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The mentor/mentee relationship

Mentorship is one of the most professionally rewarding relationships for healthcare professionals. Mentors come in all forms with different experiences and skill sets. They are teachers, parents, colleagues, peers, and the like. They demonstrate excellence in their field and elevate their mentees’ professional capabilities. Whether mentees are new students or seasoned professionals, mentors are essential resources for navigating the healthcare continuum and achieving successful and satisfying careers.

Formal and informal mentors have guided and encouraged students and alumni across ATSU. These mentors have championed their mentees by fostering insight, supplying needed knowledge, and expanding growth opportunities. They have personally invested time and energy in helping them develop their careers and reach their goals. In many cases, these mentors inspired mentees to become mentors themselves.

Still Magazine caught up with ATSU mentors and mentees to learn more about their mentorship experiences. In their own words, they describe how those relationships influenced their career paths.

Mentor / Mentee

Thomas Knutson Jr., DO, ’97, and Lex Towns, PhD, met in the early 1990s at ATSU-KCOM. Dr. Towns, an anatomy professor, left a lasting impression on Dr. Knutson personally and professionally. Nearly 25 years later, Dr. Knutson created an endowment fund in honor of his mentor, Dr. Towns.

Dr. Towns

I have had the privilege during my time at ATSU-KCOM to interact with many excellent students who chose to be anatomy fellows. As they helped teach all the anatomy courses, the other anatomy faculty and I treated them as friends and colleagues. These were students who typically had been on rotations and were prepared to provide invaluable insights concerning how our courses should contribute to patient care.

Dr. Knutson stands out even among the stellar group of anatomy fellows. He was a pleasant and hard-working young man. I recall we played basketball together at the Thompson Campus Center during intramural basketball season. He was a competitive athlete in college, and that physical vigor carried over into his day-to-day life as a student and anatomy fellow.

Dr. Knutson

Dr. Towns was head of the Anatomy department when I started at ATSU-KCOM in 1992. He was an excellent teacher but an even better father, husband, and family man. I realized all of these things through the years.

I always knew I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. When the opportunity to be an anatomy fellow presented itself, Dr. Towns gave me a chance. That opportunity helped me throughout my career, starting at the basics of truly understanding anatomy and its many variants. The fellowship allowed me to get into a teaching role and also a speaking role. Speaking in front of a class wasn’t my strength!

All of those experiences later helped me in my internship and in securing an orthopedic residency. I have been in practice for 14 years and now have the opportunity to teach other students.

When I was recently approached with the opportunity to donate back to ATSU, the only name that came to mind was Dr. Towns.

Mentor / Students

Lihua Dishman, DBA, MBA, is an assistant professor for ATSUCGHS’ Health Administration programs. At the 2016 ATSUCGHS Awards Reception, she received the Professor of the Year award based on her leadership, guidance, inspiration, and intellectual integrity. Her students say she is “very dedicated” and a “great role model.”

I come from a family of educators, and I knew I was born to teach. Later in my career, I realized teaching is not equal to mentoring. As I developed as an educator, I noticed mentoring a student often brought more fruitful results than simply telling the student what to do. I also noticed it brought me joy to watch students grow and be more competent in their disciplines or professions, and more purposeful in their pursuits.

On my path as an educator and mentor, several people have guided me, particularly Bill Blackerby and Dr. Patricia L. McDonald. They are professors at Siena Heights University and are authentic, genuine, and always willing to help others. Collectively, they taught me to recognize each student’s individuality, listen to students’ voices, respect differences in views, be supportive, show empathy, guide students to find themselves, and ask students, “How can I help?” when appropriate.

Watching my students grow brings me the uttermost joy and pride. I also enjoy having appreciative dialogues with students because these exchanges bring out the best in students. This is particularly important when working with our students in the Doctor of Health Administration program. They are successful practitioners, but most of them have not done scholarly research. Therefore, providing opportunities for students to appreciate their innate strengths and positive energy helps them see they already have the foundation to succeed in conducting scholarly research.

For example, when I worked with a student for the first time in my quantitative research course, I reached out to her in the first week to learn about her specific needs and expectations so I could help her more effectively. During the conversation, she seemed unsure and was very reluctant in expressing her thoughts. Later, I worked with her in a healthcare economics and financial management course. During our first-week conference call, she was very upfront and pointed out a few areas she would like to improve with my guidance. A few weeks later, she reached out to me for a Skype meeting to discuss a research paper and writing scholarly papers in general. From my lens, this is progress because this is how students build self-confidence, develop academic maturity, and lead themselves in learning.

