In this episode of Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Angela Byars-Winston, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Public Health and Medicine, and Dr. Sherilynn Black, associate vice provost for faculty advancement at Duke University, describe the value of cultural awareness in mentorship. They review highlights from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on effective mentorship, and discuss resources on culturally aware mentorship for mentors and mentees.
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on May 27, 2020, with NIH host Dr. Hannah Valantine. A Q&A session with webinar attendees followed Dr. Byars-Winston and Dr. Black’s talk.
Recorded on May 27, 2020
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Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Hannah Valantine:
Welcome to this webinar on the culturally aware mentoring that is sponsored by NIGMS. I’m Hannah Valantine, NIGMS Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, and your host for the webinar.
Let me start by saying that NIH has always recognized the importance of mentorship for developing the next generation of scientists and to ensure that our nation is tapping into its entire intellectual capital to solve complex problems. Building a diverse and inclusive scientific workforce is essential to realizing the NIH mission of discovery and translating those discoveries to the benefit of human health and eliminating disease.
And that is why NIH established the National Research Mentoring Network, whose goal is to develop evidence-based approaches to achieve excellence in mentoring. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an even greater urgency to ensure that our trainees are receiving the very best of mentoring. We recognize that with the halting of research activities at many of our NIH-funded institutions, the move to online education, and the pausing of faculty hiring, these challenges to career advancement will be exaggerated for everybody, and we predict that the communities we seek to serve will be disproportionately impacted.
And this is individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, economically disadvantaged, sexual and gender minorities, and, of course, women. Moreover, the stresses created by the pandemic will likely trigger biases across the board as people revert to stereotypic thinking that could impact mentoring practices, underscoring the need for culturally aware mentoring, which is what our webinar is focused on today. I will serve as the moderator for this timely discussion.
Our esteemed panelists include Dr. Sherilynn Black, who is the Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at Duke University and Assistant Professor of Practice of Medical Education. And Angela Byars-Winston, who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Public Health and Medicine. They will offer engaging presentations on a variety of mentoring topics, including the importance of cultural awareness, effective mentoring practices, and this is all based, really, on strong evidence from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report. And they will offer practical resources for mentors and mentees.
The webinar will be divided into three parts: First, Dr. Byars-Winston will lead the presentation focused on evidence-based approaches to potentiate talent development. We will then hear from Dr. Black, who will talk about practical strategies for culturally aware mentoring. And then finally, we will spend the last portion of the meeting on a Q&A session addressing questions from attendees.
As we have much to cover, I will now turn it over to Dr. Byars-Winston for her presentation. Angela, take it away.
Dr. Angela Byars-Winston:
Wonderful. Thank you so much for the introduction and to NIGMS and to Dr. Lorsch and Dr. Alison Gammie and other colleagues who are leaders there for this invitation.
As with any topic on this particular theme of cultural diversity and awareness, we realize that there are high expectations for us to give you the secret sauce of all the things you need to know but were afraid to ask about things relating to diversity. Let me put that to rest and suggest that instead we use our time to delve into the literature and the evidence about what we know is the relevance of cultural awareness to mentorship and its advancement of a diverse scientific workforce.
I want to spend the time that I have talking about culturally aware mentorship as an evidence-based approach to potentiating talent development. At the heart of our focus here at NIGMS platform is to focus on developing the next generation of scientists.
So I want to highlight two main focus areas for my conversation with you. The first is the need for a science of effective, inclusive mentorship. I will highlight some findings from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on effective mentorship in STEMM that some of you may be aware of. And secondly, I’ll focus on mentorship as a talent and workforce development tool, highlighting why culturally aware mentorship matters, and emerging evidence for culturally aware mentorship education.
I also want to acknowledge that after myself and Dr. Sherilynn Black speak, we will go back into a resource from the National Academies of Sciences report on effective mentorship that has provided an online guide with actionable, evidence-based, informed practices and resources. So we don’t want to leave you hanging without a go-to set of resources, but instead of trying to hit all of them in this presentation, we’ll show you where to find those resources.
As I mentioned, a couple of years ago in 2017, the National Academies commissioned a consensus study to delve into the topic of the science of mentorship—specifically effective mentorship in STEMM fields, and we use that second M to highlight academic medicine. And we argued that since science is a systematic study of structures and behaviors given a particular domain, that it was useful and the time was right to bring together the multiple disciplinary perspectives of what makes mentorship work, how effective it is across many disciplines, from social sciences to discipline-based education in STEMM so that we can have guidance with informed practice about what we do, why we do it, how we assess, how we evaluate effective relationships.
The committee was comprised of a wonderful set of colleagues that many of us know from across the country who are thought leaders and scholars in mentorship. Some of them also funded through NIGMS, like Dr. Richard McGee at Northwestern, Dr. Sylvia Hurtado at UCLA, and Dr. Chris Pfund here at UW. I had the fortune of chairing this committee for two years. We released the report in October of 2019, after 18 listening sessions, three commission papers, and three public workshops.
We were excited to put together a definition of mentorship, which we think is really critical. If we’re going to talk about how to make it effective, we first have to have a shared understanding of what it is. So the National Academies put forth this definition of mentorship as “a professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the professional and personal growth and development and success of the relational partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support.”
