May 1st, 2017
What They Neglected to Tell You About Classroom Practice in Graduate School

Harold I. Modell
Physiology Educational Research Consortium, Seattle, Washington
modell@physiologyeducation.org

As a postdoctoral fellow, I had a conversation with my mentor about teaching. He told me that you couldn’t be a good scientist if you were not a good teacher. His justification was that if you couldn’t communicate your research results to others, you couldn’t make a meaningful contribution to your discipline. At that time, teaching, in most faculty’s view, was synonymous with making a good presentation. “Good” classroom teaching was synonymous with “telling the story” through lectures and answering questions from students seeking clarification.

In the mid-1970s, the view of the classroom learning environment began to change. Research focused on how we learn and what “learning” means began to appear in the literature (1). As a result of this and ensuing research, the focus on the classroom environment changed from a teacher-centered, passive learning environment to a learner-centered, active learning environment. Terms such as cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning entered the education vocabulary. The list of terms has continued to grow and now includes team-based learning, flipped classroom, and case-based learning among others. With this classroom evolution, the role of the instructor has changed from being a provider of information and learning opportunities to a facilitator of learning within a learning community. Unfortunately, most graduate programs do not include specific training, other than being a teaching assistant in student laboratories, for this role in the classroom.

So, if I were to enter the classroom as a new instructor today, I would have a number of questions for which I would seek answers to help give me direction for preparing for my classroom experience. I will discuss each of these questions from the perspective of a physiology educator with over 40 years of experience working primarily with medical students. For each question, take a moment to reflect on how you would answer the question before reading my answer.

Question 1: What Kind of Learning Should I Try to Promote in My Classroom?
Many students seem to equate learning with acquisition of information. The goal of their studying seems to be memorizing and recalling information. It is interesting that they take this approach to learning only in school, whereas outside of school they approach their learning in a very different way. In school, their goal is passing exams, which, traditionally, have focused mainly on recalling facts or retelling a “story.” Outside of school, their goal is to use information to solve a problem or complete a task. They engage in what is called “meaningful learning” or “learning with understanding” (3).
If you ask students why they are in school, most, if they are in pre-professional or professional programs, will tell you that they want to be nurses or doctors or other healthcare professionals. Those students taking your course to satisfy distribution requirements may tell you that they want to understand how their bodies work so they can be informed consumers of healthcare services. Notice that each answer describes how they intend to use the information. In my experience, I have not encountered a single student who wanted to acquire enough facts to be a successful contestant on a television game show! If, in fact, the student wants to learn so that she/he can apply the information to solve problems, she/he should be focused on engaging in meaningful learning.

Question 2: How Do Students Engage in Meaningful Learning?
Think about something you learned to do outside of school. It can be anything (e.g., driving a car, learning to knit, buying a house, learning a language, playing a sport, playing an instrument, learning to navigate around a new city). What was the process that you went through to learn this? When faced with this question, students and faculty alike report a similar process. They have an idea (mental model) about what they are trying to learn, either without prior study or with prior study (e.g., reading instructions, doing some background reading, or viewing a video). They then try to do the task (i.e., solving the problem). Based on the success or failure of the trial, they seek additional information or clarification of their knowledge, revise their ideas, and try to do the task again. Students and faculty report that they learned whatever it is by “trial and error.” By calling the process “trial and error,” these learners do not seem to acknowledge the important step of revising their ideas (mental models) based on the outcome of the trial. This is the process by which they have learned to solve problems in their daily lives since they were born (1). We describe this process as building, testing, and refining mental models. It is the process described as “the scientific method.”

Question 3: What is the Instructor’s Role in the Meaningful Learning Process?
We cannot learn for our students. They must do the learning, and they must take responsibility for their own learning (10). So, if we want meaningful learning to occur in our classroom, is it sufficient that we provide resources (information) and learning opportunities (e.g., exercises, workshops) for our students, or do we have more to offer? As physiologists, we have advanced training in making sense of physiological mechanisms and solving physiological problems (e.g., through research). However, there are many instructors of physiology who do not have advanced training in physiology, but these instructors have advanced training in other science disciplines and are, therefore, familiar with the scientific method as a way of knowing. Thus we have much more to offer students than just providing resources and opportunities for learning. Indeed, our classroom can be learner-centered, in which our job is to help the learner to learn (3).

