Among the many roles that scientists play, mentoring younger scientists is one for which researchers are rarely trained. In the current STEM research environment, where lack of funding is but one of the systemic issues young scientists face, the roles, responsibilities, and career trajectories are changing. Organizations such as Future of Research and Rescuing Biomedical Research have been formed in recent years to address many issues in academic research. Others, such as the National Mentoring Research Network, have arisen to address the training needs of those who wish to remain in academia but receive no formal training on how to supervise and mentor students. Still, there are gaps in the cultural awareness and value of being an inspiring leader, promoting a positive work environment, and in having happy, mentally fit employees. Where other industries recognize these benefits, academic culture lags. All of these issues are intertwined and can lead to the pessimism and learned helplessness found in many young researchers across the nation and the world regarding their careers.
To address issues in mentorship and to discuss current mentorship practices and the way in which they could be improved upon, the Ethical and Inspiring Mentorship in STEM conference was held at the University of Maryland, College Park on Sept 21, 2017. This symposium was funded by an Early Career Meeting Grant from the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), Genetics Society of America, The Union of Concerned Scientists, BD Biosciences, and the University of Maryland. The deadline for the next cycle of Early Career Meeting Grants is January 17, 2018.
The goals of this symposium included: recognizing issues surrounding mentoring in STEM fields; discussing effective mentorship and advocacy techniques; providing a platform to connect like-minded young scientists who wish to effect change at their own institutions; and inspiring participants to practice effective mentorship and promote these skillsets to their peers. This one-day conference was co-organized by Juan Pablo Ruiz (Labmosphere), Gary McDowell (Future of Research), Blessing Enekwe (University of Maryland, College Park), and myself. Social media comments and posts may be found with the hashtag #STEMentoring17 and #MentoringFutureSci. Attendees included students, postdocs, and experts in STEM fields as well as in mentoring, involved culturally aware mentoring, hyper-competition, mental health, ethical behavior, and advocacy.
Keynote speaker Sandra Quinn (UMD, NMRN) presented extensive research about the current issues surrounding mentoring and provided effective tips toward improving mentoring relationships. Quinn stressed that anytime one has a conversation with a mentor or mentee, the conversation should start with respect, and this will allow both mentor and mentee to begin discussions in a positive manner. She also addressed culturally aware mentoring and explained that each individual’s life experience is diverse, and mentors need to be aware of this. Following the keynote, morning breakout sessions addressed diversity, being a culturally aware mentor, and local advocacy with Gary McDowell in conjunction with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In the afternoon, Chris Pickett, from Rescuing Biomedical Research, presented data on the current ailments of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, most notably the fact that the number of trainees is at an all-time high, while the number of tenure-track positions and grant funding for these trainees is at an all-time low. Pickett highlighted the need to raise awareness for all career paths for science PhDs and the need to train academic mentors to encourage and train students to pursue different careers.
Brooke Deterline from Courageous Leadership LLC presented an inspiring talk on leadership in today’s society. Deterline has worked with countless executives and teams to act with ethical courage and ingenuity to overcome complex and challenging issues. During her session, Deterline laid out the paradox common for most researchers: the more we care about something, the more we stress about it. But excess stress often leads to diminished capacity and poor decision making.
“Under time and cost pressure, the ethical implications of our actions fade from our minds,” she said. Deterline encouraged attendees to take on a courageous mindset, focus on long-term goals, and behave in ways that are in alignment with your values.
Afternoon breakout sessions included a discussion of mentorship across the academia/industry divide with Will Olds from Proteintech, and a conversation about mental health issues and the value of support networks with Juan Pablo Ruiz. The symposium wrapped up with a mentoring panel featuring Meg Bentley (American University), Andy De Los Reyes (University of Maryland), Belinda Huang (George Washington University), and Chinonye “Chi-Chi” Nnakwe (AAAS). The panelists provided tips and stories about mentoring situations they’ve encountered and recommendations on how to train mentors, how to overcome adversity, and how to incentivize/reward mentorship in STEM. Attendees, speakers, and panelists concluded the event with a networking reception at Milkboy Arthouse.
This meeting was a step in beginning conversations around the problems and solutions for ethical and inspiring mentorship. One major takeaway I had from the meeting was that mentorship goes both ways. As a mentee, you have to decide what the right fit is for you and to seek out many mentors. As a mentor, it is important to listen and be aware of what tools and resources your mentee may need.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.