So we acknowledge that part of talent development for our early career colleagues or trainees is that we have both career support and psychosocial support in their advancement. Three highlights that I just want to raise out of many that came in through the National Academies of Sciences.
First is that the effective mentorship research shows that it is associated with positive mentee outcomes—and I’ll define that in a second. Effective mentorship is a learned and developed skill. And thirdly, recognizing and responding to cultural identities contributes to mentorship effectiveness.
The first point that I want to highlight is that effective mentorship has been empirically linked to positive mentee outcomes, which I define as those factors that we are usually looking for as outcomes of any type of training—persistence, performance, productivity—and we have found evidence over and over again (many of the evidence studies that we’ve found came out of NIGMS-funded studies) that enhanced mentee productivity, self-efficacy, career satisfaction, and persistence (which we’re all really interested in) is related to effective mentorship.
A particular study that we had funded through NIGMS a couple years ago, myself and Chris Pfund, we specifically found evidence that supported the effective mentoring relationship itself will shape and calibrate the ways that mentees perceive their own abilities, their own competencies, and their own skill sets which then drive these desired outcomes.
The second point I want to highlight from the National Academies is that mentorship is a learned skill. So since we have these high-stakes mentoring relationships, which we know lead to outcomes that we’re interested in for our trainees, we wanted to acknowledge the fact that mentorship education actually makes a difference in making those mentors more effective in that talent development process. Many of us on the call, especially since this is NIGMS sponsored, are familiar with the mentor/mentee training curricula that have been developed over the last 15 or so years led by Jo Handelsman and taken on with Janet Branchaw and Chris Pfund and other colleagues that have produced a number of curricula that are validated with standardized competencies, adapted across different disciplines and for different career stages.
We also have evidence that when mentors get training or mentorship education, they self-report increased effectiveness to be a mentor, and they actually changed three months later in terms of behaviors that are more productive in being effective mentors. So taken together, we have evidence so far that the relationship matters in how trainees perceive their own abilities and their persistence in STEMM pathways.
We have evidence that mentorship education matters and makes a difference in the mentor’s effectiveness, so the third point I want to highlight with those two pieces in mind is that recognizing and responding to cultural identities contributes to mentor effectiveness. The National Academies committee found a large amount of evidence that suggested that culturally responsive mentoring is a learned skill set in which all mentors, regardless of their background, show interest in and value students’ cultural backgrounds and social identities.
This is not just about individuals who come from underrepresented backgrounds being more responsive to their students who are from underrepresented backgrounds. We’re saying all folk can be culturally responsive. We found evidence that various dimensions of identity, like science identity and cultural identities, are empirically linked to academic and career development and even the experience of the mentoring relationships in STEMM.
Now here’s the twist. Again, we have high-stakes relationships that show mentorship matters in how trainees persist, how they perform, and we have evidence that when we educate mentors in how to be more effective it actually improves their performance as mentors. But there is a mismatch in terms of what students are experiencing and what mentors are prepared to address, and that’s what I want to focus on for the last few minutes of my comments.
STEMM students, according to several studies—this is just one example by Kara Muller and other colleagues that was conducted with Mentornet students, which is an online platform for mentoring. She found that all students, but especially those from underrepresented groups, wanted to talk about issues linked to race/ethnicity matters with their mentors. They wanted to talk about how race and ethnicity affect their career and academic development, and ways to overcome barriers related to race/ethnicity.
But many studies have shown that mentors, especially those from groups that are well-represented ethnically in STEMM fields, like white-identified individuals, people from well-represented Asian ethnic groups, tend toward colorblind attitudes.
This is an interesting conundrum that myself and Chris Pfund and our research team—again funded by NIGMS—delved into a couple of years ago for a R01 study we had. We asked a group of mentors who were predominantly white-identified, a few Asian ethnic-identified faculty, who are working with mainly undergraduates in the summer REU biology programs who were predominantly from underrepresented groups in the sciences, should you directly address cultural diversity in a mentoring relationship?
And you can see they’re not on the same page. More students than the mentors wanted to talk about issues relating to diversity. Some further insights that came from that study that I think are relevant to the conversation today is that how mentors viewed diversity was very interesting for us.
We found three main themes: One is that cultural diversity is often viewed as an interference variable—something that got in the way of doing real science. Secondly, for mentors who did experience culture and science as related or relevant to each other, they focused on their mentee’s culture, not their own. So kind of a cultural voyeurism. I’m interested in culture if it’s interesting to them, but not because of me myself. And then thirdly, the final thing we found was that mentors and mentees disagreed on whose role it should be and when to address diversity.
So at the end of the day, what we found is that mentors noted that regardless of their attitudes around diversity, they all agreed that addressing cultural diversity is complex and few of them feel equipped to handle it. So taking what I shared earlier about the importance of mentorship education and that we have evidence that it can make a difference in mentorship competency and their sense of confidence, we took advantage of the experience through the National Research Mentoring Network that Dr. Valentine referred to in phase one to develop a Culturally Aware Mentor Training, building on this evidence base of effective mentorship education.
We piloted it with 70 mentors across three different sites in the country, and we found that they actually had increased gains self-reported after they completed the training in being intentional to create opportunities to discuss diversity issues with their mentees, and being able to respectfully broach the topic of race/ethnicity in their mentoring relationships.