Question 4: What Must I Do to Help the Learner to Learn?
Changing your mindset from providing resources and opportunities to helping the learner to learn changes your whole approach to classroom practice. The focus changes from someone who “instructs” to someone who facilitates. To be a facilitator requires you to interact with the learners to find out what kind of help they need. In some cases, they need some basic information. In these cases, you should provide that information. In other cases, their current mental models may be faulty. In these cases, your job is to first help the student make their current model visible, then help them confront the limitations of their model, and, finally, help them engage in the process of revising their mental model (2). In other cases, students may need help testing their mental models. Again, your job is to model the process of testing their mental models. When fulfilling this role, you become a diagnostician as well as a mentor. You must ask yourself questions like, “What led the student to come to this conclusion?” and “How do I make sense of this mechanism?” Finally, “What question can I ask that will help the learner recognize the limitation of his/her mental model?” This is an iterative process (3). In this process, it is important to help students begin to think about how they think (i.e., engage in metacognition). In doing so, you, as a mentor, model the process of building models of physiological mechanisms and solving physiological problems.

Question 5: How Should I Design Learning Opportunities for My Students?
Physiology is a discipline concerned with mechanisms. As noted earlier, meaningful learning focuses on applying information that is being acquired. The overall goal of a physiology course then is to develop models of physiological mechanisms that can be used to solve physiological problems. The difference between an introductory course and an advanced course is the complexity of the problems to be solved. When designing a course or a learning opportunity, it makes sense to first ask, “What is the problem or problems that the learner should be able to solve at the end of the course or learning exercise?” Stated another way, “How should the student be able to use the content at the end of the learning session?” Thus the first step in designing educational resources is setting educational output objectives or performance goals (3, 5). We can think of the performance goals as the destination for a learning journey.

We now have a learning destination, but what is our embarkation point? We must recognize that students come to our courses with preexisting knowledge (mental models) and that, as they acquire new knowledge, they build on their current knowledge base (1). Aspects of these preexisting mental models may correctly apply to the topic being learned, whereas other aspects may be “faulty” with respect to the current content and accepted models (that is, misconceptions may exist). We can think of this student’s embarkation point as the “input state” (3). So, in our design scheme, our next step is to assess the input state. To do this, we must provide students with a task or ask them questions that will help make their current mental model (ideas) visible to us. In doing so, we also help students make their current mental models visible to themselves. An example of such a task may be to have them close their eyes and focus on their breathing. After several breaths, ask them to describe what they felt and what caused air to flow into the system during inspiration and gas to flow out during expiration.

We now have beginning and ending points for the journey; what remains are the transition steps that will help move learners from where they are to the performance goal. These steps may be a logical progression of questions that lead students to develop a model of the mechanism in question, a task that results in a causal diagram (flow diagram) of the mechanism, a concept map, or other visual organizer of the elements of the mechanism, examination of the system from a particular vantage point (8), a roleplay, or other active learning activity. Finally, we must assess the learners’ ability to carry out the performance goal. One way to do this is to present a perturbation of the model and ask the students to predict the results of the perturbation. (Will a variable value increase, decrease, or not change?) They must also be able to explain the basis for their prediction. Once the students are able to fulfill the performance goal, this destination becomes the embarkation point (input state) for the next performance goal (output state). This iterative process continues until the end of the session or course.

It is important during this process to help students recognize that we learn by building on previous knowledge and that many physiological mechanisms share common principles (4, 7). Hence, because life is cumulative, one question that students should be encouraged to ask is, “Where have I seen this before?” or “How is this like something that I already know?”

Question 6: How Do I Get Students to “Play the Game?”
The “helping the learner to learn” mindset requires the instructor to engage the learners in an interactive dialog. In addition, for students to engage in meaningful learning, they must engage each other in intellectual discussion (i.e., explore each other’s mental models). The challenge is to create a learning environment in which students are willing to share their thoughts. In general, students are reluctant to participate in such activities for a variety of reasons that include the following:

  • Based on prior experience, their expectations are not consistent with the meaningful learning experience; “Just tell me what I need to know to pass the course!” “I’m in competition with my peers.”
  • Contributing factors may involve self-confidence; “I don’t feel comfortable talking in front of groups.”
  • Fear may also play a role; “If I answer a question in class, it must be the right answer. Otherwise I may be ridiculed by the instructor or my peers.”

If the goal is to help the learner to learn, steps must be taken to address the reservations of the students (6). My approach to this challenge is to build a learning community within the classroom (9). Building community promotes a safe learning environment, encourages collaborative learning, provides emotional support among community members, and helps build long-lasting relationships among students and faculty. Although there are many approaches to building community, the necessary steps include the following goals: getting to know the community; setting community learning goals; setting community behavior guidelines; and reinforcing community spirit. All of these steps require discussion within the community. Some faculty argue that using class time to engage in such discussion is not advisable since it takes time away from “delivering the content.” However, the emphasis of community learning is on process (problem solving) rather than information acquisition. Once the learner is familiar with the process, acquisition of new information and incorporating this information into the framework of existing mental models is more efficient than it was in the earlier classroom model.

