Caroline B. Appleyard, PhD, Ponce School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Puerto Rico
What is a mentor?
According to Webster’s dictionary being a mentor is defined as ‘a wise and trusted counselor or teacher’ (1), more recently ‘a trusted counselor or guide’ (2), or on google ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’. The common theme here appears to be trust which holds up to my own perception and experience that as a mentor you are privileged by the fact that someone has chosen to place their trust in you and believes that you have their best interests at heart in your efforts to guide them. When I was asked to write an article based on my experiences and insights on mentorship for underrepresented minorities I really had to think about what mentoring means to me and try to articulate how I mentor. For the last 20 years I have been on faculty at a Hispanic-serving institution located in the south of Puerto Rico and have been fortunate to mentor over 100 underrepresented minority students (undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral) either within my laboratory or through our graduate training program. Each of these experiences has been unique, and often both rewarding and challenging.
My introduction to mentoring
My own awareness of having a ‘mentor’ versus a Laboratory Principal Investigator during my scientific training didn’t really become apparent until I started my postdoctoral training in the early 1990s and heard of mentoring programs under various professional societies. Although the word’s origins date back to the mid-18th century the popularity of the concept of mentoring appears to have blossomed during the last 20 years perhaps in part by an increased understanding of the importance of role models to achieving equity in science for both, women and underrepresented populations (3). Although I am not considered an underrepresented minority (by ethnicity) it is notable that throughout my undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate education in Britain, Canada and the United States there was one common denominator – a lack of female role models. I have never been taught by a woman. Further, it was very obvious that the vast majority of the professors, and later colleagues, were both male and white. Although slowly changing, it is unfortunate that the numbers of underrepresented groups in academia and the sciences still remain low (4).
During my post-doctoral studies in Canada and South Dakota I first became aware of the hardships faced by Native Americans in science. One of my prior mentees that I remember the best was a young girl pursuing summer research in the lab at the University of South Dakota. She told me that it was completely expected for her to get pregnant and leave high school like the rest of her family, and that the summer program opened her eyes to a whole range of other possibilities. It was at that time that I became aware of the potential impact of STEM outreach. Dr. Barb Goodman (long time American Physiological Society (APS) member and Physiology Understanding (PhUn) week advocate) was already very involved in going into the local schools in Vermillion, South Dakota, to expose the kids to science. She told us about her experiences and this was illuminating for me since I had received very little information during my schooling as to what a career in science might entail, aside from the pharmaceutical industry. I began to appreciate that for many students, the path towards a successful career in science should depend on things other than luck, such as guidance towards opportunities and how to make the most of these. This has become readily apparent as we appreciate the difference that successful targeted research mentoring can make in an effort to overcome inequities in retention of minorities in the sciences (5). When I was asked to become the Graduate Student Association Advisor I became aware that the students within our graduate program were asking for additional training and had an interest in improving their competitiveness for life after graduate school. I also noticed that there were issues which were hindering the students’ progress so that many times they were underperforming not due to lack of ability, but rather a lack of mentoring.
Mentoring Styles – How does mine fit?
As I started my own lab I ‘mentored’ my own students how I would have liked to be mentored, trying to set guidelines, expectations, milestones and deadlines. I learnt that what worked for some (strict deadlines and constant follow up) would not work for others. We are all individuals and respond to stress and obligations in different ways. It has always been very important to me to stress to my trainees that what they want to achieve in life is a very personal decision and I see success in all forms. I have had to adapt my own way of ‘balancing’ things as someone who completed graduate school and had a family later in life, to help provide advice to students in my laboratory who have been through all stages of family life while completing their studies (single, engaged, married, pregnant, children, divorce). I have tried to provide an open space encouraging my mentees to identify their own passions and what interests them. It is important for them to realize that there is ‘no right way’ and that our depth and amalgamation of background experiences help to shape our research and our contributions to our scientific endeavors. However, I strongly believe that it is also extremely important that when one enters a mentoring situation there is a realization that a commitment is being made on both sides which must be upheld for the outcomes to be successful. Each side of the equation is trusting the other to follow through on their promises. Although this does not always need to be formalized with written documents, in my own experience, written expectations and timelines have always proven very useful for helping to ensure that mentoring relationships stay on track.
