Association for Women in Science - Chicago

February 2010 Scientist of the Month: Katherine Knight, Ph.D.

by Michelle Merrigan

Dr. Katherine Knight is an immunologist, and recently celebrated her 20th anniversary as chair of the department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. To celebrate this anniversary, alumni and colleagues returned to Loyola for a symposium to share their recollections of Dr. Knight and her role in their development as scientists. The theme was “20 Years of Doing It Together”, which is appropriate because Dr. Knight has always emphasized that science is about relationships. “Everyone is a mentor to somebody,” she says.

The mentoring relationship between faculty members and students is at the core of the department’s educational focus. As chair, Dr. Knight has put in place programs that help students recognize and develop positive mentoring relationships. For example, at the annual department retreat, new students participate in discussions about choosing a graduate advisor. She advises students to choose someone they are going to enjoy interacting with personally. She points out that everyone has different needs. “Some PI’s are more directive, and some students need more direction than others.” Ideally, a mentor should be able to respond to whatever the student requires. She suggests students choose based on the environment of the laboratory, not necessarily on the project.

Dr. Knight holds regular informal meetings to discuss any issues students choose, which can range from how to find a post-doctoral fellowship to tips on making effective PowerPoint slides for lectures. Indeed, the department has a strong focus on communication skills, which Dr. Knight feels are the most important skills to acquire outside of designing a sound experiment. All first year students participate in a special course dedicated to learning speaking and presentation skills. This gives all students a core competency on which they and their graduate advisors can build. She emphasizes always adapting your talk to your audience, and maintaining a “teaching frame of mind.”

Dr Knight has shared her philosophy of mentoring with the department on multiple occasions. Particularly, she emphasizes that a good mentor sees what the student/mentee needs, rather than his or her own needs. She admits that in the current academic climate, mentors have their own pressures to publish and be productive, and yet at the same time must allow the student time to develop his or her own scientific mind. She advises new faculty on balancing the personal motives of productivity and the care-giving motives involved in mentoring students. She insists that these motives need not be mutually exclusive. “There’s a study that shows that people who have been well-mentored, their institutions are much better off, because people stay.” Dr. Knight also prepares senior students for the transition to being mentors themselves, saying “If you’ve been treated well, you will treat people well subsequently.”

She recently gave a lecture on mentoring at the annual meeting of the Association of Medical School Microbiology and Immunology Chairs, which happened to fall during National Mentoring Month, and on “Thank Your Mentor Day”, which was January 22, 2010.

To honor her guidance and mentorship, at the symposium in May 2009, colleagues, alumni and students organized to establish the Katherine L. Knight Fund for Mentoring. In keeping with her philosophy of adapting to whatever the mentee needs, this fund will be used to enhance the mentoring experience for students, whatever form that might require, such as student travel or professional development programs.