When time permits, small groups (groups of 4-6 students) develop a mission statement for the course, set learning goals, and set behavioral guidelines. This small group activity is then followed by a community discussion to reach consensus guidelines. When time is at a premium, the course syllabus may include suggested guidelines for community discussion. The following excerpt from a course syllabus illustrates such a statement:

Enrollment in this course entitles you to become a member of a learning community focused on developing the necessary skills and knowledge base to build a foundation for further study in physiology. Membership in this community carries certain rights and responsibilities. Make sure that you read the following statement of Community Rights and Responsibilities. By attending course activities, you agree to be a contributing member of this community.

Statement of Community Rights and Responsibilities
Members of the learning community have the right to expect a supportive learning environment in which they may reach their maximum potential for engaging in meaningful learning. The community should provide academic as well as emotional support for its members in an ethical and professional manner. Members of the community have responsibility for adhering to the practices and guidelines listed below.

  • Each member of the community takes responsibility for his/her individual learning as well as for contributing to the collective learning of the community.
  • Each member of the community arrives to course activities on time and prepared to engage in the topic(s) of the day. Note: Habitual tardiness will be interpreted as showing disrespect for the community and may compromise successful completion of the course.
  • Each member of the community shows respect for other members of the community and for the community learning environment by
    1) using cell phones responsibly during course activities; this includes using phones for texting, viewing e-mail, and accessing the web during breaks only
    2) using computers for engaging in course activities only
    3) refraining from using technology for activities that distract (individually and/or collectively) from the community focus
    4) providing encouragement for all community members to take intellectual risks
    5) sharing ideas and confusion about the topics being discussed
    6) being accepting of and sensitive to community members’ viewpoints
    7) being supportive when nonacademic stresses impact community members’ learning
    8) keeping potentially distracting side conversations to a minimum
    9) sharing concerns regarding the learning community
    10) keeping a sense of humor

Question 7: How Do I Know Whether it is Working?
One advantage of adopting the design scheme that I have described in a learning community setting is that the learning is driven by a series of performance goals (learning outcomes). Because each class period includes the instructor interacting with the learners, the learning environment has a built-in formative assessment component. During the course of this dialog, the instructor continuously assesses the progress of the “journey.” Thus the learning progression is monitored and redirected as needed on a daily basis.

The performance goals also provide the basis for summative assessment. Examinations should be focused on how well the student can do the performance goals. Exam questions may ask students to make predictions about how system variables will change when the system is perturbed and explain the basis for the prediction. Other options include asking students to solve a problem (e.g., predict what will happen to cardiac output, total peripheral resistance, cardiac contractility, and heart rate if mean arterial blood pressure falls suddenly), predict the results of an experiment (e.g., predict how the resting membrane potential of a neuron will change if the relative permeability of the membrane to potassium ions increases), or analyze a case description (e.g., a patient shows signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism; explain what tests you would run and what the expected outcomes of the tests would be to determine the site of pathophysiology in this patient). In each case, the students should be required to explain the reasoning behind his/her prediction. The emphasis of all assessment should be focused primarily on the how the student applied her/his mental model and secondarily on what information has been acquired.

Final Comments
A final advantage of adopting this mindset is that your classroom becomes your laboratory. By being a reflective practitioner, you can gain a wealth of information about how students learn, how they think about physiology, and what challenges they face as they build, test, and refine their mental models. As a result, new research questions come to mind. I encourage faculty to pursue these questions by becoming active in the educational research community. Design experiments that you can conduct in your own classroom or share your ideas and develop collaborative efforts through participation in the Teaching Section of APS, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS), the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER), or similar educationally focused organizations.

My goal for sharing these thoughts is to provide some direction for young faculty who are willing to adopt a “helping the learner to learn” mindset. Although I have not included many specific examples of how to accomplish the goals related to each of the questions that were discussed, specific examples may be found in the appropriate references listed. I invite you to contact me if you seek additional examples or answers to related questions.

References
Bransford JD, Brown AL, Cocking, RR (editors). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (Expanded Edition). Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.

McDermott LC. How we teach and how students learn. Ann NY Acad Sci 701: 9-20, 1993.