And important about this Culturally Aware Mentor Training is that we have a pretty deep dive, six hours right now, in-depth training where folk do what we call inside work and outside work. We decided to focus a hard charge on racial/ethnic diversity in mentoring relationships, because that’s the topic most people don’t want to talk about, and we figured if we can move the needle around race and ethnicity and get mentors to talk about that, perhaps they would be willing to talk about other dimensions of human diversity.
This inside work invites mentors to go through a structured series of internal self-examination of who they are as cultural beings—their own cultural identities, habits of minds, ways of being, etc. And outside work, which is really thinking about developing a critical consciousness about the research training context and the environments that our trainees are in and thinking about access and opportunity and equity.
We published that a couple of years ago, so there is some interesting reading there if you’d like to follow up on that. The key takeaway for this intervention is really about being intentional. In order to address a problem, you have to first acknowledge that it is one, and so we spent a lot of time in the CAM, or Culturally Aware Mentor Training talking about looking for opportunities and seizing opportunities with intentionality to address diversity and not waiting for it to bubble up from the trainees.
I’ll close with a couple of quotes and then begin to open this up for conversation. I’d like to hear your feedback. These are some of the quotes from faculty who actually took part in the CAM training, or Culturally Aware Mentorship education. One said, “I’m more sensitive to my own culture and am better prepared to think and ask about how others’ cultures affect their work and lives.”
Another person said, “I have been an advocate for diversity in admissions committees, but now I feel empowered and hope to use evidence to change attitudes.” Another person said, “Will change, dramatically, my role in PhD admissions and mentoring in my lab. Will make me aware of their viewpoint and needs to succeed.”
We are very fortunate in this second phase of NRMN to have been funded with one of the U01 projects to do a deeper dive into testing the effectiveness of CAM interventions. We’re using a randomized control trial that will be nationwide and hope that the country opens up so we can get back out in the field. We are excited to play around with the question of dose for CAM training.
As we originally rolled out, it’s a full day, seven-hour commitment (six hours of content, lunch, and a couple of breaks) and a lot of our colleagues said, “This is great, but I can’t get my faculty to stay in a training all day. Can you do something shorter?” So we said, hey, let’s test it out and figure out if the impact is similar or different if we have a half day versus a whole day.
So those are some of the questions we’ll be pursuing in the study, and there’s a reference there of our website. That is the close in my comments for now, and I’m excited to hear some questions.
Thank you so much, Angela. That was an outstanding presentation underscoring the evidence base behind the need for culturally aware mentoring. It’s just superb. We’ll now have about five minutes to take some questions before we move on to the next speaker. There is a question with regard to culturally aware mentorship, about the availability of routinely doing this through the NRMN and getting NRMN support to do this. Can you speak a little bit more about that, Angela?
I think I understood the question to be about the availability of the CAM training through NRMN?
I would direct that person to the hyperlink that has the cimerproject.org/cam-nrmn. That’s where you can get more information. We are still enrolling sites. We have space for about a dozen or so more sites. We’re working with 32 campuses and have about 20 confirmed. It’s a five-year project, and so we are interested to partner with and collaborate with folk.
So right now the second phase of NRMN, as many of you all know from NIGMS, is not doing programming and interventions. We are studying mechanisms and effectiveness of the interventions that do exist already. So NRMN itself is not providing training at this point, and that’s why I also offered the website of cimerproject.org. They are specifically available and set up now to offer fee-for-service training.
Some of the material is available online for free, asynchronous, where people can use self-directed learning for those curricula and don’t have to wait for the country to open up and have face-to-face training again. But for those who are specifically interested in the Culturally Aware Mentorship training and perhaps being a collaborator with us, we’re very excited to hear from you, so please do check that link. We’d love to hear from you and follow up.
So there’s an additional question that I think is terribly important. How can we encourage institutions to embed this idea of culturally sensitive mentoring in all of their mentoring efforts?
So I’m going to suggest you go to chapter 7 of the National Academies report. We have laid out a series of recommendations that have provided ideas for leverage points for various leaders and scholars on campus to think about how to engage senior leaders like Sherilynn Black when you think about a provost’s office that’s responsible for faculty, to have the evidence of why investing in, supporting, and recognizing and rewarding effective mentorship, especially around culturally aware mentorship, is necessary.
So from our end, from the CAM team, our goal is to give as much evidence as possible so that senior leaders and chairs and deans understand there’s evidence that suggests when you invest in building the capacity of faculty in this way to be culturally responsive, culturally aware, here is the likely return on your investment.
We are wanting to take a scientific approach to this so that we don’t just have people being encouraged to do things for which we have no evidence. And we have to be honest about that. We’re still learning a lot about how and where cultural diversity shows up in the mentoring relationship, where it has an impact, how the impact of the mentorship education around culturally aware mentorship actually translates into mentee outcomes.
So I encourage us to please check the chapter that’s on the role of the institutions that’s in the National Academies report and then follow-up with our CAM team through that link that I shared.
So there’s one last question before we move on. What is your view, Angela, about requiring versus encouraging the use of these practices?
I lean right now on encouraging because there is enough evidence to suggest that when these mentorship education opportunities are taken advantage of, there is an impact on trainees. As a faculty member, I know that we have pushback when someone tells us what to do, and the only reason I’m not going to say that it should be required is because we don’t yet have institutional practices and systems that reward it and recognize it. This is a time investment that I suggest should rise to the level of being recognized for tenured promotion and advancement.
