An effective workshop on “How to be an Effective Mentor for Underrepresented STEM Trainees”
Preprint posted on 19 December 2021 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.12.06.471498v2
Article now published in Pathogens and Disease at http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/femspd/ftac022
Background to the paper
Initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM are becoming more prevalent, and mentoring programs are often an important part of these schemes. However, designing an effective mentoring program for underrepresented minority (URM) scholars* is not a straightforward project owing to many factors, including systemic barriers to enrollment and retention in STEM. In this preprint, the authors outline a workshop based on identifying best practices for effective and motivational mentoring for URM students. They describe the framework of the workshop, the importance of mentorship, and the impact of the workshop on students themselves.
As preLights comprises students and early-career researchers working in the life sciences across the globe, we thought the idea of mentoring students from different communities was very relevant to many of our members. Further, similar to the mentor-mentee relationship, one aspect of the preLights community is helping other preLighters improve scientific writing skills. In this preLights post, we describe the main points of the paper and their strategies for successful mentoring, but also add our own insight and reflections on the content of the preprint, and on effective mentoring.
*NB URM refers to people of racial or ethnic minorities who have been historically underrepresented in higher education in the US. This term is used by the authors of the preprint, who are based in the US.
Mentoring for URM scholars and the mentoring workshop
As described in the preprint, mentor-mentee relationships require special attention to ensure the success of URM students. Successful mentoring can help mentees overcome internal and external barriers, but requires cultural empathy and understanding, and a supportive environment. Importantly, mentees will have their own goals and motivations (and personal measures of success), and the authors emphasise that one strategy for effective mentoring is likely not applicable for a diverse group of mentees. As such, it is key to develop a tailored mentorship approach for each mentee. In line with this, the paper describes the characteristics and approaches of a successful mentor, including listening, serving, sharing, a willingness to learn and staying humble. Being empathetic to problems that might not be something you as a mentor have encountered – and knowing when to seek external input – is also important. Working with mentees from diverse backgrounds means that cultural competence, described as an understanding of religion, community in culture, and the impact of these on personal life and career aspirations, is key to avoiding cultural insensitivities or microaggressions.
In the study described by the authors, 24 students from Winston-Salem State University (a historically Black public university) attended a 90-minute workshop on effective mentoring. Both before and after attending the workshop, participants completed a questionnaire regarding their expectations and the outcomes of attending. The authors note that before attending the workshop, students had a low expectation of what they would learn from the workshop. Strikingly, after attending the workshop, these metrics increased significantly. Scores for whether the workshop would be (or was) informative, useful for networking, communication, or relevant to building a support team all increased by over 4.8 points out of a possible 10. This survey indicates that informing students who would benefit the most from a mentee-mentor relationship about how to build a successful mentoring program can have a big, positive impact on their personal and academic development.
Questions for the authors
Q1. This investigation highlights vital roles of mentorship. Could the observations in the preprint be widely applied for non-URM STEM students around the world?
Q2. In the long term, what would be a next step to the workshop, to address mentoring of URMs and ensure URM retention in STEM fields? Perhaps a single class doesn’t make you a good mentor, but continuous work and experience does. What can be done to extend the reach of the workshop?
Q3. If implemented on a large scale, do you plan on following up the short-term, mid-term and long-term effects of this intervention? And for doing so, do you consider input from both the mentors and the mentees?
What we think about the preprint
Helen Robertson: I was particularly interested to read about John Henryism, which isn’t something I was familiar with before. John Henryism is defined as ‘a strategy for coping with prolonged exposures to stresses such as social discrimination by expending high levels of effort which results in accumulating physiological cost’. For URM students, this poses an additional, and considerable, element of stress alongside the challenges that a STEM career can present. For URM students, who face these external stressors which can manifest as physical symptoms, to be mentored appropriately, then suitable training should be provided to mentors. Being aware of bigger problems outside of your own personal experience is incredibly important for empathy and effective communication, and this preprint certainly made me think about how I can better advocate for different voices in STEM, and in our preLights community, going forward.
Chee Kiang Ewe: This preprint provided clear, actionable steps to improve mentorship practices to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM. In my institute in the US, most graduate students and postdocs are encouraged to mentor undergraduate students, however, most of us have no experience in teaching/training prior to graduate school, so we stumble and learn on-the-job. I wish mentorship workshops, like the one described in this preprint, were built into the curriculum of graduate school so we are better equipped to serve our mentees. As well, this workshop will help fresh graduate students to identify the kind of mentorship they may need and potential PI they want to work with. Nobody told me that before committing to joining a lab it is crucial to try to pick out signs of a toxic lab environment and gauge the compatibility with the potential adviser – learning on-the-job can end badly in some cases.
Nozomu Takata: As the authors mentioned “Motivation is the inner drive to excel”, I agree that effective mentoring will help enhance motivation, therefore facilitating individual scientific goals. Most importantly, providing good mentoring likely facilitates each mentee to understand each other when it permits diversity, equity and inclusion. My past scientific experience made me realize we are all different from each other in many ways. Making cultural competence elevated in labs, I strongly believe, would enable full potential, creativity and production as results of effective team work. Now, I want to emphasize that it is crucial that everyone enjoys academic activity and beyond in positive environments.
Mariana De Niz: I found many issues raised by the authors extremely important. In my experience, most people want to be good mentors. But also in my experience, nobody teaches us how to be a mentor, let alone an inspiring and sensitive one, let alone one capable of successfully mentoring under-represented minorities. The result is that mistakes are made, in my view, many times, due to simple ignorance, rather than being toxic or having bad intentions. What in my opinion should change, and is something that the authors emphasize, is the future of mentorship: we cannot continue to believe that because our leaders acted in such and such way with us, this is how we should act towards our mentees. Or that because successful mentorship/leadership wasn’t taught before, it’s not necessary to teach it now to “future” leaders. Moreover, we cannot continue to think that our reality is the reality of others: for this, mentors MUST actively listen and inform themselves on the challenges of their mentees. I find that this statement must be a key goal: An inspiring mentor listens, serves, shares, focuses on positivity, stays authentic, is willing to learn, and remains humble. The latter two are vital, and yet are amongst the ones I have witnessed least. Finally, on the point that mentors should “avoid perpetuating racial macro- and microaggressions”, I think this is key. Again, in my experience, this comes from a narrow view, whereby people think that their own reality is everyone’s reality, and can result in the dangerous practice of gaslighting. Altogether, society evolves, and as we become more aware and better informed, and have access to more resources, we must change our leadership and mentorship practices too. When we speak about equity, diversity, inclusion and equality, mentorship is at the very heart of these goals. Workshops as the one presented by the authors are a start, but a lot more remains to be done in this path.
Posted on: 14 February 2022Read preprint
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