Michael JA, Modell HI. Active Learning in Secondary and College Science Classrooms: A Working Model for Helping the Learner to Learn. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge, 2003.

Michael J, Modell H, McFarland J, Cliff W. The “core principles” of physiology: What should students understand? Adv Physiol Educ 33: 10-16, 2009.

Modell HI. Why am I teaching this course? Setting educational objectives for course activities. Ann NY Acad Sci 701: 27-35, 1993.

Modell HI. Preparing students to participate in an active learning environment. Am J Physiol 270 (Adv Physiol Educ 15): S69-S77, 1996.

Modell HI. How to help students understand physiology? Emphasize general models. Adv Physiol Educ 23: 101-107, 2000.

Modell HI. Helping students make sense of physiological mechanisms: the “view from the inside.” Adv Physiol Educ 31: 186-192, 2007.

Modell HI. Steps for building a learning community in a medical physiology course (Abstract). FASEB J 29: 541.4, 2015.

Rogers C, Freiberg HJ. Freedom to Learn (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan College Publishing, 1994.

 

Harold Modell received his PhD in Physiology in 1971. He soon became interested in physiology education and active learning. This interest led to his developing computer-based simulations of respiratory physiology for student use (1975) and involvement on a national level in activities aimed at improving classroom practice. In 1985-1986, he was instrumental in establishing the Teaching of Physiology Section of the American Physiological Society, and, in 1988, Modell was named the founding editor of Advances in Physiology Education.

In 1989, he gave up bench science research in Respiratory Physiology in favor of educational research and development aimed at improving physiology education at the post-secondary level. Activities in this realm have included research, materials development, and faculty development in local, national, and international settings. In 2004, Modell received recognition for these efforts by being named the Claude Bernard Distinguished Lecturer of the Teaching Section of the American Physiological Society. He continues these efforts as Director of the Physiology Educational Research Consortium, and, until his retirement in 2015, was a faculty member at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.

April 3rd, 2017
On Mentorship, Perseverance, and Generosity

Ormond A. MacDougald
John A Faulkner Collegiate Professor of Physiology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

My approach to mentorship, lab management, and career development reflects not only my ideals but also the influence of many individuals during my training, and lessons learned from my trainees. The most significant figure in this regard was my postdoctoral advisor, M. Daniel Lane. As detailed in an In Memoriam written by Lane lab trainees (Mandrup et al. In memoriam: M. Daniel Lane, 1930-2014. Trends Endocrinol Metab 25: 437-439, 2014.), “Dan was a fantastic mentor who set a great and inspiring example as a scientist and leader, and who took exceptionally good care of his trainees from the minute they arrived until long after they left his lab.” The lab culture he created, along with our devotion to him and his wife Pat “glued several generations of alumni together as a large extended family, a legacy that will last for years.” He was a unique example of how to be a highly successful scientist, while also being universally recognized as a kind and caring man.

Why Do We Mentor?

I think of mentorship as a personal relationship in which I use my experience and knowledge to help others by providing guidance and promoting personal development. It is important to note that mentoring is not strictly an altruistic act—as researchers we create new knowledge and trained personnel, and to optimally train personnel requires more than just providing lab space and a supply budget. The thought and energy put into mentoring students and postdoctoral fellows often pays dividends back to the research enterprise and helps with recruiting new lab members. In addition, skills such as active listening that are honed while becoming a better mentor also transfer to other parts of our professional and personal lives. My experience has been that, when I put the requisite time and energy into mentoring, it ends up being among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of my day.

How to mentor is a more difficult question to address, and what follows are a few of my thoughts on this subject, some of which I hope will resonate with you. Although I’ve written this essay in the context of running a lab, most of the suggestions are applicable to broader contexts. When I think about the skills and habits associated with mentoring, many of these can be attributed to common sense; however, it’s a little like my experience reading books on financial planning or time management—simply reading about them periodically and having them in mind helps to keep me doing the right thing and from slipping into bad habits such as getting “too busy” to spend time with my trainees.

Although it would be great if we all had the mentoring skill set of Dan Lane, each of us has our own specific limitations in this department. Thus we soldier on with our given personality and emotional quotient. As with many challenges in life, we do our best to play on our strengths while working furiously to shore up our weaknesses. One factor we do have control over is actively thinking about our trainees and considering what we can do to help them develop and achieve their goals. It also helps to view these relationships as lifelong, which adds a layer of commitment and endurance that demands focus and respect. When all is said and done, the interactions we have had with trainees, although more difficult to quantify than many other aspects of our professional lives, may be among the most important accomplishments of our careers.

