Improving mentorship for diverse scientists

Mentorship is a keystone of scientific training and career development. Successful mentors can help identify a mentee’s strengths and areas for growth, guide and support them through challenges, promote their careers, aid in building networks, and serve as role models. Excellent mentorship should also include psychosocial support centered on the mentees’ unique values, identities, and lived experiences.

This is particularly true for life experiences that may have profound effects on a mentee’s career and may include experiencing racist, sexist, and anti-LGBQTA+ bias; feelings of isolation or pressure to assimilate due to underrepresentation; lack of familiarity with cultural norms due to first-generation higher education status or being a foreigner; challenges arising from disability; and many more.

How do mentees ensure that they are getting the best mentoring, and how can mentors do a better job of helping mentees reach their scientific and professional goals? Effective mentor–mentee relationships do not have to arise by coincidence; mentors can acquire skills through self-reflection and intentional, evidence-based education, and mentees can seek out and construct mentoring relationships tailored to their own highly individual needs.1 In particular, there are inherent challenges that different racial, socioeconomic, gender identity, sexual orientation, and cultural backgrounds can pose for mentoring relationships. In this article, we will share resources on effective mentoring approaches for diverse scientists.

We asked three tenure-track faculty who are women of color at a mid-sized regional university about what made their best mentorship experiences positive:

“Someone who could share my excitement.”

“Sharing how a challenge or problem was navigated.”

“I looked for someone who I thought treated people with respect.”

“I was treated like a lab member—so I thought, maybe I can contribute to science.”

“As much as I want to say that it’s the science that has the big impact [for early career undergraduates], I think it’s the building the social contact that has the big impact.”

Recognizing Privilege and Diving into the Discomfort Zone
American scientific spaces have historically been populated by mentors and mentees with generally homogeneous backgrounds, which has solidified a scientific culture biased toward White, male, heterosexual, continuing generation, upper-middle class individuals.1 As a starting point for successful mentoring across differences, mentors and mentees should reflect on how their socioeconomic, racial, and educational backgrounds and other elements of their culture or identity may vary greatly from each other. For example, between us, our (the authors’) identities include being White, continuing-generation in higher education, Jewish, immigrant, parents, cis-gendered, heterosexual women.

How can mentors overcome ongoing differences and biases to support mentees? How can mentors from dominant populations ensure that mentees do not feel that they need to hide the burden of racism or bias, or that they need to assimilate into the normative STEM culture? And how can mentors help ensure that the responsibility of “diversity work” does not disproportionately burden mentees from marginalized populations? These questions are by no means unique to cell biology; below, we provide some examples of actions that mentors can take:

Self-reflect and engage in the uncomfortable task of unpacking their own position, identity, and privileges. By sharing these reflections, mentors signal their willingness to engage in discussions that may otherwise seem unapproachable.

Listen actively to mentees and engage thoughtfully in difficult one-on-one conversations about the realities of inequity in science and society. This is particularly important because of the personal toll that assimilation, identity conflicts, and increased cognitive load takes on mentees from minoritized backgrounds, even while they are trying to balance their psychological and academic performance.4,5

Ensure that their research environments are inclusive. Mentor–mentee relationships often exist within the context of a lab group, and mentors shoulder the responsibility for setting the group’s tone and culture. Mentors should facilitate conversations on bias with the entire group (or arrange for an outside facilitator if they are uncomfortable leading these discussions), and implement group-wide efforts to raise awareness of and take action against individual, systemic, and institutional racism and inequity.4

Multiple Modes of Mentorship Fill the Mentor Map
Effective mentorship practices can be learned, but because every mentoring relationship is unique, no one experience can serve as a blueprint for all others.1 It is therefore particularly useful to find resources that can help guide mentors and mentees according to their individual styles and needs (see Resources box on p. 51). Mentoring has traditionally followed a model of one-directional, non-reciprocal pairings, where a mentor provides a mentee with guidance and advice. However, research into the underpinnings of successful mentorship shows that reciprocal communication ensures that the goals of mentors and mentees are met. Further, mentorship can go beyond a dyad (one-to-one), and can be triadic (dual-mentor, for example), collective (multiple mentees and mentors), and networked (multiple mentors to fill diverse needs).

Two ways to make mentoring dialogs more concrete are:

  1. Individual Development Plans (IDPs), which allow documented, structured planning and clear communication between the mentor and mentee regarding career development goals, and also set benchmarks and ensure accountability
  2. Mentoring agreements or compacts, which are written documents that describe what mentors and mentees each expect out of a relationship (both in terms of responsibilities and boundaries), and should be developed through honest self-reflection on the part of mentors and mentees

By regularly reflecting on whether goals in an IDP and/or mentoring agreement have been attained or if they have shifted, and revising the document accordingly, mentors and mentees will be more able to honestly adjust expectations throughout the relationship.1,6

Mentees often have additional needs that can be filled by co-mentors, outside mentors who are not directly involved in the mentee’s research, or by mentoring between peers. In moving away from a single, dyadic model of mentorship, a useful exercise is to build out a mentor map (see Resources box) to concretely display the network of mentors and mentees a single person relies on; discovering the gaps in a mentor map can direct individuals to think critically about areas of support that they may not have recognized they were missing.2

Here are some examples of experiences people have had with mentorship networks:

I would say that creating a peer mentor network has been the most impactful for me. Being a postdoc can be isolating and being a Black female postdoc exacerbates that feeling. As a Hanna Gray Fellow, I now have a peer mentoring network of outstanding young URM scientists that I identify with and can use as a support system.