Business partner / mentee

Gregory Frazer, AuD, PhD, ’00, is an inaugural graduate of ATSU-ASHS’ Doctor of Audiology program. He owns six audiology private practices in Southern California and is also the director of audiology for Pacific Eye & Ear Specialists in Los Angeles. As a former board member of the Audiology Foundation of America, he helped drive the profession to accept and support the doctor of audiology degree.

My mentor was Alfred Gaston, a hearing aid dispenser. When I earned my PhD in audiology in 1981, graduates had minimal training in dispensing hearing aids and no training in managing a private practice. When I went into business with Al, he taught me how to dispense hearing aids and how to run a practice.

Al demonstrated quality, compassionate care for patients. He always ran late seeing patients, but they loved him because he took time to understand and help them as much as possible. Patients felt they received 100 percent of his time and effort.

I have mentored students for more than 30 years. As a perpetual learner and because I wanted to set an example for other master’s-level audiologists, I decided to earn my AuD degree. As an ATSU alumnus, I mentor student interns from ATSU and many other audiology programs across the United States. Our practice currently has a student intern from ATSU and another from the University of California, San Diego.

Based on my experiences, good mentors ask their mentees questions and don’t just give them answers. They stretch mentees’ abilities and gradually increase their responsibilities. They encourage creative thinking and help them take ownership of patients and projects. They teach them to “manage up” by helping them learn to communicate with others in the practice and address management-level issues.

Good mentors are also empowering. I try very hard to empower my mentees by supporting and advising them and also allowing them to work without my help.

Mentoring is fun because I learn something from each intern, and I enjoy seeing them succeed. Recently, an intern and I were fitting a reluctant husband with hearing aids. We tried to convince him hearing aids didn’t mean he was old or disabled. Sitting with his arms and legs crossed, he asked his wife to say something to test his new hearing aids.

His wife looked at him and said, “I love you!”

The husband’s face became flushed and tears rolled down his cheeks.

The intern, who also had tears, said to the husband, “See what you would miss hearing without hearing aids?”

In another instance, an intern and I helped a young dancer who had a vestibular neuritis in one ear. When she came to us, she was ataxic and walking like she was drunk because of her neuritis. The dancer had just auditioned and won a TV commercial for a major product, but she needed to shoot the commercial in two weeks.

Videonystagmography and rotational chair testing by the intern showed the dancer had no vestibular function in her right ear. The intern worked with the dancer and showed her selfdirected vestibular rehabilitation exercises, which aid in compensation and adaptation of the brain to heal the damaged balance mechanism. The intern contacted the dancer daily for two weeks and saw her once a week in person to evaluate her progress. We told the dancer to let the commercial director know she had a virus attack the balance mechanism in her right inner ear, so she may need to do the dance routine several times to get it right, or in smaller segments.

The dancer emailed us from Atlanta, Georgia, to let us know she was able to dance well enough to finish the commercial. She also said the director was very understanding about her balance problem, since he had vestibular neuritis in the past as well! The intern’s face beamed when the patient told her none of this would have been possible without her expertise and care.

Vineet Singh, PhD, is a professor for microbiology/immunology at ATSUKCOM. His mentee, Hannah Braungardt, is a first-year medical student and is working toward her master’s degree in biomedical sciences. Dr. Singh is helping her complete her thesis research, which focuses on decreasing Staphylococcus aureus in environments such as hospital settings.

Dr. Singh

Mentoring is important because it can help mentees identify their strengths, expand their abilities, and bring creativity to their research projects. My mentee, Hannah, is a serious and ambitious student. She once worked on an experiment where she tried to determine the impact of some genetic mutations on antibiotic tolerance in S. aureus. While we tried to find reasons to explain her results, she realized she was using methicillin-sensitive S. aureus while she was supposed to use methicillin-resistant S. aureus strains. She was utterly disappointed. Since then, she began taking everything more seriously and is progressing really well with her research project.


Mentorship means letting me mess up, but not too badly. I mean that in a good way. Dr. Singh will watch me mess up and not correct me. Once something doesn’t work, he will explain why it went wrong. I always learn so much more than if he would have told me how to do it from the beginning.

As a DO and biomed student, I have a weird schedule. Dr. Singh is always willing to help me outside of normal hours, even on weekends. He often tells me a story about a mango tree. It is a long story, but it comes down to staying focused on what is important. I’ve heard the story probably 10 times. He may be trying to tell me something.

Professor / mentee

Melissa M. Blessing, DO, ’12, is a current neuropathology fellow at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and future forensic pathology fellow at the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston, Texas. While she was a student at ATSU-SOMA, she became inspired to pursue pathology. Now she mentors others wanting to follow in her footsteps.

