Scientist, Educator & Speaker
Mentoring young researchers is an expected part of the responsibilities of faculty and more senior researchers in academia. As far as I can tell, there is no other business in which so much time and energy is spent on guiding and mentoring the next generation of workers. In this interview, I talked with three of my female colleagues in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University – all of whom take mentoring seriously and spend a lot of time and energy guiding their students through the theory, practice, and culture of the scientific research enterprise.
Professor Jill Schneider and Professor Jennifer Swann both study the effects of hormones on brain and behavior. Assistant Professor Julie Miwa studies the impact of the cholinergic neurotransmitter system on behavioral adaptation, learning, and creativity. They are the talented Triple J’s from Lehigh University!
What are some of the most important characteristics or functions of an outstanding mentor?
Jill: What I can say, retrospectively, is that you really cannot take a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach. It just comes back to bite you all the time. When I think back to the times when trying to provide mentorship, and telling them something really important about being professional … and then they say, “Remember the time when you forgot to tell us that you were going to Australia to collaborate with that person, and we sat there waiting for you in a Professional Skills class!” There are probably a million things that I’ve told people to do, but what they remember is how I comported myself.
Julie: When I think about mentoring, it’s not one-size fits all. It’s really helpful to have an understanding of the student, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and different aspects and facets that could be improved upon, and to guide the student in those facets. You might have a different approach for each of your different students, and that helps with mentoring. Another thing is this idea that problems can be solved and there is a solution. Students can maybe catastrophize when things don’t go according to the way they want them to because they’re not used to these micro-failures that are so important in science … learning to be resilient in the face of these failures. I think another really important lesson is to allow the student to understand through your own ways of dealing with problems. I think that can really make the difference between a student going with blinders on and not being willing to make adaptations they need for success, versus expanding their mindset and being willing to be open to all those different solutions until they come upon the correct solution. That’s a very rewarding thing for them and important for their learning process.
Jennifer: I think the two comments were really, really good. Mentors also open doors and network for their mentees. You could do that and not be an outstanding mentor, but it is one of the things about mentoring that is helpful for your students — to give them the opportunity they wouldn’t get if they didn’t have that connection.
When you were training as a student and postdoctoral fellow, what were some of the most influential guidance or advice that you received from your mentors?
Julie: When I was an undergraduate I was working with a female scientist who said, “You’re like a duck, everything rolls off you. Everything negative that you get, just bounce it away – don’t absorb any negativity.” She didn’t say it, but as a woman in STEM you’re going to face people who aren’t very open minded who automatically think that a woman can’t do science. I think that was a very important lesson to learn. In grad school I had a male mentor who said, “As a woman you’re going to have to work a lot harder and be a lot better than a man to make it in science.” That was hard to hear, but I think he was trying to prepare me for the reality of science.
Jennifer: I had limited mentoring when I was a student. I’ve gotten mentoring later that is more about dealing with people in administrative situations and trying to navigate all of that. And that’s been helpful. For me, the hardest thing to figure out is – I’m a very honest person and l like to get right to the truth, but there’s a lot of ‘administrative-speak’ that you have to learn to navigate some of these situations. That’s been the hardest thing for me to learn is when to say what and when to not say anything at all – and that’s not how I operate.
Jill: One thing that was key was that my postdoctoral mentor said, “You can sleep with a hypothesis, but never marry one.” He said it all the time, and he gave us the ‘strong inference hypothesis testing’ [emphasizing the need for alternative hypothesis testing to avoid confirmation bias]. And if he needed to, he pulled out the article by Popper — that you’re not trying to support your hypothesis, you’re trying to refute it. If you haven’t designed your experiment in a way that there’s a reasonable outcome that refutes the hypothesis, then you need to redesign your experiment. That was absolutely key to me and it’s on the forefront of my mind all the time.
When you started your faculty position, did you develop a formal mentoring relationship with a more senior colleague to help guide you along your career advancement?
Jennifer: My chair of department at Rutgers University [where J.S. started as Assistant Professor] was really good at mentoring me – and I didn’t realize it at the time. He was very good at trying to make sure that I stayed on track. We would meet periodically and he would ask, “How many papers do you have and where are they in the pipeline? Where are the abstracts? Are you going to [scientific] meetings?” He also protected my time by keeping me off of a lot of committees. I know this because the day I got tenure the phone started ringing! I was on 5 or 6 committees within a week. He had blocked all those people from coming after me. He did a very good job of shepherding his faculty all the way through tenure.
Jill: I did, and they were really helpful. I had this wonderful woman in Sociology who was a senior faculty member. And I had someone from Art & Architecture. They really gave me perspective on advice that I was given, that was counter to my instincts, by my [Biology] department chair. They gave me enormous perspective on these words that allowed me to give them their proper place – that that was one point of view, and there are other points of view. They had just started this at Lehigh that each new faculty member would have two mentors.
Julie: When I started, I don’t think they had a formal mentoring program for pre-tenured faculty. I had informal mentoring. I would meet with a senior administrator and get his perspective, but he never really covered the nuts-and-bolts of what you needed to get tenure. It was more about integrating into this academic culture, to make me feel safe because I didn’t always feel completely safe in my department. I had other informal mentoring with different faculty members, particularly the female faculty members [pointing to Jennifer and Jill].
This is really a question for Jennifer and Jill because they’re senior faculty: How is it helpful for mid-career and senior professionals to continue to be mentored?
Jennifer: I think it depends on what it is that you want to do. One of the things that happens in your academic career is that you have to make that switch from pre-tenured to tenured faculty. At least in our college, the switch means that you have to do more service – which is not true before tenure – and it’s weird. After tenure, they want to see that you can do service and lead. So it’s time to spread your wings a little bit to figure out where you really want to go now that you can do whatever you want and not worry about someone’s judgment. I think it’s helpful to talk to as many people as you can to see, from an outside perspective, what the issues are and what tips they can give you.