—HHMI Hanna Gray Fellow

We have regular meetings—every two weeks or every month. These are really helpful….The most successful elements: a little time checking in, set some goals, hold each other accountable—gently….[T]here’s a shared experience, because we’re at the same level, the struggle is normalized….The normalization of struggles is so hard. People are open about the papers and the grants, but not about how hard it is.

—Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI) assistant professor, on peer mentoring for early career PUI faculty

Mentees can fill the positions on their mentor map independently or with help from a current mentor, or using programs such as the ASCB’s Mentor Match portal, the National Research Mentoring Network, and reaching out to contacts via LinkedIn or Twitter. Trainees can also take advantage of relevant mentorship programming at annual meetings, including meetings of ASCB|EMBO and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, to name a very few. At the ASCB|EMBO meeting, for example, the ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee pairs mentees with mentors and sponsors the ASCB Mentoring Keynote address. Peer networks (local or online; see Resources box) are another extremely valuable form of mentorship, and provide a forum where scientists can support, advise, and hold each other accountable to goals. For mentees whose identities are underrepresented in their scientific communities, a mentoring network that includes role models or peers with similar experiences and challenges can be invaluable for a sense of belonging and to share stories and strategies.

Formal cohort programs often couple the benefits of peer groups with research funding (which provides critical breathing room and resources for career development) and professional skills workshops. They also provide expanded networks of mentors including peers and highly invested program directors.

A few examples of cohort programs:

  • Meyerhoff Scholars Program (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) undergraduate program
  • HHMI’s Gilliam Fellow predoctoral and Hanna Gray Fellow postdoctoral programs
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) postdoctoral programs
  • NIH Innovative Programs to Enhance Research Training (IPERT);
  • National Institute of General Medical Sciences Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) K99/R00 postdoc-to-faculty transition award, including a recent award to ASCB to create cell biology–focused cohorts (see p. 20)

Here is one view of the value of cohort programs:

The fellowship is so much more than financial support, honor, and even their career development. With it comes a camaraderie, connectedness, and a sense of belonging and being a part of something, which strengthens their identity and self-confidence.

—HHMI Gilliam Fellow mentor

Finally, most mentoring relationships will reach a logical end, either because the mentor is unable or unwilling to provide the support the mentee needs, or because the mentor’s expertise and advice is no longer a good match for the mentee’s career needs. This is natural: The end of a mentoring relationship may simply be an agreement to end a dedicated and intentional engagement and the beginning of a friendship or working relationship between colleagues, and it may be the time for the mentor to move on to the position of sponsor for their former mentee.

We thank Suzanne R. Lee, Shawn M. Arellano, and Adrienne M. Wang of Western Washington University; Chantell Evans of the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania; Diane Barber of the University of California, San Francisco; and many others for providing their thoughts on their mentoring and mentorship. We also thank Maria Lund Dahlberg (National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine) for her critical reading of early drafts.

1The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2019). The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM. The National Academies Press.

2Montgomery BL (2017). Mapping a mentoring roadmap and developing a supportive network for strategic career advancement: SAGE Open doi:10.1177/2158244017710288.

3Chaudhary B, Berhe A (2020). Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab (preprint).

4Asai D (2019). To learn inclusion skills, make it personal. Nature 565, 537–537.

5Asai D (2020). Excluded. J Microbiol Biol Educ. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v21i1.2071.

6The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM, Online Guide v 1.0.


Resources for effective mentoring

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report The Science of Mentorship in STEMM1 and associated Online Guide6
  • National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN),
  • National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD),
  • Entering Mentoring ( H. Freeman, 2015): guidance, talking points, and action items for mentors and mentees regarding expectations, goals, limits, feedback, support, and ending a mentoring relationship in a research setting.
  • Entering Research (Macmillan Learning, 2020): Helps mentees play active roles in their own mentorship (i.e., “mentoring up”).
  • Mentor Maps (a good one is produced by NCFDD, and there are many available on the Internet2).

Resources for challenging power dynamics and discussions on race and racism

  • Culturally Aware Mentoring training from NRMN and the Center for Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research
  • ”Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab”3
    Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)
  • #shutdownSTEM project: a resource of action items to combat racism in STEM.

Some online peer groups

  • Slack channels including #gradstudentslack, #futurePISlack, #newPIslack
  • Social media tags #VanguardSTEM, #DiverseDoubleDocs, #BlackandSTEM


About the Author:

Avital Rodal, an associate professor of Biology at Brandeis University, is an associate on the ASCB Women in Cell Biology Committee.
Lina Dahlberg is an associate professor of Biology at Western Washington University, where she works with Regina Barber DeGraaff and Robin Kodner to facilitate Inclusion and Social Mindfulness for STEM (ISM) workshops for faculty and staff.