Helping to develop top-notch science educators is among ASCB’s top goals as a society. To support this endeavor, in 2016 ASCB and other societies and organizations piloted the Promoting Active Learning and Mentor (PALM) Network. The PALM Network is a National Science Foundation–funded program that employs best practices to foster high-quality, evidence-based, undergraduate science education by pairing postdocs or faculty at any stage of their career in mentor/mentee relationships. The program welcomes participants from any post-secondary institution, especially those serving minorities.
In the last two years, the PALM Network has awarded funding to more than a dozen mentor/mentee pairs. Fellows receive up to $2,000 for expenses associated with mentoring. Mentors receive a $500 stipend, and the Fellow and mentor each receives up to $1,000 in travel costs to present the results of their research.
Among the first pairs funded was Stephanie Levi Blumer, assistant professor of biology at Oakton Community College in Illinois, and her mentor, David Marcey, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Developmental Biology at California Lutheran University. Marcey previously taught Levi Blumer as an undergraduate at Kenyon College. Here Levi Blumer (SLB) and Marcey (DM) answer questions and share insights from their experiences as a fellow and mentor, respectively.
What motivated you to seek mentorship?
SLB: I was a first-generation college student, and mentorship has been central to my success. It felt completely natural to seek out mentorship to become more skilled as an educator. I really enjoyed my research career, but it was clear that my primary interests involved teaching biology, evaluation, and assessment to better understand how students learn and working toward equity and access in higher education. I knew I needed to learn from others to support my ability to create positive change.
When your parents don’t have experience with higher education, it can be extremely daunting to figure out where to start. Without some familiarity with admissions standards, it’s easy to slip into an imposter mentality that presumes that you won’t get in anywhere. Then, if you’re from a low-income background, you have to figure out how to pay for it.
Beyond that, when you have no examples or immediate mentors, how do you communicate with a professor appropriately? How do you secure a research position? How do you build a network? How do you intentionally cultivate a career? How do you factor work into the rest of your life? There are so many campus resources at institutions that are wonderful and help students and alumni answer the questions, but it is also helpful to have someone who knows you and is invested in your success who can share their struggles with these questions and present solutions.
“I knew then that I wanted to look for a career…which would allow me to have a broader impact on society than the relatively narrow focus of my academic research.”
What was going on with your career that you thought it would help?
SLB: I wanted mentorship at this point in my career for a couple of reasons. First, I had really committed myself to teaching as my profession. Regardless of whether or not I was able to secure a full-time position, I wanted to employ the best high-impact practices. Second, I was interested in getting experience that would enable me to contribute to my colleagues in a meaningful way, and working with David and the PALM fellowship met these objectives. Community colleges are the key to diversifying higher education and STEM fields. Our students come from an array of backgrounds, and a lack of opportunities for them represents missed chances to support the next generation of STEM professionals.
What qualities did Marcey possess that made for a good experience?
SLB: David was the first person that encouraged me to work in a lab, gave me that opportunity, and engaged me in so many novel experiences, from taking my first molecular biology lab to creating an online exhibit for the Online Macromolecular Museum (OMM). The OMM is an online resource consisting of interactive exhibits, most of which are student-authored. When the opportunity to apply for the PALM fellowship arose, I knew I wanted to work with David. He’s creative, dedicated, and pushes students to cultivate their critical and scientific thinking. David has fantastic purview of best-practice biology education, he’s supremely innovative, and I knew firsthand that he was encouraging, supportive, and generous with his time and wisdom.
What did you gain from acting as a mentor?
DM: The PALM mentoring experience was valuable in multiple respects. It provided an opportunity to receive direct feedback and advice on active learning pedagogical approaches and to discuss the underlying rationale for these approaches with Stephanie, a motivated and talented young professor. It also afforded a chance to spread the word about national reform efforts such as PULSE, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education. Stephanie and I worked on a project that yielded a powerful, Web-based visualization of hemoglobin structure–function relationships and the structural basis of sickle cell disease. This, along with a case study that Stephanie developed, provides an excellent active learning experience for students. Finally, it was wonderful to reconnect with a former undergraduate student who has now launched a promising career in academia.
“I wrote a case study on sickle cell anemia that places the student in the role of a physician who has to describe sickle cell anemia while learning biochemistry.”
What was a highlight of your mentoring experience?
SLB: Being able to see David teach was the highlight. David designed an amazing active learning classroom using an online program. Students spent the entire three-hour session working on complex genetics problems. Students engaged in modeling of biological phenomena and processes and had real, meaningful, and thoughtful discussions and group work. I’ve never seen a class with students who were that engaged!
Did everything go as planned?
SLB: For the most part, yes. Our project centered on sickle cell anemia. I taught sickle cell biochemistry in my introductory course and wanted to learn to write and work with case studies, so I attended the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science summer institute. There, I wrote a case study on sickle cell anemia that places the student in the role of a physician who has to describe sickle cell anemia while learning biochemistry. The OMM exhibit about hemoglobin also turned into a product of the fellowship, which meshed very well with the case study.
How have you shared the skills you acquired from your PALM network experience with your colleagues at work?
SLB: My experience has been infused in so many departmental initiatives, including revisions of our lab manuals, and teaching a genetics course in the fall. I think about assessment differently as well.
Would you recommend the PALM network experience to others and why?
SLB: What you take from it will elevate your teaching in significant ways. I don’t believe that I would have secured a full-time, tenure-track position without this experience. It really sets you apart from other applicants. You have to be able to show that you can teach if you want to work at an institution like mine, and I can’t think of a better way to innovate and creatively contribute to student learning at the levels of the institution and the field. The fellowship places you into a network of incredible leaders and colleagues in active learning and biology education, and that alone has been an amazing outcome of the fellowship. Being able to learn about resources, most of which I was not aware of, has also been useful. The ability to engage more deeply with ASCB and other professional societies has been a superb growth experience, too.
DM: I would encourage any colleague to volunteer to be a PALM mentor or fellow for the simple reason that the program can improve the teaching of both! Fellows bring fresh passion and outlooks to the collaboration, and mentors contribute perspectives on approaches that have been successful (or not). It is a privilege to be funded to work on such a pedagogical collaboration, which offers blocks of time devoted to thinking about teaching and to spreading effective teaching practices.
Applications for the PALM Network are accepted throughout the year with deadlines of February 28, April 30, July 30, and October 30. Visit the website at https://palm.ascb.org for details on how to apply.
About the Author:
Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.