Your Colleagues

Personal experience key to Biehl’s mentoring approach

Peter Biehl poses with students he's mentored in the excavation trench at Çatalhöyük, Turkey

Peter Biehl (back row, far left) and the international UB Çatalhöyük West Mound team with master's and PhD students, as well as postdocs from UB and the universities of Paris X, York, Oxford, Flinders, Sorbonne, Helsinki, Skopje, Kiel and Free University Berlin in the excavation trench. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Biehl

By SUE WUETCHER

Published July 10, 2018

headshot of Peter Biehl
“We all need someone who’s been in our shoes to lend us a hand.”
Peter Biehl, professor of anthropology and associate dean for international education and enrollment
College of Arts and Sciences

Peter Biehl knows all about the challenges faced by postdoctoral scholars — particularly international postdocs.

A native of Germany — he received his PhD in archaeology from the University of the Saarland in Saarbrücken — Biehl was a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1990s, and has taught at the universities of Halle, Freiburg, Paris and Cambridge.

“I know how much mentoring matters at the start of an academic career, particularly for international postdocs, and how that attention can define your outlook and career,” says Biehl, professor of anthropology and associate dean for international education and enrollment in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I got tremendous support from mentors, whom I’ve tried to emulate.”

At UB, Biehl works with postdocs primarily in his role as director of the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology. “I would not have been able to publish the results of my 12-year archaeological field project in Çatalhöyük, Turkey, without my international postdocs,” he says. “Their work and dedication also underpin the success we’ve had with the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology.”

Biehl’s postdocs are equally grateful for his time and attention. One calls Biehl “a strong intellectual role model” who allowed the postdoc “the space necessary to complete my research as I saw fit, yet always ready to provide advice and guidance when necessary.”

Another says Biehl regularly implemented professional development training for postdocs, through which I learned to reframe and enhance many aspects of my dossier and prepare for interviews; I subsequently ended up landing several interviews and was a finalist for two tenure-track positions.”

And yet another points out that Biehl stresses a balance between personal life and professional career, noting his mentor “has been understanding of and accommodating towards my work/family balance, and has provided helpful advice to manage all facets of one’s career and family life.”

Biehl recently was recognized for his mentoring by the Office of Postdoctoral Scholars in the Graduate School, which presented him with the Distinguished Postdoc Mentor Award at the 10th annual Postdoc Research Symposium on June 13.

The award was established in 2009 to recognize UB faculty members who excel in the mentoring of postdoctoral scholars, and to highlight the importance of effective and intentional mentoring of postdocs.

Nominees are submitted by postdoctoral scholars from UB, Roswell Park, UB’s Research Institute on Addictions and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.

The Postdoc Research Symposium, held to recognize the achievements of postdoctoral scholars, featured poster presentations, and a three-minute presentation competition in which postdoc presenters described their work to an audience in non-expert terms, using only one static slide as a visual aid.

In addition to Biehl, five postdocs were specifically recognized at the symposium.

Winners in the poster competition were Megan Jones, Department of Oral Biology, first place; John Tooley, Department of Biochemistry, second place; and Ken Wakabayashi, Research Institute of Addictions, third place.

Marie Saitou, Department of Biological Sciences, was awarded first place in the three-minute presentation contest, while Sutanuka Bhattacharjya, Department of Rehabilitation Science, received the second-place award.

In presenting Biehl with the mentoring award, Graham Hammill, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School, described him as “not only approachable and an excellent research adviser,” but said he “imparts a nurturing and welcoming environment for postdoctoral scholars to grow under his mentorship.”

Biehl says his mentoring philosophy is simple: always keep the office and lab door open.

“I stress collaboration and teamwork, and work to spark passion and curiosity in students,” he says. “I make myself accessible to them and encourage them to talk to me when they are struggling with a topic, a line of thought or in their personal lives.

“Trust in a mentor and having a sounding board is, I think, invaluable in academic success.” 

Biehl says that once postdocs are “excited and intellectually emboldened,” he works with them on time management, and research and publication planning. He holds monthly professional development sessions with the postdocs that include mock job interviews and model job talks, as well as discussions and critiques of research. 

He says the professional development phase of mentoring “can only work if students feel connected and safe to discuss both their successes and failures. That’s where learning and breakthroughs occur.”

Biehl is one of the few recipients of the Postdoc Mentoring Award whose field is outside the physical sciences. He says he believes successful mentoring strategies apply to all mentors — no matter the discipline or field.

“Mentoring is essential for students at all levels; the discipline doesn’t matter,” he says. “We all need someone who’s been in our shoes to lend us a hand.”

Biehl says he’s thrilled to see more national and international foundations creating funding opportunities for postdocs in such fields as interpretative social sciences, humanities and the arts. “For me, this is essential. Postdocs are the backbone of all research,” he says. “They are also the future.”