Dr. Richard Kennedy Reflects on Why Mentors Matter

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

Dr. Richard Kennedy has served as a mentor during two different cohorts of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship and plans to continue to help out in the future. Dr. Kennedy, an associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, understands the impact a mentor can have on an emerging researcher’s work. He still remembers the difference his mentors made in his career. 

In undergrad, Dr. Kennedy studied computer science. So when he decided to focus on neurobiology for his graduate studies at the University of Mississippi he had to take on lab research he’d never done before. 

“The mentor that I had then was absolutely wonderful as far as teaching me about the process of science and how we go about doing research,” he says of Jim Hutchins, who now works at the University of Utah. “He was incredibly patient and very easy to work with. That really made a difference that he was just such a good teacher, and so patient in his work, to keep me on the path and make sure that I didn’t give up along the way.”

Another standout mentor for him at the University of Mississippi was Paula Trzepacz.

“She was probably one of the brightest people I’ve ever known,” he recalls. “She was a very deep thinker about how the brain works and very enthusiastic about her work. She really enjoyed it and that was very contagious as well. I like to tell people that I can’t remember ever having a conversation with her where I didn’t come away excited about the stuff that I was doing.”

Being a mentor to Albert Schweitzer Fellows gives Dr. Kennedy an opportunity to pay it forward. 

“Having them show me what a mentor could be, helped me want to do the same,” he says. “I probably don’t measure up nearly as well as they did in their job, but I like to at least try.”

In 2022, Dr. Kennedy was recognized as Mentor of the Year. The fellows who nominated him for the honor stated that Dr. Kennedy went above and beyond to help them with their project. 

“The amount of effort and time he has taken with us and this project is incredible,” one fellow remarked. “Even when I lost faith in the project, he was always kind, respectful, and positive towards the possibility of our work.”

So what does it take to be a good mentor?

“I don’t think it’s one size fits all,” Dr. Kennedy says. A mentor and mentee need similar work styles and they need personalities that mesh well. 

“But I think the main thing as far as being a mentor is really being able to guide someone else to be able to help them benefit from your experience, but letting them also grow in their own way,” Dr. Kennedy says. “The direction their career is going to take them is probably going to be different from yours and you have to be able to let them grow into their career and their own person but still take a very deep interest in what they’re doing. Not just what they’re doing for their job, but what they’re doing as a person to help them to be able to succeed.”

Dr. Kennedy believes good mentors can also recognize the potential in the people they’re advising. And he believes the type of researchers that make the best candidates for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship are those that have the same passion and enthusiasm he saw in his former mentor. 

Because the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship focuses on service, Dr. Kennedy believes the most successful fellows are those that see their project as one important step toward making a difference in a community. 

“You really have to have an interest in something that’s a little bit bigger than you and what you’re doing and a little bit bigger than just the person you’re sitting across from trying to help in the moment,” he says.

A commitment to a greater cause will keep fellows motivated when they’re faced with challenges during their projects or when they’re dealing with mundane or tedious tasks. 

Dr. Kennedy believes passion is key for every researcher at every stage of their career. 

“I’ve seen a number of people that I’ve worked with who’ve been very bright, but they see it as just a job that they’re doing and when they encounter some difficulties, which we all do, then they don’t really have anything to keep them going,” he says. 

Dr. Kennedy, a geriatrics researcher who studies diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and delirium, has plenty to be excited about right now in his line of work. In recent years he’s seen an increase in the amount of research being done on delirium. 

“There used to be a very small number of people doing research in this area,” he says. “But over the last five to 10 years, it’s really grown quite a lot and we’re drawing people in from so many different fields. It’s very gratifying and also very intellectually challenging to be working with all these different groups of people. They may come from neurobiology, geriatrics, pulmonology, emergency medicine, or pharmacy, and I get to work with all those different people and have something in common with them that we’re all working towards.”

Additionally, researchers are uncovering ways not only to treat but also to prevent delirium. 

“For the longest time, we really just saw delirium as a short-term problem that would need to be medicated,” Dr. Kennedy explains. “Now we’re recognizing that there are things that lead up to delirium, medical problems that if we treat them very early can probably keep someone from developing delirium, rather than having to treat it after it occurs.”

These things can be as simple has making sure hospitalized people take walks or making sure people have hearing aids or glasses, if needed. 

When he’s not working, Dr. Kennedy enjoys woodworking, hiking, camping and spending time with his wife and two sons. And of course, he enjoys helping emerging researchers as much as he can. 

“I’m just very glad that I did have the chance to get associated with the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship,” he says. “And I certainly intend to keep it up.”