Mentorship in STEM
Dr. Katelyn McKown
CHAPTER 4: MENTORSHIP IN STEM
There is an overabundance of research that demonstrates the need for greater diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, particularly in higher education. But whose job is it to make this diversity happen? The tendency of academic institutions is to think that simply attracting more diverse students and faculty to their hallowed halls is enough to enact change, but this is an unfair burden of expectation for diverse students and faculty to bear, and their efforts are not acknowledged professionally as would a prestigious publication or grant award. Although there is a need for DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts, those putting forth the most effort are not professionally recognized for it and, as a result of having invested time and effort away from papers and grant applications into DEI efforts, they are often penalized professionally, thus, dis-incentivizing the work. However, I argue that everyone, from student to PI and beyond, needs to be involved in this work to improve our community through advocacy, mentorship, humility, accountability, and understanding. Furthermore, there should be more conscious effort focused on student support and retention coming from the mentor/PI level, rather than solely from department or institution-level interventions. My hope in writing this chapter, rather than relegating it to an appendix, is to elevate mentorship and DEI work to the same level of import in a PhD as research. Some departments have made strides in this direction, creating a service requirement for its graduate students, but without conscious reflection by students and faculty on its purpose and progress, the impact may be lost. In writing a reflective chapter such as this, students can be given the chance to critically think on the service in which they chose to participate and the benefits it provided them and those they served, and in reading this, the faculty on their committees can begin to see the enrichment it brings to the academic community and the value it holds in changing the fabric of science and education for the better.
Underrepresented minority. URM. The undifferentiating term for racial or ethnic groups that have historically experienced discrimination, elimination, and oppression, and whose legacy is perfuse with continued lack of equitable access to resources and representation. But what this term implies is a numerical reason for the lack of representation—that these racial groups are few in number, so, naturally, this must explain why we see fewer of them in STEM fields. However, this obfuscates the experience of these diverse groups of people and hides the truth behind those numbers—that they have been systematically and historically excluded from higher education and academia. In light of this, there has been a recent push to abolish the use of URM and use a different term, Historically Excluded Communities, or HEC; I will be using this term, with the understanding that it still is an oversimplified, catch-all term (Walden, 2018; Bensimon, 2017). I belong to an HEC, I am Native American, from the Diné (Navajo) tribe. My tribe is one of 574 federally recognized tribes in the US, each a sovereign nation with their own land and unique tribal government, but there are hundreds more tribes that are not federally recognized. As of July 2022, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, on whose ancestral lands Stanford, in part, occupies, is still not federally recognized.
To us, historical exclusion is still fresh, and not just in STEM. In the mid-1800s, as part of US-backed efforts to forcibly remove Natives from their land, US Army officers used scorched earth techniques, destroying food and water sources, to starve the Diné into surrender by early 1864. From there, the Diné were forced to march as far as 450 miles, known as The Long Walk, to the Bosque Redondo internment camp. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot or left for dead, and once they arrived, 1 in 4 died from the abhorrent conditions in the camps. It wasn’t until 1868—the same year Leland Stanford Junior was born— that a treaty was signed to return the Diné to a fraction of their native lands, not as citizens, but as wards of the state. Native Americans were not recognized as American citizens and federal law did not allow them the right to vote until 1924, but some states resisted, with Utah as the final state to allow Natives to vote in 1962. While my people were off serving in WWII as Code Talkers, other tribes were still fighting for their basic rights as citizens.
Nowadays, exclusion isn’t as obvious, rather it exists in other forms that are harder to address with sweeping legislature. It exists as unequitable access to education, resources, and healthcare. It exists as standardized tests that disadvantage those who can’t afford prep books or multiple attempts. It exists as institutions who laud diversity and accept students from HECs, expecting them to be the change needed to improve diversity, but does not look to change itself, the administration, or its faculty to support the transformation. I believe we all have a responsibility to reflect on our role in creating an inclusive, diverse group of thinkers in STEM. In this chapter, I discuss topics relevant for retention efforts and include tips for both students and PIs that will hopefully build the resiliency of all students, but particularly help students from HECs get the most out of their graduate careers.