Mark Fischione, MD, and Julie Gibson, MD, were highly influential in my decision to pursue a career in forensic pathology. Both were my professors at ATSU-SOMA. In addition to being gifted teachers, they were extraordinarily passionate about their profession. Dr. Gibson passed away in 2011, and Dr. Fischione is currently a pathology professor at ATSU-SOMA and a practicing forensic pathologist.

Most medical students get little exposure to pathology as it is not a required clinical rotation and is taught as a fundamental science of medicine, rather than a medical specialty. Forensic pathology in particular is something most medical students are rarely exposed to as a career option, yet research indicates exposure as a medical student is integral to choosing this specialty.

Dr. Fischione’s pathology lectures had a huge influence on me as a medical student. He instilled fundamental principles of pathology alongside memorable case stories that brought home the relevance of what we were learning. In my first year of medical school, Drs. Fischione and Gibson shared their experiences as forensic pathologists with our class and opened my eyes to this fascinating subspecialty. Subsequently, in my fourth year of medical school, I completed an elective month of forensic pathology at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona, and had the opportunity to work with Dr. Fischione and his colleagues. This rotation was instrumental in my decision to pursue a career in forensic pathology.

Being a mentor means being encouraging and honest and sharing your passion for your specialty, as well as the inherent challenges. I’ve been actively involved in mentoring for three years, starting with a PGY-1 pathology resident followed by ATSU-SOMA students interested in pathology. As awareness of physician burnout increases, the importance of making informed career choices while following our passion has become clear. I am enormously grateful to my mentors and am honored to share the responsibility of mentoring the next generation of physicians.

Colleague / mentee

New Mexico native Sarah Usher, DMD, ’14, MPH, ’13, is the dental director for La Casa Family Health Center, a federally qualified health center (FQHC) in Roswell, New Mexico. She is an ATSU-ASDOH alumna and spends much of her time helping those with special needs.

While I have several mentors, Ray Lyons, DDS, has been an instrumental influence on in my post-doctoral path. He is a well-known special needs dentist in local and national communities and within professional organizations such as the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD) and Special Care Dentistry Association. Additionally, he is the only dentist in New Mexico who solely provides care to patients with special needs.

I met Dr. Lyons in 2014 when I started my Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the University of New Mexico. He became an active mentor as my residency attending and now is a colleague and friend. He even traveled from Albuquerque to Roswell to provide specialized training to my dental team so we too can provide the best care for patients with special needs.

Dr. Lyons is charismatic, patient, humble, and compassionate. He always thinks of others before thinking of himself and wants to share his knowledge of special needs. As a continual resource for clinical excellence, he extended my knowledge about implementing a sustainable dental home for patients with special needs, assisted me in navigating the professional dental community on local, state, and national levels, and encouraged me to serve as an advocate for my FQHC.

To me, being a mentor means being so selfless that you are willing to share your knowledge, time, and energy and focus on someone other than yourself. I have become a mentor as a board member and the student/resident adviser for AADMD. I enjoy working with students on their local volunteer endeavors and serving as a resource for professional and educational advancement.

Parent / mentee

Rebecca Anderson is a third-year dental student at ATSUMOSDOH. Although this is her first year seeing patients at the St. Louis Dental Education and Oral Health Center, she has been around dentistry her entire life.

To me, a mentor is someone who encourages me to keep learning and be the best I can be. A mentor also provides positive feedback and constructive criticism while being a positive role model.

My father, Dr. David Anderson, is my mentor and has greatly influenced me throughout my career path. He is an oral surgeon, and I was fortunate enough to start job shadowing him in eighth grade. I filed charts, assisted by stabilizing patients’ airways, and helped at the front desk with billing. I enjoyed watching procedures because he always made a connection with patients.

In 2013, he joined me on a study abroad opportunity to Nicaragua. We visited six different dental clinics and helped approximately 300 dental patients. It meant so much to me that he took time out of his busy schedule to spend two weeks helping Nicaraguans and teaching students about dentistry. It was one of my favorite experiences.

My dad is hardworking, smart, compassionate, and a great communicator. I talk to him every day, and he always encourages me to be better in every way. It was great to see how his work truly helps those in pain, and it made me want to help others as well. I am definitely influenced by his career and work ethic, but I am excited to take my own path within dentistry.

Mentoring matters

Mentors play a fundamental role in all stages of a healthcare professional’s career. For these ATSU students and alumni, their mentors have positively influenced the trajectory of their careers through support, guidance, and encouragement. Although each relationship is unique, these mentors seem to have one shared purpose – to help their mentees succeed.


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