Be Transparent

In any relationship, it’s important that there be trust, and an important foundation for trust is transparency. Set the stage by discussing very early on what your expectations are of your trainee. Give honest and regular feedback, and not just in areas that need improvement. Don’t be afraid to cheerlead their successes to them, as well as to others! Discuss and debate ethical and responsible conduct of research, and be open about the problems of fraud and irreproducible results within science as a whole, and how these may be relevant within your lab.

The relationship also requires active and open participation from the mentee, which will help both of you determine whether the path the trainee is on is consistent with his or her skills and goals. Sometimes you need to have tough, open conversations, and even if the results of your discussion hurt, the process itself does not need to be hurtful. I was fortunate to have mentors who were forthcoming about their prior professional and personal life experiences, and I emulate that approach. Although I try not to give unsolicited advice, my hope is that my mentees will learn both from situations I have handled well and from mistakes I have made.
I also think it is important as mentors to be transparent about the reality associated with a life in academia—the challenges of research and running a lab, the shortage of time, the vagaries of grant funding, and the demands ongoing elsewhere in your life. How can they learn about lab management if we don’t discuss the budget? We don’t do our trainees any favors by shielding them from some of the less desirable aspects of the job—they need to go in with their eyes open. Having said that, I feel the competitive job market and tight NIH grant budgets have created too much angst and negativity toward careers in biomedical research, and I continue to stress what a privilege it is to be in that small part of society whose job is to create new knowledge and to train the next generation of scientists—and to note the many perks of a life in academia, where you are paid to be surrounded by bright and interesting people, have the opportunity to travel the world, and where you have tremendous flexibility in your work schedule.

Be Realistic

It would be great if all our trainees became biomedical researchers at major institutions and went on to win Nobel Prizes, but that obviously sets the bar more than a little high. Every trainee has a unique skillset and his or her own ambitions, and it’s really important for trainees to get on a path through life that is right for them. Although it’s not always easy, I try to meet them where they are at and where they are headed. This takes careful listening and not simply projecting onto them what my hopes and dreams are for their role in my lab. It becomes easier as I get to know them better, and I try to take an active interest in what is ongoing in their life. As faculty, we are professional decision makers, but, in the case of trainees, it’s important to suspend judgment and give them space to figure out their own path. It’s also unrealistic to think that you can serve as a mentor to all. For some individuals, the “fit” or “chemistry” is such that you simply aren’t the right person to serve as a mentor—and that’s okay.

Keep the Long View in Mind

Although micromanagement is a perfectly viable approach to having a productive lab, I don’t feel that it’s the best training approach. It’s tempting to take the easy road out and tell our trainees what to do, but that is only good in the short term. Empowering our trainees to make and take responsibility for their own decisions will help them become independent in the long run. We all learn by making mistakes, and a period of “chasing butterflies” is often critical for trainees to hone their instincts for what experiments will work and which are unlikely to succeed—for balancing decisions of risk and yield.

In addition to the mentoring advice above, I would also like to share two additional thoughts with you.

Persevere

When I first started at the University of Michigan as a young assistant professor, my chairman assigned Christin Carter-Su, a former winner of the Bodil Schmidt-Neilson award, to be my official departmental mentor. In my first meeting with Christy, she asked me, “What does it take to become a full professor at the University of Michigan?” After stammering something about the importance of recruiting, hard work, creativity, strategic planning, and other stream-of-consciousness, she replied, “Yes to all those, but what it really takes is perseverance.” She warned me that there would be bumps in the road—rejected papers, grants not funded, lectures gone awry—but that those happened to everyone and shouldn’t be taken personally. Christy also told me that how I handled those bumps would be the difference between success and failure—don’t let them get me down, view them as challenges to be met, and learn from them rather than give up. It was great advice that I share with my trainees and which I am happy to share here.

In addition to those challenges mentioned above, you may encounter someone—could be your boss, a colleague, or perhaps even a trainee—with whom your relationship is intractable, despite your best efforts. Although this could be an excellent opportunity to work on your diplomacy, patience, and people skills, sometimes this is a situation that you just need to persevere through. If serious enough, it may even be necessary to extract yourself from the situation. The reality is that we often learn just as much or even more from negative situations than from positive ones. Thus even difficult relationships can be formative and positive if you carefully note which behaviors you choose to emulate.

