Mentor and Mentee: A Win-Win

With several collaborative studies behind them, Justin Taylor, M.D., and mentee Skye Montoya look forward to even more promising research.

Skye Montoya knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a medical career. However, it wasn’t until she was an undergraduate nursing major that she recognized she preferred behind-the-scenes research to clinical care.

“I realized pretty quickly that I was more enthused with the science behind my work,” she recalled. “I was really interested in the ‘why’ of medicine.”

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher and mentor Justin Taylor, M.D., with mentee Skye Montoya
Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher and mentor Justin Taylor, M.D., with Skye Montoya.

In March 2021, as a University of Miami Miller School doctoral student in cancer biology, she joined a research team in the laboratory run by Justin Taylor, M.D., a member of the Translational and Clinical Oncology Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and assistant professor in the Division of Hematology at the Miller School. There, she has worked on blood cancer mechanisms and translational patient therapies, publishing two papers in prestigious science journals.

Opening Doors for Her Next Step

In 2022, she co-authored a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that tracked acquired resistance to a new and effective treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Researchers discovered never-before-seen gene mutations that make patients resistant to the drug that inhibits the Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) enzyme used by cancer cells for growth and survival.

In February of this year, she was first author of a study published in Science that showed that the aforementioned mutations resistant to BTK inhibitors fall into two functional categories. Moreover, the team found that NX-2127, a therapy still being developed, showed promising results for patients with relapsed CLL.

Skye Montoya seated in front of a computer displaying the Science article she co-authored
Skye Montoya says Dr. Taylor played a big part in the Science article for which she was first author.

Garnering prestigious publication credits as a doctoral student is unusual, but Montoya attributes much of her early success to Dr. Taylor’s mentoring. In fact, their mentor-mentee relationship has helped Montoya network with renowned scientists and navigate complex scientific questions.

“Publishing [in Science] has certainly opened a lot of doors for me at top labs for postdoctoral positions, and Justin played a big part in that,” she said. “He’s truly selfless. He’s always doing things that can benefit his mentees.”

The mentor-mentee relationship is special, with both sides of the equation gaining tangible and intangible rewards.

“He offers the support I need while also encouraging me to independently tackle each challenge,” she said. “He asks, ‘What are your goals for a post-doc?’ and then suggests ways I can achieve these goals and build upon what I’ve already done in my Ph.D.”

Montoya, in turn, introduced Dr. Taylor to a new lab technique that he had never used.

“You learn from your mentees, too,” Dr. Taylor explained. “They bring so much enthusiasm and energy with them. It keeps my own excitement for science alive.”

Every mentor-mentee association is different. The Taylor-Montoya one is less formal. The two might meet once a week to discuss project directions or career goals, but Montoya doesn’t have to wait for an official invitation.

“He has an open-door policy which allows me to go in and seek input on my experimental planning and the subsequent interpretation of my results whenever I need to,” Montoya said.

Mentoring as Dialogue

Dr. Taylor believes a mentor should tailor his efforts to a mentee’s needs and goals. It’s not a top-down conversation, “but more of a dialogue, and I like for them to come with their own ideas. I think I’m a very involved mentor, but I also believe in giving mentees their independence. It’s about providing guidance, not a recipe.”   

Montoya, a recipient of the Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA for Individual Predoctoral Fellows Award from the National Cancer Institute, aspires to an academic research career. Dr. Taylor uses his connections to alert her to job openings at top labs, introduce her to other scientists and encourage her to attend national scientific meetings.

“The idea is for each student to meet their potential, and that can vary depending on their goals,” he said.

Mentoring students is important for Dr. Taylor, who cites the help of mentors for his career success.

“I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had really great mentors,” he said. “Without those people, there’s no way I would be where I am today.”

Like Dr. Taylor, Montoya also wants to pay it forward.

“I absolutely want to be a mentor,” she said. “I want others to have what I’ve had. It’s a very rewarding experience.”

Tags: Dr. Justin Taylor, mentoring, Skye Montoya, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center