And as we start to move the needle at the systems level where the time that mentors spend, that faculty spend, improving their practice as a mentor gets rewarded, recognized, incentivized, etc., I will not say that it should be required. But I’m hoping that we are moving there.
And I think that the next step is we have to provide evidence, which is why NIGMS and their investment in this work from NRMN is so important. Let’s provide the evidence, and then we can let institutions and systems understand that the evidence suggests that this is not only a good practice for the student outcomes, but it benefits the professional development and effectiveness of our faculty.
Thank you so much. This really underscores the role that NIH is taking in leadership of this, in particular NIGMS, and I am delighted to see the NIGMS Director, Jon Lorsch, is actually with us. Thank you, Jon, for all of your support in this work and also for Alison Gammie, this great work, and I will now turn it over to Dr. Sherilynn Black for her presentation. Sherilynn, take it away.
Dr. Sherilynn Black:
Thank you so much, Hannah, Angela. Thank you so much for underscoring all of the evidence that we have all been working on through research and collaborative work together for so long now.
What I was asked to do today was to do a little bit of a different approach. Angela laid out the evidence-based imperative for mentoring. I’m going to talk a little bit about what the situation is on the ground right now. Through my work as Associate Vice Provost at Duke University, I work directly with faculty and students, and a lot of the issues that Angela raised I’m seeing firsthand, especially in light of the pandemic that’s underway.
So the first thing I want to start out by saying is that over the last three months I have been working with faculty extensively, and I think it is pretty safe to say that there is a universal feeling of just being overwhelmed. So many people are dealing with a number of issues right now.
I curated a list here of just some of the issues that I’ve navigated with faculty over the last three months. You can see here some faculty have been suffering from COVID-19; some have parents and family members who have been sick. Others have been unable to complete their research remotely and are struggling with managing expectations of productivity for themselves and their students.
People are working through challenges that are associated with virtual teaching. I think a lot of us can identify with that. Many faculty have reported not feeling equipped to support and mentor their students, and that’s causing them a lot of anxiety. Also, personal challenges with family members and loved ones, increased professional responsibilities, navigating childcare and homeschooling.
And finally, generally feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about how to plan for the future. The thing to think about right now is that in the midst of all of this anxiety, we are all still trying to mentor our students. But I think it’s important to understand that our brains are not exactly wired to make that an easy feat.
I’m a neuroscientist, and I always like to think about this in terms of how our cognitive load is working. And in times of stress and trauma, the brain has a harder time facilitating empathy and becomes more egocentric. So in this particular study I’ve identified here, the subjects had a harder time recognizing their own or other’s emotions, and they also had a harder time making a judgment by taking on another person’s perspective.
So basically what that means is that the more stressed you are, the harder time you have thinking about what’s happening with others and their wellbeing, which means that it can make mentoring feel very challenging right now. But the problem is when mentors cannot mentor effectively, it makes us feel like we’re on a rudderless boat without a captain, and students really need that guidance to make sure that they can navigate the challenges of this pandemic.
Many, many students that I’ve talked to over the last three months are struggling, and they are really looking for their mentors to step up and take a leadership role to support them, to reassure them about the loss of productivity, about what’s happening in the future, and specifically students from underrepresented backgrounds are probably facing additional circumstances that make this pandemic a little bit more difficult to navigate—and I’ll talk a bit more about that in a moment.
But it’s really important for all mentors, regardless of whether you’re a postdoc or a faculty or an administrator, to be aware that these circumstances exist, that the students are having a hard time, and to consider how to lead these interactions through crisis moments.
If you think about how cultural awareness fits in as a lens on top of this already highly stressed space, culture defines who we are and how we engage with the world. So all of our mentees will have unique experiences according to their personal background and lived experiences. And this might mean that expectations between mentors and mentees might be different in perspective and in scope, especially as we are in uncharted territory like we are right now.
So the thing about culturally aware mentoring is that it actually benefits all mentees, because as we all think about our personal backgrounds, lived experiences, and the way that we are engaging with one another as colleagues, it helps all of us to bring a more authentic version of ourselves to the workplace. It builds a healthier professional structure and an ecosystem on each research team, and it also helps all of us as faculty to think about different communication styles, personality types, goals, and motivation styles for each mentee that we have.
Now we know that preceding this pandemic we were already going through many different systemic challenges to creating diverse groups in science. This is nothing new. This is something that’s been ongoing for centuries in this country.
We’ve seen a lack of cultural awareness in mentors, systems that inhibit mentee self-efficacy, imposture syndrome is something that many of you are probably familiar with, a lack of role models, many first-generation students who might have reduced cultural capital, small cohorts of underrepresented students that leads to a lack of engagement, and implicit and explicit biases which result from structural racism in academia.
Now one thing for us to know about biases is that right now it is undeniable that they are heightened. Hannah mentioned this in her opening remarks. When we’re stressed, we tend to rely more on our gut feelings in social situations than actually having rational thought and practical solutions.
Also, we know that when we’re making final decisions when we’re stressed, we’re also basing those on unexamined, innate responses. So that means that individuals that might normally be more mindful and thoughtful about how others are doing or think about how someone else’s experience in this pandemic might be a little more challenging than their own or different even than their own, that level of thought for many people is not happening right now, and that’s deeply impacted students.