Be Generous

One of Dan Lane’s great traits was his generosity. Some of my fondest memories from my time in his lab were the times spent in his home—the celebrations for trainees when they graduated or got jobs, the warm ambiance and atmosphere of his Christmas parties, or the time at his kitchen table going through my fellowship application. I have tried to emulate Dan’s generosity by opening my home to those around me. And, like him, I also try to be generous with my time. Consistency of behavior and ample time spent with mentees are important for developing a relationship and trust. Students and fellows also benefit tremendously if you are generous with your professional and personal network, since this will help them open doors and achieve their goals.
I have benefited tremendously from people in my life who have given freely of their time, energy, and finances. Although I can’t in many cases pay them back directly, I try to pay the debt forward to the next and future generations. If you feel similarly, please mentor those coming up behind you and also give what you can to financially support their education and research opportunities. In these uncertain times at the NIH, philanthropy is becoming more and more integral to our funding of biomedical research and all stages of education.

Many thanks to my former and current trainees, as well as Christy Carter-Su, for their editorial and other comments.

Ormond A. MacDougald, Ph.D. is the John A Faulkner Collegiate Professor of Physiology at the University of Michigan.  After receiving his B.Sc (Agr) from the University of Guelph, he obtained an M.S. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and postdoctoral training with Dan Lane at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Biological Chemistry. His long-standing research interests have centered around adipocyte differentiation and metabolism. Ormond is a previous recipient of the Henry Pickering Bowditch Lectureship from the APS. When not in the lab Ormond spends time with his wife and four children, and loves to putter in his wood shop.
December 8th, 2016
Getting Connected with Women in Science

We all know that professional networking is an important part of climbing the ladder to success. What might you gain from building a network of colleagues? You may develop comradery, friendships, confidants, and mentors to help guide you in your career. Networks may expose you to new ideas, provide scientific collaborations, expand your influence, and alert you to opportunities. But how do you build this network? Networking can be awkward and time-consuming, and conflict with your struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Don’t let this push networking to the back burner. If you sit back and wait for the network to come to you, it might not come knocking on your door. You must be willing to devote time and energy to building your network. What if you are shy or introverted? Do you really need to get out there and get to know people in your scientific field? The answer is a big fat, YES! The best way to have a strong professional network is to build it yourself. Look for successful women in science, introduce yourself, and ask them questions about their path to success. Build a mentoring and professional network to help you navigate the next step in your career. Dismiss the myth that asking for help means that you are weak or incompetent. It is important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses; to capitalize on your strengths and find ways to improve your weaknesses. In fact, knowing who and when to ask for help could provide you with the “leg up” that you need to navigate the path to success. Asking for help communicates to others that, although you may not have all of the answers, you are willing to find out strategies to address these weaknesses. Use these relationships for exchange and promotion of ideas and information. Continue the networking conversation by following up with someone you’ve recently met at an event. For a network to be successful, the interactions should be continued over a suitable period of time and not just a one-time meeting. You might send them an e-mail when you return to work and make arrangements to meet during upcoming events. Say yes to serving on committees, and be an active and vocal member. Learn the names of the people on the committees and contact them outside of the committee service. You must be willing to do the work and ask for the type of help that you need, or you may be passed over when it really counts. Mentors may not know what you need as a mentee. Since your mentor may be your research advisor, a postdoctoral fellow in the next lab, a faculty member in the department, or a scientist you met at a national or international meeting, you may need to help each other figure out what type of mentoring relationship will provide the best outcomes. You want to feel connected, supported, and inspired as you build the professional network.

Advantages of Connecting with Women

For some female scientists, they may not perceive an advantage of gaining a mentoring relationship with female over male scientists. Male mentors might predominantly focus their efforts on your scientific goals, whereas female mentors are more likely to focus on guiding your life inside and outside of science. Many female scientists have experienced novel guidance from female mentors and role models. Female scientists are positioned to share their personal experiences with conscious or unconscious gender discrimination in science. By sharing their stories, female mentors may prepare their mentees to handle these types of encounters if they occur in the future or help mentees look in retrospect at discriminatory events. Female mentors may encourage you to be more direct in asking for what you need and in making your career goals clear to those around you. Women often need to be encouraged to value their knowledge, skills, and contributions to science, and not to underestimate their value and worth. Don’t be afraid to ask successful women in science to share their secrets of how they have succeeded in a male-dominated career. Learning how the “good old boys” club works is not likely to be shared with you by male mentors; instead, women who have discovered how the system works can guide you into making strong connections and gaining experience. Don’t wait to be invited as a scientific symposium speaker; propose a symposium and place yourself as a speaker. Don’t patiently wait to be asked to give a research seminar within your institution or outside of your institution; chair a scientific session, serve as member of a committee, review abstracts, or serve as a judge. Volunteer your services and get in the middle of science instead of looking in from the outside. Many female mentees find that women mentors are able to share their experiences in maintaining a healthy life and work balance. Because these women have gone through the challenges of handling marriage, pregnancy, and child care with the demands of a scientific career, they may offer concrete suggestions on how to manage these many demands on your time. In fact, time management is very important, since it will focus your efforts on what needs to be accomplished in the laboratory in the upcoming week so that you’ll have time for your personal life.