Building Resiliency and Inclusion in STEM
What does it mean to be a scientist? I think the answer to that question is a personal one and it’s harder to answer for some. It’s easy to image yourself becoming a scientist if you grew up with scientists who looked like you, but for decades scientists consisted mostly of white males (Alegria et al.). Increasingly, the public image of a scientist is becoming more diverse; children asked to draw scientists are drawing more women (Langin, 2018), and projects like I Am A Scientist are collecting profiles of scientists from all over the world (‘I Am A Scientist | Diversity & Inclusion in STEM Education’) to provide more diverse role models. The diversification of what it means to be a scientist bodes well for attracting middle school and high school students from HECs into STEM for one big reason: seeing yourself in scientists strengthens scientific identity (Carlone et al., 2007; Stets et al., 2017). That’s great for high school, but what happens when those students start graduate school? All those scientists they saw online are scattered around the world, and although the faculty in their program may not reflect that diversity, these scientists are in the critical position of influencing a student’s scientific identity and their career trajectories.
For students: If it hasn’t happened already, there will come a time when someone questions your place in STEM; it’s just an unfortunate part of life. They will question your research rigor, cast doubt on your dedication to science, or imply your values or even personality doesn’t align with a scientific career. In some cases, they may also undermine your sense of belonging by saying you probably got your position because of your ethnicity or background. It’s never just once, either; you hear it as a joke or as a passing comment from strangers, each one biting a little more every time. Believe me, I can relate. Find ways to reaffirm your place and surround yourself with a supportive community in which you can confide and share your struggles. One way to reaffirm your place is by mentoring others like you. As a mentor, you can share your experiences and start to think critically about how your personal identity intersects with your scientific identity, and in doing so, strengthen your own scientific identity while serving as a role model for another student who may need to see themselves in others (Singer et al., 2020). I have struggled with reconciling my personal and cultural identity with science, but serving as a research mentor for a Native Frosh research program helped bolster my scientific identity. I was able to help students develop and answer research questions that they were passionate about, and many of them chose to address questions relevant to their native background; from the ecological impact of grazing buffalo, to pollution solutions on reservations. In turn, I got to share with them my own research, so they could see that Natives have a place and can excel in STEM fields.
For PIs: With regards to scientific identity, be conscientious of your feedback and constructive criticism, for you know not how it will be construed. Even if you cannot relate to the feeling of imposter syndrome, know that it is pervasive in STEM, especially among HECs. One way to be sensitive to this is in the delivery; give positive feedback and affirm your student’s efforts, and if there are any areas that need work, offer the feedback in addition to advice for solutions, or ask if they need help finding resources. If you make a mistake, make an honest apology. Apologies can be hard to find in science, but it can have a huge impact on a student.
Find yourself to find a mentor.
Studies show that close work with scientific mentors who share similar values and provide emotional support can strengthen a student’s scientific identity, even if the faculty and student do not share the same ethnic background (Atkins et al., 2020). Mentorship can come from many different levels; someone who can offer career advice, lend scientific expertise, or provide emotional support. All are important. Science comes from us and if we want to accomplish great science, we need to seek environments that provide what we need. Some seek a challenging and competitive environment; others find their stride in a collaborative and encouraging environment. Search for your goldilocks ecosystem.
For students: Finding a mentor must start by evaluating your values. What do you need in a science mentor? Do you like more regular check-ins and advice on experiments? Do you want more independence on a weekly basis and seek more conceptual or big-picture feedback? Do you want help setting and keeping deadlines or do you thrive on your own schedule? Part of finding a good mentor also lies in evaluating your strengths and weaknesses, and having the wisdom to acknowledge where you need to grow. This is good advice for anyone doing rotations, but it is particularly critical to learn for students who may not have as much experience with different mentors, or perhaps they always blame themselves if they struggle under a mentoring style, but never stopped to consider that it just wasn’t a good fit. For students who identify with HECs, a poor mentor match may lead you to question whether you belong in science, because those doubts are often floating just beneath the surface. Don’t give in to those doubts; make a place for yourself and find a mentor who will help you thrive. Don’t be afraid to ask things of your mentor, you can help them grow as well (see Practice Self-Advocacy section). Finding a good mentor does not just refer to finding a lab with a PI you like. It is unlikely you can find a single person that can encompass everything you need in a mentor. Have someone who can support your science, and perhaps another who can support your values and help you advocate for change (it especially helps to have another faculty mentor who can help you advocate for change!). Look around you—I’ve met amazing mentors in my service and outreach because the faculty who value those activities are usually active in the community and make time to speak to students. Finally, don’t just look for mentors, BE a mentor. Sometimes it’s easy to make a list of what you want in a mentor, but it’s actually really difficult to be a great mentor. Serving as a mentor for others will help you communicate and practice intentionality to build confidence in finding that match for yourself. It also helps ground you in the reality of what a mentor can offer you, and what you might need to find elsewhere.