I was able to speak to a number of students and get some direct challenges they’re facing right now during COVID-19, and these are some of the many challenges that I heard mentioned. Concerns about academic and research progress and productivity. Again, imposter syndrome—but this is based off of having so many Zoom meetings and people being concerned about their background environment.
Food insecurity has been something that has been coming up quite a bit—maybe more than people would expect. Financial concerns. Many people have been furloughed or dealing with childcare. Financial and physical assistance for parents and extending family care. Uninsured family members, especially as it relates to citizenship and documentation status, family separation issues.
Many of the students have shared that they feel that their family disproportionately fills service positions and they are concerned about their loved ones who don’t have the luxury of working from home right now and cannot socially distance. And they also don’t feel safe engaging in activities that reduce stress and increase wellness. And I want to say a bit more about that final point.
Right now, our mentees are inundated with headlines that are reinforcing to them the inequity that exists in this country, and they are dealing with that in the midst of trying to think about their science and also dealing with work. I did a very quick Google search just this morning, and these are many of the headlines that screamed out at me for the Native American, Black, and Latinx community. There are a lot of health disparities that we’re well aware of but thinking about these issues on top of the pandemic, on top of thinking about science, is proving to be very, very challenging for many students.
And going back to what I mentioned about not feeling safe, one student said to me, “I was told that I should go out and exercise to relieve stress because I can’t go anywhere else while I’m socially distancing. Well then we get headlines like this that talk about black doctors getting handcuffed for going outside wearing a mask. We saw the horrible images of George Floyd, that just came out yesterday, being murdered by police officers, and Ahmaud Arbery being killed out for a run.”
So in the midst of these highly stressful international pandemic conditions, we have underrepresented mentees who are being inundated with consistent images and scenarios that are threatening their personal safety and wellbeing. So for faculty, what can we do?
Well, I’ve tried to come up with a few tips that I think we can all just think about and think about ways you can possibly layer them onto our current practices. The first one is to always work to increase inclusion and equity for your mentees. And this is something that you can do all the time, even in the midst of a stressful situation, by just working to meet your students where they are and being transparent about where you are.
This is not the time to not be transparent or not have conversations that are rooted in honesty and authenticity. Everyone is having different experiences relative to their own environments, and so that’s very important that they see that level of transparency from you. Also, give agency to those who are most impacted. And by that I mean make sure that the students who are being impacted have a voice in what’s happening in their career.
Make sure that they feel that they empowered in some way. Don’t make assumptions about the lived experiences of others. I know this has been happening quite a bit where there are many students who have said, “I’m having experience X, but people are looking at these headlines and thinking that I’m having another experience that’s not relevant to who I am.”
And also provide space for differences of opinion and perspective. This is something that’s really critical right now because we’re all experiencing this pandemic in different ways, and some students are using science as an escape, and others are feeling that they can’t get anything done right now. And I think that I could actually say that same point for faculty. We’re seeing different experiences across the board, and that’s OK.
Also, as you’re thinking about ways to build your own capacity as a culturally aware leader, I mentioned this earlier about being authentic with your own experiences and your limitations. This is very key. I’ve heard many students that have said, “I’m so stressed out and my advisor has not provided me with any support.”
You may be in a space where you just don’t feel that you can offer that support right now, so maybe the better option is for you to connect them with people at the institution, or nationally, who are experts and can actually assist in that area. Also, make sure that you’re validating the experiences of others. This is very important.
All of these things are relative to our own personal experiences, so we don’t need to rank-order trauma or grief right now. Allow trainees a voice in how they need to be mentored. I know there are many students who may not feel that they are empowered to speak up, but right now is the time.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and you don’t feel that you can maintain the same pace, it’s important to let your advisor know. Communicate often and clearly and ensure a common understanding. There have been many miscommunications as a result of being on Zoom. I think none of us are surprised by that. So making sure that we’re always making sure that there is a common understanding at the end of conversations is important.
And also elucidate your role in the relationship. Make sure that your students know, “This is what I can offer you right now, and this is how I am committed to your success, and this is what things will look like moving forward.”
Also just a few thoughts about virtual platforms. We’ve all been struggling through the joys of figuring out how to connect by Zoom, and I know for some people it’s easier than others. But I definitely suggest to spend additional time ensuring that everyone is on the same page and understands the key issues in the same way. Not being able to assess body language or eye contact in the same way virtually can make consensuses very challenging when you’re having a discussion. You can think you said something; someone else could say something else.
The other point of that is that I’ve been trying to give everyone a lot of grace. I feel that I can say that many people are not at their best right now, so there can be lots of space for misunderstanding. Also, try not to make assumptions about intent and tone in a virtual context. Ask. Different cultures perceive things in different ways. People have different experiences. If you’re uncertain about what someone means or why they said something, it’s best to ask and be fully transparent through a virtual platform.
Invite students to engage in a number of ways to consider which formats will be most appropriate for their current situations. So again, empowering them to have a voice in how they’re moving forward. Normalize that things are not normal and work towards a new normal—I think we can all relate to that one.
And finally, adjust expectations for productivity and outcome timelines. This is hard for us as faculty to even do for ourselves, so we can imagine that through the power filter and power structure the students are especially feeling this. So making sure that we’re always thinking about how to reassure them and help them to have appropriate outcome timelines available.
