Zari Zavala-Ruiz is currently the Director of Scientific Program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus (Janelia) and an Executive Coach at ZZ Coaching. She received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras (UPR) and earned her PhD in biological chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shortly after she finished her PhD degree, and before moving to Janelia, she was a tenured Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Co-Director of the Macromolecular X-ray Crystallography Facility at UPR.
As a Director of Scientific Programs at Janelia, she has obtained extensive experience in research lab management, scientific program management, team-building facilitation, leadership empowerment, and has a strong reputation for mentoring students, postdocs, and independent investigators. As an Executive Leadership Coach, with fundamental experience in driving new levels of success for Scientists transitioning to leadership roles (including assistant professors) and other business leaders, she leverages leadership development and growth skills to manage performance by pinpointing key areas of growth.
What qualities do you seek to embody as a mentor?
Mentoring is not a mathematical equation; each person is unique, with specific priorities and goals. As a mentor, it’s important for me to create safe and respectful space where mentees can open up about their experiences, the challenges they are trying to navigate, and what motivates them. To accomplish this, I do my best (best because we are not always perfect and I’m a lifelong learner) to be a reflective, compassionate, and an empathetic listener. I’m always happy to share my experience as well as the challenges and lessons I have learned along the way.
What advice would you give to graduate students seeking to cultivate mentoring relationships in their life?
Students should be honest about their goals and priorities. In addition, they should never feel afraid to ask for what they need from their mentors, and at the same time they should set realistic expectations for the relationship. When looking for a mentor, they should identify individuals (it’s okay to have more than one mentor) with careers that match the type of career(s) they are hoping to explore and learn more about, or whose background (personal and/or professional) seems to be a good fit for them.
What advice/lesson has a mentor given you that has left a lasting impact?
The best advice I have been given by a mentor, and that I use in my personal and professional life, is to be courageous and to be willing to take a step forward into the ‘unknown’. This will allow me to tap into my creativity. If when taking that step, things don’t work out, then we should not take that as a failure, but as an opportunity to reflect, learn and to grow.