The Roles of Mentoring and Academic Genealogy in One Scholar’s Coming of Age

Tari Tan in front of lab equipment.

As Taralyn Tan, PhD candidate in neurobiology in the laboratory of Sandeep Robert Datta, would tell you, genetics isn’t the only science that cares about lineage.

Like her colleagues, Tan has her own entry on the NeuroTree, a website that helps track how researchers in the field of neurobiology are connected. “It’s really cool from my perspective to have the opportunity to take advantage of the knowledge passed on from a number of luminaries in neuroscience,” Tan says.

Of her more immediate influences, Tan says she owes a lot to mentors like Kevin Ahern and Fred Stormshak of Oregon State University, where she completed her undergraduate studies in biochemistry and biophysics in 2008.

Although Tan was involved in research almost from the beginning of her time at Oregon State, it wasn’t until her senior year that she realized she didn’t really want to go to medical school like she had been planning for years. “I realized that my favorite part about medicine was science and learning things, and so maybe I should focus on research,” Tan explains.

With a strong letter of support from Ahern, Tan was able to secure a competitive position as a research technician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where she studied the sensory mechanisms involved in the body’s perception of pain. “I had become really intrigued with pain research and somatosensation,” she says, referring to the body’s perception of external stimuli.

Since joining the Datta lab in 2010, Tan has turned her attention to another sense entirely: smell. She now studies the neurons in mice responsible for conveying olfactory information from smell receptors to the cells that synapse onto them and relay this information on to the rest of the brain. Though focused primarily on the cellular level, Tan knows that her time in the Datta lab has provided a much broader perspective on her project. “Professor Datta had a vision for his lab where he wanted it to be really interdisciplinary and have people with different areas of expertise so that they could talk to each other and learn from each other,” Tan explains. “For me that was one of the biggest draws.” Thanks to her lab mates, Tan says, “I learn something new every day.”

Tan also credits Datta with creating a convivial, healthy environment for his graduate students. “Professor Datta recognizes that graduate school is hard, that science is hard.” As a result, Tan says, Datta works to create opportunities for the members of his lab to unwind and reboot for the work ahead. “We’re a work-hard, play-hard kind of lab,” Tan says, laughing.

Tan hopes to run her own lab one day so that she, too, can set a positive example for budding scholars, much like Ahern, Stormshak, Datta, and others have done for her. Early in her time at Harvard she served as a mentor in WISTEM, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and she herself has benefitted from the mentorship of Professor Beate Lanske as part of the HGWISE program, Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering.

“I can’t say enough how important having good mentors has been for me,” Tan says. “When it gets tough—and sometimes it does—they’re there telling me to stick with it and that I can do this. I’m looking forward to playing that role for someone else someday.”

The Scent of Success

Photo by Stan Pashkovski