And as we’re thinking about these things—and I’ve mentioned this frequently—communication is a huge part of this structure. This is the time to really focus on how to highlight communication strategies. So think about building your team into a space that has shared responsibility and everyone has a voice in current and future plans.
Let everyone speak up, share what they think, share how they think you can move forward. Many of us may be on virtual platforms for quite a while, and so doing this together can be a great way to build community amongst your team. Create opportunities for your mentees to share and engage with one another. Incorporate shared community values while also considering the individual needs of each mentee. Make sure you’re giving opportunities to speak both in groups and in a one-on-one setting, just like you would if you were in person.
And you can use this time to update things like mentoring compacts, individual development plans. I know NIGMS is requiring those for many of the grants, so many of you are probably already involved with those. And any other tools that foster communication and clarity of personal goals.
I’ll just give another plug. Angela already mentioned the National Research Mentoring Network, but a lot of the materials that I just mentioned are present on that website. And I also think doing different kinds of thought exercises with your team can also be important. You can discuss similarities and differences for your mentee’s current experiences as a scientist, how that differs from what you’re going through, how it’s impacting the work as a team.
Can you all think creatively about ways to make sure the work keeps going forward? And I also always suggest to identify one tangible goal to accomplish so everybody can feel that your work is still progressing forward. This can be very important not only for scientific progress, but also for mental health.
And to wrap up, I just wanted to say that as faculty we are always talking about mentoring students—we’ve been talking about that a lot today—but it’s very important that we honestly assess our own wellbeing before we mentor others and while we’re mentoring others. And I know we’ve all seen this picture when we get on an airplane. They say put on your own oxygen mask before you put that on for your students—well, we say students—but it is an important thing to consider that we need to be looking out for our own wellbeing and making sure we are bringing positive insights into the mentoring relationship. And with that, I will close and take a few questions.
Thank you so much, Sherilynn, for that outstanding presentation, taking us down to the real practicalities of what we do. So we have five minutes to take questions directly related to your presentation.
Somebody has raised the question of how do you bring up the questions of the differences in race and ethnicity between mentor and mentee, and how do you first of all, open a conversation about that? Secondly, how do you take it into effect when you are thinking about what to actually do as a mentor?
I get this question a lot, and a lot of faculty say, “I would really like to broach this topic, but I’m not sure how to do it in a way that won’t be offensive or feel like I am stepping on toes.” And what I always say is one easy way to do this is right now, as an example, there are a lot of things happening societally that are deeply impacting underrepresented students.
And I always say you can start out as faculty by saying—to the whole team; it doesn’t have to be just to the one student that’s underrepresented—“This is how I feel about what I saw that just happened. If any of you would like to talk about it, or if anyone has any insights about it, I’m always here.”
Or to have a group conversation about it. But I think that using different strategies to try to broach the subject, thinking about things that are similar and common between yourself and your mentee, that’s always a good strategy.
I always say that, in my opinion, the worst strategy is to say nothing, because it can invalidate someone’s personal identity and who they are. And I think we can all imagine if we are trying to do the best work that we can do, being the most authentic version of ourselves is how we do that best work, so always trying to make sure that we’re giving people the space to bring that fullness into the lab environment.
Another question that is directed to you is how frequently do you need to do this raising awareness and training of mentors? And does it matter the career stage that you’re talking about?
I would say, and I can let Angela weigh in on this as well. I think that this type of conversation should be wrapped into everything that we do. I was on the committee that wrote the report for the National Academies about graduate education two years ago, and mentorship came up over and over and over again as a salient predictor for success in the biomedical workforce. It needs to be discussed early, often, and always.
And I think that if you’re thinking about how culture overlays with that, in my personal opinion, culture is a part of professionalism. We all are highly collaborative in an international environment as scientists, so the idea that we would not be mindful of how we engage with our colleagues, how we interact with one another, how we view difference, how we think about different ideas, in my opinion, if we’re not doing that on a consistent basis, we’re not being the best scientists that we can be. So I would say always.
Great, thank you for that. There’s no question about that.
So Lyl, what are you seeing in the Q&A box?
There has been a lot of chatter about people thanking you guys for delivering such a great presentation. So that’s good.
One of the ones that I’ve had here is: What do you see as some of the most challenging aspects of integrating culturally aware mentorship practices in an increasingly diverse academic community?
Angela, do you want to take a first stab at that question?
Absolutely. Fear. People are afraid of failing. They’re afraid of making a mistake. They’re afraid of being misunderstood. They’re afraid of not looking competent. They’re afraid of being mislabeled, misinterpreted.
What we spend a lot of time addressing in the CAM training, for those of you who may be on the call who’ve been a part of it, is really unpacking what’s behind the fear. I think in a space in biomedical sciences where we are excited to use our science and our research and our techniques and our methods to control phenomena, to observe it, to make predictions, here’s where human diversity makes it very much uncontrollable. It’s unpredictable.
You may ask a question and get a response for which you have no rebuttal. You may feel like going into a cultural diversity cul-de-sac—can’t figure out how to get out. I just asked you, “How are you doing?” and your student actually answers truthfully. It stinks right now, in the last 48 hours, for a lot of people in a lot of pain for a lot of reasons that Dr. Black just mentioned, what’s happening on the national scene.
