Mentorship is a special type of parenthood. For a new generation to successfully investigate the world around them, answering questions we have yet to imagine, we mentors must take care in the development of future scientists. Our cultivation ensures that the love of science is transmitted and that future researchers are highly trained people of integrity. And, if we do our jobs correctly, we leave our fields in better hands.
As a scientist and a product of a liberal arts education, I am acutely aware that good science lies at the crux of critical thinking, project design, attention to detail, and good story telling. As a mentor, I aim to provide guidance to my mentees on all these fronts, teaching them how to dissect and analyze a scientific paper, instructing them on how to design an experiment that attempts to answer a specific scientific question, and providing them with opportunities to present their work across various media.
But mentorship is not a one-way street. While mentees learn from the expertise of their mentor, mentors can also greatly benefit from the “fresh eyes” of their mentees. Thus, I strive to not underestimate mentee contributions to the theoretical and conceptual side of science; mentees are not lab rats. For this symbiosis to occur, mentors must create an intellectually safe atmosphere, allowing their mentees to take risks and grow. I aim to create such an environment through open, non-judgmental communication with my mentees.
Communication is crucial to establishing trust and support for mentees. Initial discussions allow for my mentees and me to speak openly about what we both wish to gain and come up with a project that satisfies both parties. Following this, continued communication, in whichever form best suits both mentor and mentee, is vital for the ongoing success of the both the project and mentee development. Semi-regular and structured meetings provide a framework to work within while other, slightly more informal, modes of communication allow for direct and immediate support for the mentee when issues arise. Through aligning mentor-mentee expectations, allowing mentees to take ownership over portions of their own project design, and approachability, I hope to provide the space for mentees to experience science as it truly is – from theory to the daily grind, from exciting discoveries to heartbreaks.
Paradoxically, an open communication policy can stifle independence when over-used. Thus, loose boundaries for my mentees not only fosters independence, but also imparts important lessons for functioning within the professional world, including adhering to deadlines and providing supervisors with enough time to complete tasks. However, as a mentor, I also strive to be flexible when situations arise that requires a smudging of those boundaries. It is important that mentor and mentee tackle obstacles as they come and work together to determine the best course of action for the mentee, mentor, and the science.
Mentorship is not one-size-fits-all, and while communication is a crucial foundation, there are various barriers that can prevent such groundwork from being established. Mentee racial, ethnic, religious, and/or language background have the potential to thwart attempts at an open, safe, communicative environment, especially when the mentor does not pay heed to how these identities manifest in mentee performance, psyche, and lived experience. As a mentor, I strive to provide an environment that actively combats the negative implications of these identities in the lab. It is my goal to alleviate the burden of imposter syndrome and stereotype threat by making my mentee feel secure in their own abilities and not a tokenized representative of their community. Similarly, gender identity and sexuality can also introduce strain. It is my intention to provide an environment free from harassment due to marginalized orientation and/or gender identity. Furthermore, by allowing space for neuro-atypical individuals and working with mentees to mitigate any accessibility issues, I hope to create a more inclusive environment by minimizing triggers and physical barriers. Effective mentorship in this way provides an avenue for individuals from traditionally underrepresented communities to infiltrate into and excel within a system not designed for their involvement, a necessary and vital step to progressing both our science and our society.
Mentorship is a process, and the mentee-mentor relationship ought to be built on mutual trust and respect. Good mentors are adaptable, because no two mentees – what they need, what they want, and how they learn – are alike. I strive to create a unique, mutually-beneficial relationship with every individual mentee, beginning with open communication in a welcoming environment and seeing where it takes us.