For PIs: Learn to be self-reflective and evaluate what kind of mentorship you offer your students. Everyone is different, and some people are more comfortable talking about emotions than others. If you feel more comfortable providing research mentorship, but not as comfortable with anything else, check in to make sure your student is able to find that elsewhere, don’t just assume. Encourage that kind of community in your lab. That can come by providing funding for lab happy hours, organizing lab outings, or formally setting the expectation of mentorship between members of your lab. Checking in on personal well-being as well as academic progress is part of the mandatory IDP meetings, so there is already an institutional expectation that this is considered part of your job, but I know many students who say their PI does not address it during their meetings. As students, we have no recourse to enforce this, so it is up to you to follow through. Be the mentor you would want. For administrators: Take note of faculty who serve as mentors to those outside their lab. They work tirelessly with students and build trust and a sense of belonging. These are the people keeping your retention and diversity statistics happy, and they deserve professional recognition.
For students: Finding mentors is a practice in self-advocacy. You have to know what you need and be able to find a way to meet your needs. If you need more feedback on your research and your PI doesn’t make time to meet with you often enough, email them and ask to schedule regular meetings. It can be intimidating, but this is your graduate career, and you should be empowered to get the mentorship you need. Be specific about what kind of feedback you’re looking for as well—otherwise you may end up feeling more lost than before. This can differ depending on your needs. Do you want big picture feedback on your project? Do you want to discuss a puzzling piece of data? Do you want feedback on the story for a talk? Have you already made the talk and only want to practice delivery because it’s too late to change the content? (We’ve all been there). Self-advocacy applies to many other things too, particularly when it comes to battling systemic bias and racism. Microaggressions can come from even the most well-meaning of people, but that does not excuse the behavior, because everyone has the ability to change and learn. You are allowed—and encouraged—to challenge negative social climates and respectfully identify the behavior and request change. Try to think of a concrete request or response to rectify the mistake and educate, not chastise.
For PIs: Listen to your students’ needs. If you are not able to offer them the support they need, familiarize yourself with resources available from the department and on campus. There are community centers, writing centers, career resources, health and counseling resources, advocacy groups, and even visiting therapy dogs. Make a list of these resources once, and you will be able to point your students to the help they need to be successful in graduate school. If a student comes to you with feedback about how you handled something, don’t take it as a criticism, but as a chance to grow. If they are speaking to you about microaggressions or an insensitive choice of words, you are in no place to judge the validity of their feelings. Take responsibility for your actions and put yourself in their shoes in the only way you can: it took a lot of bravery to bring it to your attention, and they are showing vulnerability by sharing their thoughts with you, especially if they are bringing you feedback on DEI matters. Most peoples’ immediate response would be to go on the defensive, and it’s ok if you do have that initial reaction, but it’s your actions following that gut reaction that matter most. You can choose to respect their exercising of self-advocacy and acknowledge their feelings and have a conversation on how to come to a resolution.
You can have high expectations for yourself but still completely miss the mark when it comes to meeting the expectations others have for you. Oftentimes this is because those expectations were unspoken. Unspoken and ultimately unmet expectations can compound particularly in science, were one can find a beautiful convergence of people from different academic disciplines, educational upbringings, social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds, ages, and gender identities. Mixed well with a dash of different personalities, and you’ll find there are many ways to inadvertently disappoint those around you. Unspoken expectations can cause a different reaction as well, particularly in the minds of students who may have a misguided impression of what is expected of them. For example, a student may hear that graduate school is hard work and think they are expected to work late nights, weekends, and holidays. Their PI may see them working hard and praise them for their dedication, and the student sees this as confirmation that they are meeting expectations, so they continue to work until they are so burnt out and mentally exhausted that it compromises their progress or health. It’s no wonder our students continue to struggle with anxiety and depression.
What if, instead, they had joined a lab and knew what was expected of them? I am grateful to have been told I was expected to work hard and follow through with experiments, but I was also expected to take holidays and breaks, to take care of myself. If I had a family emergency, I was told that I should do what was best for my mental health and family’s well-being. It wasn’t an unspoken assumption that left me wondering if I should try to suck it up or risk being judged for taking time for myself, I was told the expectation. Every lab environment is different, and maybe the lab culture does expect its members to work weekends or late nights, and if that is verbalized, then a rotating student can decide for themselves whether it’s a right fit for them before they are put in the position of disappointing their PI. If the student hears the expectation and feels it is not achievable, there is an opportunity to discuss the expectation and modify it. This can be as beneficial to the PI as it is to their student. Perhaps, if, in making the conscious effort to record expectations, the PI feels uncomfortable sharing these expectations, it may be an indication that they are unrealistic.