And these are not abstract ideas, and campus is not immune from these same issues. We have students, I have colleagues—last night I led a webinar for black faculty in the school of medicine, and several of them were talking about how they just crawled into a corner in the NICU (she’s a pediatric MD) and had to cry for an hour yesterday just thinking about what happened in Central Park, what happened in Minneapolis, what’s been happening all over for a long time, and thinking about how does it make sense to come to campus every day and talk to folk, especially in a hyper-white space like Wisconsin—as great as it is—I’ve been here 23 years, but it’s a hyper-white space that doesn’t get a lot of these issues.
So it’s fear that holds us back, and so I think it’s a brave act, I think, to be culturally aware for that reason. I think it takes a lot of courage. In the traditional sense of the Latin word “heart,” it takes a lot of heart to say, “I’m going to come out of my comfort zone.” And to go to Dr. Black’s point, when we don’t as faculty take the onus on ourselves to address these issues and broach these topics, it is unfair to leave it to the vulnerable folk with the least amount of power in these mentoring relationships to address these issues.
And I would also say amen to everything Angela just said, but also add that for change to occur, it means that someone’s comfort in the power structure has to be disrupted or perturbed. And so I think that the reality is we have a lot of people who are very interested, perhaps, and even believe that they are willing to engage in this at a deep level, but when it comes to disrupting their own comfort and existing in a system that was built for their success but maybe not everyone’s success, it’s very hard for people to see beyond that sometimes.
So a lot is said about the culture of mentoring, creating that within an institution. Can you speak a little bit about that, how can we actually begin this change? Because you were talking about some fairly radical changes in the way mentoring is done. Speak a little bit about that.
Sure, I can say a bit about that first. I think that what Angela touched on during her presentation about the way that mentoring is rewarded in the promotion and tenure process is critical. There are many institutions that are moving in that direction—especially, and I think this is really a testament to NIGMS—the fact that many components around mentoring are now being layered into grants in such a way where faculty are really having to prioritize this in a way maybe they have not before.
But the more that faculty are talking about it and the students know that these sorts of things are out there, I think that what begins to happen is, like it or not, there is an inertia of change that’s going in this direction. I also think that for a lot of faculty, they say—and I hear this all the time and I would feel the same way—”I’m open to trying something if you provide me the opportunity to increase my skills and efficacy in that space.”
And I can speak specifically at Duke, we’ve really worked hard to provide a lot of training opportunities for faculty who are interested in gaining additional skills in this area. And as those faculty start to do it, the students are talking about it, their peers are aware of it, and there starts to become a cohort of individuals who are really committed to mentoring, and that begins to facilitate this culture that you’re talking about.
So I think you both made the point that culturally aware mentoring is a skill set. You learn about it and then you can practice. But we have a question here that says, “Maybe some people are just always going to be unable to be good mentors. They might be great scientists, but they were never cut out for mentoring, and they just shouldn’t do that.” What is your response? We’ll start with you, and I’d like to take Angela’s response to that as well.
I think that if there is proper motivation and if people are incentivized in appropriate ways, people can do anything in academia. I think that we’ve seen that firsthand. As a prime example, think about the way that RCR used to be handled. Before it was a blocking point for people to be able to get grants, people may not have taken it very seriously, but once it was said you have to have an RCR plan, suddenly everybody had an RCR plan. And it might not have been that everyone agreed with it, but it’s now become part of the culture where people are actually thinking about how to engage in responsible research. I think that the idea that people cannot become good mentors is only a limitation of the mentor themselves who would not try for behavioral change.
Again, I’m a neuroscientist. There is enough plasticity in all of our brains to have behavioral modifications late into our years. If we’re really motivated and we actually care, we should do it. Like I said before, I really think that what inhibits people is this fear of a loss of their own comfort and their own status and space in a community, and we have to start thinking about do we care more about ourselves and our position or that of the greater good? And I really think that’s the question.
Great. Angela, what do you think? Are good mentors born?
Are good mentors born? I think that’s the same question that was debunked, “Are good teachers born or are they made?” And I think the evidence came in saying it’s a little bit of both, but you can make good teachers. And to build on Dr. Black’s point as a neuroscientist, I’m a psychologist, and so I also believe in the unlimited behavior potential for individuals.
I think what it comes down to is what do we mean by good mentors. I do believe there are continua of proficiency and effectiveness, and I’ll simply say that everybody has the potential to level up. And I think that’s where inviting people to do mentorship education is wherever your starting point is, where else do you have edges for growth to level up your skill set to be more responsive and effective for your trainees.
So I have two really practical questions. One is, how do you deal with a situation when your colleague thinks he or she is a good mentor, and, in fact, they’re really terrible and you’re hearing otherwise? How would you actually go about that? Because we often face that, right? We hear it through the mentee who comes to us, and we’re not their primary mentor, but they are having a hard time with their primary. How do you actually deal with that?
I have had to deal with that situation a number of times in different administrative capacities. One thing that I typically do is—this is sort of ironic, considering the previous question, but—I always try to start out from a space of assumption that everyone is trying to do what they think is best for the student. I try to make that my baseline assumption, whether it’s correct or not. And usually what I’ll do is pick out specific instances where the mentor has done something that may have been less than optimal and talk with them about, “I want you to know that this decision you made impacted your student this way, and I feel certain that was not your intent. So can we have a discussion about how you came to that decision and what outcome you were seeking to accomplish by the behavior that you did?”
