their own team of people.”
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)