For students: Set expectations for yourself before you meet with your PI. For me, it helps to think about what I have accomplished since the last meeting, whether I have encountered any challenges or need assistance or advice in a particular area, and what I hope to get out of the meeting. My lab has a template to fill this information out to guide meeting discussion. If you do this, you are better equipped to communicate your needs to your PI and you are less likely to compromise them to meet someone else’s expectations. I also find it helpful to have more regular check-ins to make sure I’m not needlessly struggling through something that my PI might be able to help with, and it puts less pressure on meetings if you meet more often. If your PI is displeased with your progress, but failed to inform you of any expectation, ask them to talk you through where their expectations lie. In doing this, you may find that their expectations for you are misinformed, and it will give you a chance to renegotiate it or ask for resources and advice that you were lacking that might help you achieve the expectation.
For PIs: It is important to have high expectations for excellence because it can help push and challenge students, but it is not productive if they are not set up for success. For instance, when I served as a research mentor for Indigenous freshman undergraduates, their final project was to write a research paper on their work. They came from very different backgrounds; some had written research papers before and done a summer internship, others had never written anything longer than a couple pages and didn’t know what a literature review was. My expectation for them was the same, to write the final paper, but if I assumed they all knew how to accomplish it and treated them the same way, some students would come away from the experience having struggled to complete the task, or even not been able to complete it at all. Instead, I asked students about their familiarity with the assignment and offered them assistance or pointed them to additional resources that might help them. I also paired students from different levels of experience to give peer feedback. If your student hears your expectations and wants to negotiate a compromise, don’t assume it’s because they are being lazy; ask what values or needs are informing their request. Sometimes in talking through their hesitations, they may realize it is unfounded and accept the challenge, but other times it may come from external problems to which you are not privy. In the latter case, you should trust that your student (who is an adult) knows their boundaries and offer them understanding and support.
Set the expectation of mentorship.
Mentoring is simply a part of science; you can’t often avoid it. One of the most common places of mentorship does not necessarily come from the PI, but from a lab manager or tech who teaches you a new protocol, a postdoc who helps you think through an experiment you’re planning, or graduate students who give you feedback on your quals proposal. Often this can form quite organically, and the lab is adept at coming together to support or mentor when needed, but life can get hectic and people may prioritize experiments or can’t find the time to listen, and this can leave a lot of missing support for a new graduate student, unless they are particularly persistent or tenacious. True, persistence is a useful skill, but it can be intimidating to be in a new lab and a new field or model system and feel like you are behind with no one to have your back. I don’t like feeling like a burden to my lab mates, so I would count myself in the timider group, especially when I first started graduate school. I had only ever worked with one model system and was still struggling with the feeling that I didn’t belong or didn’t deserve to have been accepted into the Stanford graduate program (also known as imposter syndrome).
In preparation for one of my earlier rotations, I had met numerous times with the PI to talk about what project I could work on in lab, and while they mentioned two people with whom I could work, they made it clear that everyone was busy with their own projects but would help if I asked. When I finally started, neither graduate student had been told I was working with them, so I had nothing to do until one of them decided she would take me onto her project. My experience in that rotation was one where there was no top-down expectation for mentorship and there had been no organized or intentional effort to mentor me in the lab. I was not familiar with the model system and needed to learn basic things like cell culture, and sure, if I asked around enough, I would eventually find someone who had the time to show me where things were in between their experiments, but I felt unwelcome, unproductive, and out of place.
There are always going to be basic assays that need to be learned, and they are simple to teach and pick up if taught, there just needs to be someone willing to be the teacher. When rotating in the lab I ended up joining, I was in a similar place: a new model system, and new assays I had to learn, and a staggering unfamiliarity with the literature. But that time, I was mentored by a lab tech who took the time to do the assays with me for the first time, and the PI would check in on me and introduce me to graduate students or post docs who could teach me additional protocols or offer further resources if my mentor was busy. Once I joined the lab, she also started a journal club for the lab to come together and discuss some of the foundational papers in the field so I, and other new lab mates, could become more familiar with the literature. When I started my own project, I still felt like I needed mentorship on a daily or weekly basis until I became more confident and knowledgeable in the field, so I asked my PI if she would recommend a couple mentors from the lab. She did that and more; we had multiple incoming postdocs and graduate students from other fields who needed a leg up, so she created mentor pairings in lab. Each member had 2 mentors; one with familiarity in plants, and another who could offer more general counsel or emotional support for the rigors of graduate school or research. Some students already had strong mentorship from a lab mate and didn’t need this formal pairing, but for others that would have otherwise struggled alone until someone noticed, they benefited greatly. Most importantly, this set the explicit expectation for the lab that our job was to make time for our lab mates and check in on one another. Intentionality from both the mentor and mentee is key for a productive relationship, and these pairings made it that much easier to lead with intention.