Connect Informally with Women at Your Institution

I have found that getting connected with women in science is important for guiding my career forward and providing me the forum to mentor junior women in science. I hope that you are inspired to take a closer look at the women in your institution that may serve as a part of your scientific network. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to be mentored by many successful women in science. I’ve found that it is worth the time and effort to seek out and serve on committees that are designed to serve women in science as well as committees to serve the department, university, societies, and organizations. My exposure to the benefits of meeting female colleagues, finding out the types of research that they conduct, and sharing difficulties and successes in science began as a first-year graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans. At the time, there was one female faculty member in the department of physiology. She invited the female graduate students to lunch, and I was the only student who was available. I was amazed that a senior faculty member could take the time to get to know me. These lunches grew to include female postdoctoral fellows, technicians, and faculty. I looked forward to these times to get away from the campus and have a nice lunch in a nearby restaurant. I had the opportunity to really get to know the graduate students, fellows, and female faculty in my department. Also during this time, she arranged for women faculty in the school to meet for lunch on a regular basis. At these networking events, I was able to learn from basic and clinical scientists about strategies to balance work and family, maintain resiliency, and become a successful woman in science. Maintaining a positive outlook and preventing burnout are important behaviors to learn in the highly competitive field of science. When the senior scientist left Tulane, I took over the role of continuing the physiology networking lunches until my departure. Now, I’ve begun a “Junior Women in Physiology Faculty Networking Luncheon” at LSUHSC and enjoy our time together. You may want to start your own networking luncheons at your institution. Also, I hope that you’ll accept invitations from members of your department and institution to participate in social networking events. These meetings may provide a forum to discuss issues related to 1) authorship order on manuscripts, 2) strategies for grant proposals, 3) collaborations on research projects, 4) promotion and tenure, and 5) work and life balance, to name a few. Be sure to start close to home and connect with women in your department and institution.

Connect Formally with Women at Your Institution

You might be surprised how serving on a committee at your institution may provide a unique perspective of success in academics. Serving on multiple committees for the school of medicine has fostered my interaction with basic scientists, clinicians, and university administrators. Working in these capacities has provided the forum for me to develop relationships with members of the school that I would not normally encounter if I focused all of my attention on my own department. Serving on committees may help you gain the bigger picture of what is going on at your institution. By sharing information, practices, education, and experiences, women can accelerate the advancement of women in science.

Connect with Women in Your Scientific Societies

It is never too early in your career to develop a supportive network. Be sure to develop friendships with fellow graduate students who share common research interests. Like you, they will become the scientists of the future. They may be able to help you find the right person to answer questions about methods, strategies for advancement, finding a fellowship, and how to gain teaching experience, to name a few examples. They can also be life-long friends with which you can share your successes and challenges during your entire career. As an assistant professor, I was appointed to the American Physiological Society Women in Physiology Committee. This was my first experience serving as a member of a scientific society committee. At the time, I thought that I was too junior to serve on a societal committee and almost declined the invitation. Many scientific organizations have trainee members on committees and may have an entire committee run by trainees and devoted to the specific challenges of graduate students and fellows. I learned a great deal from the women chairing and working on the committee. These successful female physiologists taught me how to positively impact the career success of women in physiology by implementing the symposia we hosted at the Experimental Biology meetings that were specifically designed to address issues related to being a successful female physiologist. I did not realize that my serving on one societal committee may lead to my serving on another committee in the same organization. Later, I was appointed to the American Physiological Society Membership Committee, for which I served as a member for 2 years and as the chair for 3 years. I worked closely with the members of the committee as well as the American Physiological Society staff. I gained confidence in leading a team, implementing new initiatives, and realizing that I could make a difference. During my time as chair of the committee, I had the opportunity to attend the annual summer council meetings, which broadened my circle of colleagues and my knowledge of their scientific area of expertise. At the time that I accepted the position of chair, I did not know that I would have the opportunity to attend the summer meeting with my fellow committee chairs, councilors, and presidents. Name and face recognition provided me with an extended scientific family. Looking back, I can see that saying yes the first time opened the door for my continued participation in the mission of the society. During this time, I was appointed to the American Society of Nephrology, Women in Nephrology Programming Committee, for which I served for 8 years. My major contribution to the mission of the committee was to organize scientific symposia topics that included female speakers for the annual American Society of Nephrology meetings. In addition to attending the business meetings held during the annual meetings, we also gathered each year for a group dinner. The conversations at the dinners were often the most informative for gaining strategies to optimize my career success while balancing the time that I needed to have a rewarding and fulfilling personal life. As a member of this committee, I was able to connect with female nephrologists and renal physiologists. Continued service to the American Physiological Society as a member of the Education Committee cemented my relationships with the society staff members and physiologists with a commitment to further education initiatives in K-12. Without serving on these committees, I would not have developed long-lasting female scientist mentors who have assisted me with research ideas, strategies for career advancement, and invitations to give seminars and symposia, as well as provided letters of support for promotion. At the time that I said yes to serving on the committees, I did not realize the positive impact these women would have on my career trajectory. Be proactive in your volunteer service to societal organizations. Many committees would welcome a new member who is enthusiastic about contributing to the mission of the society. Trainees and junior faculty need to find a balance between the time commitment spent on research and service. Be careful that your time devoted to service does not hinder your career trajectory.