And a lot of times it really does just come down to we’re in such a rat race of go, go, go that when you really sit down and have to thoughtfully examine your own behavior, sometimes that is honestly enough to at least get you thinking about how to make some behavioral changes and modifications.
But I also think we talk a lot in academia about this bystander culture. If you see things that are going on that are not optimal—I mean, I know I personally feel as faculty that it’s my responsibility and obligation to try to do what’s best for the students, and it doesn’t mean that I antagonize my peers, but it certainly means that I try to do what’s best to build the best climate that I can at the institution.
So I think not only having honest discussions, but also identifying your own challenges and sharing with your colleagues about trainings you’ve taken that have helped you to overcome certain behaviors, things you’ve learned that have been helpful to enhance your mentoring skills, and also ways that you could possibly help them to move forward as well.
Great. Angela, what do you think?
Thank you. I’ll just add, building on Dr. Black’s comment, the importance of positive peer pressure. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the audio capability for other people on the call to share because we have great examples—I can tell by the names on the screen—of several institutions around this country who have great examples and strategies for how to level up suboptimal mentorship by faculty.
One example I know of is having a chair who requires for his graduate trainees that their CVs are shared and discussed at the end of the year by the faculty, and the goal is to put the light on the faculty of the mentees to talk about what they’re doing well and where they could grow as mentees to move that CV of their trainee along.
And so as you start to have positive peer pressure, thinking about, “Wow, so-and-so’s trainees are doing X, Y, and Z. Maybe I could be doing that as well.” Or, “This person seems to be more productive with this mentor; perhaps I can do those things.” I think we’ve seen concrete examples like that, but I’m going to suggest we look at the possibility of leaders like deans and chairs thinking about positive peer pressure, because we know that incentivizes behavior, rewarding them and acknowledging good behavior as opposed to calling out bad behavior.
Thank you. That was really helpful. Here is a problem that we’re hearing a lot about and I would like to spend some time on. It’s to do with how do we address the unrealistic expectations about productivity during this pandemic that certain students are feeling, especially as we return to work? So the feeling that I’ve got to go in, I’ve got to get this done, and yet there is a fear of safety, there’s an unrealistic expectation because there’s been a real pause in the research that has gone on before, and yet the expectation is I’ve got to publish my papers. How are you handling this? Because I think this is going to be a big issue for all academic institutions.
I don’t think anyone has the right answer to this, but I go back to what I mentioned earlier about it is so important to talk to each student individually and see where they are and where their head is, and to work together creatively to think about things that can happen during this time of physical distancing so that they can still be productive. One of my friends who is running a lab said to me, “You know, I have had every single person to work on a paper in my lab. Every person has submitted a student fellowship. Like what else do we do? And the students are having anxiety.”
I know that people are using different strategies. I know there’s one of my colleagues at Duke who had each of her students write down their dream experiment they would do. Some people are doing lab meetings where for each lab meeting that’s virtual they learn about a new technique or structure that will be important in the lab when the labs reopen physically.
But right now I think everyone is just trying to find creative solutions. But again, the key, in my opinion, is to make sure that you’re checking in with each student, because there may be some students who say, “I want to write five papers. I will write reviews. I’ll do whatever because I need to take my mind off of this.”
And there are some who may be having real mental health challenges and are just not capable of doing that work. So not making assumptions that everyone is in the same space.
Great, thank you.
May I add? I know our time is about to wrap up, but I want to remind us in response to the things that we can do to help address our students’ realistic expectations and reimagining what the reality is for their productivity is that we have a wonderful set of tools that we put together. The National Academies report has an online tool that accompanies it, and Lyl has been gracious to paste it into the chat box.
And if I may just pull up my screen one more time and just share that.
This is an interactive tool that you can use and find useful resources, including mentoring tools. So if you look at this guide, there are topics at the top that are drop-down menus, and I encourage us all to look at the “Action and Tools” drop-down menu. It will take you to a section, as you can see on the right side of the slide, that has a section called “Mentoring Tools.”
As well as responding to a previous question Dr. Valantine fielded, which is developing a culture of mentorship and what institutions can do. So I just want to remind us and encourage us to use some of the resources that are in this guide that may be useful, I think, for answering some of these on-the-ground questions as we start to return to work.
One last question, which is really important, and it’s around how do you gain credibility as a culturally aware mentor, especially if you are from a majority group—a cis white man or woman. How do you gain that credibility so that you can then recruit more students/trainees from underrepresented groups? Quick answer.
I’ll give it to Angela first.
I wish we had other colleagues to be able to talk about that. I think it’s about positive peer pressure. Our students, our trainees will be the litmus test. They are the ones who vouch for us in our culturally aware behaviors that are effective and responsive to them.
I would just say having a sense of humility, not believing that you know all the answers, coming there with a spirit to learn and to truly engage and appreciate everything about the students that you’re working with. That’s how you gain credibility in the community.
Thank you both extremely for all of your contributions to this session. Thank you to NIGMS leadership, including Jon Lorsch, institute director, Alison Gammie as well. I hope this session was valuable to you all and that the information you’ve found usable and will take it back with you. And I hope that everyone stays safe and in good spirits and thank you again. I will close this session.
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8/9/2021 11:39 AM
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