The single biggest failing I see which causes a multitude of problems in different laboratories and mentoring relationships is simply poor communication. This inevitably leads to not clearly outlining and understanding expectations from both the mentor and trainee. The risk for this can be even higher when mentoring an underrepresented minority where there can be great differences in language, culture and accepted social norms on top of differences in communication style and personality, and even implicit bias.
Working in a predominantly Spanish speaking U.S. territory I very quickly realized that all sorts of miscommunications can occur when rapidly giving instructions with an apparently ‘strong’ Scottish accent. In person, a nodded head often did NOT equal understanding. It is important to realize your mentees might be hesitant to ask you to explain what you mean, or to slow down. A helpful solution is to ask the trainee to reiterate what you agreed upon, and this can also be followed up by emailing a summary of the decided plans after the meeting with follow up deadlines (also a good way of tracking for both mentees and mentors). Likewise, my ‘to the point’ requests have sometimes been misconstrued as being ‘brusque’ in a culture where there are commonly many more niceties first. This can be especially true when communicating by email where you lose the ability to interpret facial expressions. Ask trusted colleagues and staff, or more senior students, for feedback. It was a revelation to learn that when trainees sometimes didn’t do something as quickly as I was expecting this was in large part due to my tendency to preface requests with ‘when you have time’ when really, I wanted it as soon as possible (and apparently when I say ‘as soon as possible’ it means I wanted it yesterday!).
How I implemented vision across the graduate program from my own lab
There are many levels of mentoring ranging from those relationships that take place both formally and informally within the single research lab (undergraduates, graduates, postdocs), through to mentoring those students at a programmatic level, and then to junior faculty who are colleagues. In general, I have found very useful a ‘team mentoring’ approach and setting realistic milestones within a supportive but accountable environment. This has been one of the cornerstones for the success of students in our NIH-NIGMS funded Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU) RISE Graduate Training Program (6) which has helped increase the competitiveness and retention of underrepresented Hispanic students participating in biomedical research in our interdisciplinary PhD Program. Novel initiatives we put in place to help our students succeed better include team mentoring programs and ‘pairing’ of trainees with peer mentors chosen to help provide advice and direction matched according to the student’s family and personal circumstances. We have a unique situation in Puerto Rico in terms of language and also culturally with many first-generation graduate students. Taking into consideration the individual as a whole, not just their research or career goals aims to provide a more solid support system. We have also implemented various workshops targeted specifically towards handling stressful situations and focusing on building our trainees self-esteem and confidence by working on their oral and written communication skills, goal setting and time management.
There are many different formalized mentoring models which are outside the scope of this column however those which I have encountered and found to be useful include:
Peer Mentoring – in this scenario a mentee is paired with another trainee or professional who is in a similar situation or stage of their career in order to share experiences. This can be very valuable both within a research laboratory where the common situation is most likely the research topic and PI but can also take place between labs. In many ways this is the type of mentoring I have most utilized for my own personal needs, alternately using colleagues as a sounding board for gathering insights and information to deal with every-day situations (akin to a ‘buddy’ support system) to asking for advice and guidance from those just a little ahead of me. This latter situation we have found extremely beneficial for our PHSU RISE Graduate Training Program where we pair trainees with a ‘successful’ student a couple of years ahead of them, the idea being that they can share their insights and give tips and pointers as to how best navigate the graduate school process.
Team Mentoring matches a trainee with multiple mentors. These can be selected by the mentee or by the institution. The team has a common goal directed towards helping the trainee succeed. In my own institution, under our PHSU RISE Graduate Training Program, we have used this approach very successfully to provide a variety of input and guidance to the mentee. The ‘team’ comprises the mentee, their research mentor, a faculty advisor from the program’s internal advisory committee and their peer mentor.
Network Mentoring recognizes that it is hard for one mentor to provide all the support that a trainee needs, especially as the requirements change over time. A network of mentors each provides their own unique expertise and experience on different aspects of the mentee’s career and research.