For PIs: It is always easier to assume your lab is self-sufficient and provides the support everyone needs to do great science, but setting the expectation by encouraging and holding everyone accountable for mentorship is one of the few ways to actually know. Had that been the case in my earlier rotation, I might still have not had a great mentor pairing, but I would have found enough backup support from the rest of the lab to perhaps consider joining. I think that was the case with a rotation student I ended up mentoring myself. I was in the midst of preparing for quals and did not have much time to spend doing experiments, but the support of my lab mates was enough that, despite my failings as a mentor, and I can happily call that student my lab mate now. You might have a more callous perspective and think that by not explicitly modeling or enforcing mentorship you encourage graduate students to improve their character and be more assertive, and in some cases this might be true, but instead, think about the kinds of students you are turning away with those standards. You select for like-minded students who may already be familiar with the field and therefore don’t need much help to get started, or you select for students who keep their head down and focus on their own science, but don’t contribute much to their scientific community. That can breed a competitive group of scientists who care more about the project than mentoring, which is a detriment to the collegial and diverse body of scientists so many of us are striving to create.
For students: Don’t be afraid to mentor UP. Tell your PI that you need help finding mentorship from your lab mates, or even that you expect them to set the standard for the lab. I did not do this in my rotation, but I was comfortable enough in my lab to ask for that from my PI, and I found that I became a lot closer to my lab mate mentors because of it. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your PI about it, maybe speak to some of your lab mates to see if that is something you want to start together. Regardless of what you end up doing, remember that if you are struggling to become familiar with a new field or are overwhelmed by unfamiliar literature, it’s not necessarily because you don’t belong; maybe you just haven’t found the right mentorship yet.
Set boundaries for service.
For students: This topic pairs well with self-advocacy, but I thought it pertinent to address how important it is for students to set boundaries for service. I truly value any outreach or mentorship that students are inspired to take part in; when students are passionate about their work, they can bring so much enrichment to those they serve that it can feel like reward enough, and when other organizers see that passion, they want to involve those students as much as possible in further work. Soon enough, all outreach opportunities and diversity events have landed on the plates of a few students. I’ve been in that position, and I know the guilt that can come with it. You tell yourself that you ‘made it’ and now carry the burden of responsibility to use your position for the better, lest you waste the privilege that comes with the Stanford name and miss an opportunity to make a difference in academia. Maybe, like me, you were one of very, very few students that could serve as a mentor, on a panel, or in a committee for diversity. People tell you that you’re the only one for the job, and it makes you feel recognized and appreciated—until you are involved in so many activities that it depletes your passion and drains your energy. I want you to know that simply being present in this space is enough. You do not need to answer every call unless that is what you want. You do more good when you can serve with energy than if you are spread too thin. You need to take care of yourself to be fully present for others. It is also not your responsibility to always educate everyone around you. Choose how you want to invest your time and don’t be afraid to ask for something in return for your efforts, whether it is a formal recognition or accomplishment that you can put on your resume, or financial compensation.
You don’t need to be on every panel or committee to be the role model and voice to others like you. For PIs (and administrators): Do not expect your students to teach you about DEI topics and cultural awareness; take the initiative to educate yourself so you can instead have a conversation with your students. Respect boundaries and do not take advantage of earnest students. Provide tangible compensation for work that you aren’t able to do yourself, because these students are one-of-a-kind. They’re the future of science.
I have been both a student and mentee, teacher and mentor, and have done well and failed miserably at one time or another in all of these positions. The good news is that I learned something each time, and I hope that is something I never stop doing, no matter my age or stage in life. Likewise, I have seen faculty provide wonderful mentorship and champion their students, but I have also seen those same faculty make mistakes or let down their students because the faculty member experienced challenges in lab, life, or science. Other faculty are so far removed from what it was like to be a graduate student that they lose perspective. Maybe they struggled through graduate school themselves because of demanding PIs and lack of resources and decided that is the standard for the graduate experience, but I argue the demands of science, the steep learning curves of professional academics, and crafting a scientific identity are challenging enough. Life happens and change is inevitable, so I challenge both students and faculty to set high expectations for one another, not just in scientific rigor, but in crafting an inclusive space where all are welcome and empowered to tackle science armed with skills formed by our unique perspectives, skills, and experiences.
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