Connect with Women in Your Geographical Region

More recently, my time has been spent as a founding member, active participant, and secretary of the Southern Louisiana chapter of the Association for Women in Science. The chapter is dedicated to empowering women in science and technology by providing a platform for networking opportunities and career development programs, and to promoting an interest in science among girls and young women. In many ways, my service to this chapter is a compilation of my efforts honed while a member of societal committees. I’m in the position to gain mentoring from senior female faculty and to serve as a mentor for junior women in science in the geographical region. There is an intangible benefit to getting to know both the scientist and the person. Developing a working relationship with female scientists from basic and clinical science in the region has provided a larger and more diverse professional network. Contributing to education outreach and professional development programs offered by the chapter has provided me with a venue for me to reach out and mentor young women in science. It is rewarding to have a positive impact on the education and careers of young women in science. You may not have to look very far to find an established group of women in science in which to participate in your geographical region.

Summary

Networking expands opportunities within company walls and externally. It allows women to find role models and mentors inside the department, institution, region, nationally, and internationally. Of course, one can have many mentors, male and female; to help grow into the scientist, teacher, and person you want to be. Social connection and professional engagement can make your job more interesting, rewarding, and enduring. I hope that you will look for and engage in formal and informal gatherings that promote women professionals connecting with each other. Take a break from your desk or bench and get out to meet and learn from others. Invest more of your time building relationships instead of keeping your head to the grindstone. I hope that you find many new avenues for career development, advancement, and self-fulfillment by building and maintaining an effective professional network of mentors and colleagues.

Lisa is grateful for the assistance in the preparation of this article provided by Michael G. Levitzky, Kathleen H. McDonough, and the members of the Southern Louisiana Chapter of the Association of Women in Science.

Harrison-Bernard 2010[1]

 

 

Lisa M Harrison-Bernard, PhD is a New Orleans native who graduated from the University of New Orleans in 1984 with a Bachelor’s degree with a major in Biology and a minor in Chemistry.  She graduated from Tulane University in 1990 with a doctorate in Physiology and continued with 4 years of postdoctoral training with Drs. Pamela Carmines and Gabriel Navar at Tulane Medical School. She joined the Tulane Physiology faculty in 1994 and rose through the ranks to Associate Professor in 2003. She joined the Physiology department at LSUHSC in New Orleans in 2004. Her research has been funded from the National Kidney Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the American Heart Association.
Her research focuses on the prevention and reversal of diabetic kidney disease and the role of the renin-angiotensin system in the progression of renal disease in type II diabetes.
She has published 58 scientific papers and is currently a member of the Editorial Review Board for the American Journal of Physiology: Renal Physiology, Physiological Reports, and 3 other scientific journals.  She regularly serves on grant review committees of the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health.  Society memberships are held in American Physiological Society and the Association for Women in Science.  She is active in community outreach and education with an emphasis on increasing minorities and women in STEM fields.

September 19th, 2016
APS Mentoring Forum

This blog is the future home of the APS Mentoring Forum. The APS Mentoring Forum articles are managed by the APS Women in Physiology Committee. They are published in The Physiologist and online every other month and cover all aspects of mentoring relevant to today’s trainees at all stages of their careers (graduate, postdoctoral, early career).