E-Mentoring allows trainees to access a mentor online without any geographical limitations. This can be particularly useful for those who are training in a smaller institution where they might not have such a broad range of expertise readily available on campus. I have mentored students as an APS member through MentorNet and am now part of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) which we actively encourage all our students and faculty to join. My experience with this type of mentoring has generally been positive but I think depends largely on what the trainee’s expectations are and what kind of resources/help they are looking for. An extension of this kind of mentoring model are the more formalized hybrid versions whereby there is an in-person ‘kick-off’ followed by a year-long follow up with several formal meetings. Examples of these which our own underrepresented doctoral students have participated in include the Yale Ciencia Academy (7) and the Academy for Future Science Faculty (8). Both aim to provide graduate students with opportunities for mentoring, peer support and networking to help develop important skills for their career. The latter, a randomized controlled trial developed, and is testing, a coaching-based model to complement more traditional mentoring scenarios.
Nuances to mentoring underrepresented groups
Although I strongly believe in treating everyone fairly, this does not equate to treating everyone the same, particularly when it comes to mentoring underrepresented groups. It is crucial to remember the old saying ‘one size does not fit all’. Language, culture and personality differences all play a role. Having lived in several countries with different languages, accents and cultures I have often been the outsider in the room and can perhaps understand to some extent the feeling of ‘being the only one’ that underrepresented minorities can experience in science. For many students at our institution their primary language is not English and also for many they are the first in their family to attend graduate school. In addition to facing the regular academic challenges they are often balancing conflicting family demands and expectations. In my opinion it is important to help the trainee identify their weaknesses and strengths in order to set realistic expectations and timelines. In our program one of the more useful tools are having all students assemble and constantly update a professional portfolio (9). This highlights their professional and community service activities and provides documentation of their achievement of goals. Not only does this provide a great way for the students to visually organize all their materials and provide them with evidence of their accomplishments but also helps the mentor to be aware of which areas need strengthening and what skills the trainee has that even they might not be aware of.
Related to the point above it is important to take time to celebrate successes. I think Mentors need to promote their mentees so they can believe in themselves and help to overcome the well-recognized ‘imposter syndrome’. The feeling that one does not belong, cannot succeed or continually doubts one’s capability is common at all levels of higher education (and even as we advance further in our careers) but has been identified as a particularly relevant issue affecting participation in STEM by underrepresented minorities (10,11).
Recognizing that a common weakness in our students is their English communication skills it is important to appreciate that more time is needed for review and refinement of written assignments. As a mentor, I try to focus on the point that the trainee is trying to get across and provide as many opportunities as possible for the trainee to develop their communication skills. This has been combined with encouraging our students to become involved in outreach activities within our local elementary and high schools, such as the APS PhUn week, where they become more proficient at speaking in public. This also helps them to explain better to their families what graduate school involves and communicate their science to their family and friends.
It is vital to be open to new ideas and honest feedback. Over the years my own mentoring style and activities under our graduate training program have evolved through input from colleagues, but more importantly my mentees. It is important to get to know your mentees outside the lab so you can build trust and encourage further open communication. They are the ones who often come up with requests, ideas and suggestions for addressing their needs. A phenomenal example of this are our annual RISE program Philosophy of Science Retreats. These offsite two-day activities enhance team building and increase interactions between faculty and trainees in a less formal atmosphere, enabling the students to recognize how the program staff can be of help to them, and how their interactions with other people in the program are a valuable source of research, academic, and personal support. This activity was implemented in response to specific requests by trainees. Themes are varied, ranging from ethics and scientific philosophy to science policy and more general aspects of scientific life. Most recently we focused on ‘Science and Wellness’ encouraging trainees to self-reflect about their current practices for self-care and stress management with an aim to provide trainees with healthier life tools to help them succeed in their academic, personal and professional life.
Final closing thoughts
To be a successful mentor takes time (a lot!) and patience. There has to be follow through on both parts, and for many successful academics who are juggling already busy schedules with grant writing, research and teaching, the time required can be hard to prioritize. However, passing along our knowledge and helping the next generation of scientists to succeed can be immensely rewarding and are vital if we are to address the ongoing disparities in science. Some relationships may end as soon as the formal agreement or training is complete but others continue for years. In addition to the many requests for recommendation letters (where warranted), or advice, I continue to send announcements for opportunities that I feel a former mentee could benefit from and try to track their progress. The sense of pride felt when a former mentee wins an award, gains a faculty promotion or even finds their own path in an unexpected direction is enormously rewarding. Lastly, one cannot underestimate the fact that from each mentee we also learn something. They can push our research and thoughts in new directions and sometimes force us outside our comfort zone.