Jill: I think it’s really helpful because, just like with promotion from Assistant to Associate Professor, there’s the first time you try to go up for Full Professor. Since I didn’t have a mentor after tenure, I didn’t realize the importance of rising to Full, so I just could ignore the whole thing. And every once in a while someone would say, “You’re supposed to be coming up for Full.” I was just doing my stuff: trying to get my grants, trying to keep publishing. And I said, “Well, what do I get by being Full.” And somebody would say, “You get a couple of hundred bucks.” And there is this implicit pressure to be on more university and department committees. I was not informed about it – there are some positives. I lost sight of the fact that by not being promoted that the number of women in our department who are Full Professors would be one less because I wasn’t paying attention. It’s so easy to get distracted by your research and trying to get grants, you lose sight of the professional ladder. I don’t know if that’s something that happens to other women. To me, I’m kind of aversive to the whole ladder thing – I’m attracted to research and I’m attracted to teaching. But that other thing is something that guys do because they have these egos. I think having a mentor perspective would have been positive for me – to see that these are things that are appropriate for me to care about.
You are also a mentor to students who are being trained in laboratory research. What are some of your proudest mentor moments?
Julie: I’m always very proud when I see a student who makes the transition from following an experiment I tell them to do and they do it, to becoming intrinsically motivated. They get a taste for discovery. You can see the light turn on in their eyes, you can actually see the moment. And it’s a very rewarding thing to bring that to a student. They become intrinsically desirous of getting more data because they want to know. That’s always a very proud moment.
Jennifer: I agree – that’s the whole goal, and it’s extremely rewarding when they get it and really own it. You gave them the first experiment, they kind of improvise on the second one, and then the third one is really theirs. When they defend their thesis and say, “This is my work,” and they’re so proud of it you feel it too. As Julie said, you watch them make that transition from being a lab tech to being a researcher, and it’s very rewarding.
Jill: I would say the same thing. When I think back to actual individuals, there are moments along the way when they think of their own experiments, and they do things that don’t require me to tell them to do it — they do it themselves. I think for most of them, right at the very end, before that [thesis] defense, they have made this jump in maturity and ownership of the projects. It makes you so proud when they’re answering questions in the qualifying exam – it’s so great!
Do you think you mentor men and women differently? Due to the sensitivity of the answers, the identity of who said what was anonymized.
J1: I think that I do. I don’t know if it’s a general thing, but I always attributed it to me not having any sisters and not having the greatest relationship with my mom, so sometimes I think that I’m missing some way of dealing with female students. I always blame myself! I tend to have a really easy relationship with my male students, it seems natural. I’m an athlete, a tomboyish person. I have a brother, not a sister – I have a kind of locker room type of personality. So, I feel like I get along with guys in a more natural way. With each woman, it’s individual: this woman, pretty good; this woman, so-so; this woman, mostly not OK. I always blamed it on my personality, I didn’t think of it as a systemic issue.
J2: I can mentor female students a lot more easily than I can mentor most male students. Especially at the undergraduate level, I think the level of maturity is a little bit different for girls than boys. The way my lab runs, it’s very interdependent – we work as a team. There has to be a lot of communication to keep all the projects going. In my experience, it’s harder sometimes for the men to communicate to the level that would make them successful. It could also be that my communication style is indirect: I suggest things, and that might not penetrate as well as “do it.” Then when I try to be more direct, sometimes I find, “This is the tenth time I’ve told you to change the conditions on this Western blot,” and they refuse to do it. I think it might be my communication style, but I do find that I can mentor women more easily.
J3: I’ve had so many students, I’m trying to think – they’ve been all over the place. I’ve had some amazing men and some amazing women. And then I’ve had the ones I’ve wanted to let go. For me, I relate to each person as an individual. I can’t see that there’s a gender difference.
Do you have any other thoughts on mentoring?
Julie: There are a lot of implicit rules that go on. When I came to this university, there were rules that were not written down anywhere. I would inadvertently step on a lot of those rules and people would get upset, “Why did you use the red forms? It’s the blue forms, it’s always been the blue forms.” And as a mentor, I have all these expectations that I want the students to follow and I’ve done it that way all the time. I have to really work to make it explicit, about my expectations to my students. We have a lot of things that we want, but we don’t want to articulate them because we want people to sort of ‘divine’ ourselves and understand ourselves. The more we can articulate what we need, what we want, and what we desire, then we’ll be more successful in the real world. Even at the institutional level, there’s these implicit rules that I don’t know what they are. I’d like for everything to be more explicit. But, that puts me in the responsibility of having to be more explicit, too, with my mentees.
Jennifer: I’d like to add something that Jill taught me, which is that you need to have mentors from several different areas. You should have a mentor from within your department who can help you decode whatever the politics are in your department. But, it’s helpful to have somebody from outside of your department and your field who can take a more objective view — who can say, “Well, that’s dumb. That may be the way your department does it, but it doesn’t make any sense.” Then you need somebody who you can just talk to – it may not even be in science – who can help you deal with the bigger picture of your life, and not just your research or your science. More about how to integrate your work-life balance, somebody you can just talk to. I would encourage anybody to use someone as a mentor, if you can reach out to them and just talk with them. Julie: It sounds like what you’re saying is that mentorship should be a distributed model because one person doesn’t have all the answers. Jennifer: That’s right. And the wider your network, the better chances you have to know about things that you just had no idea were out there and benefit from.
Jill: For graduate students and Assistant Professors, they shouldn’t expect their formal mentor to be everything, because nobody is everything. They could have a mentor for scientific design; but maybe their formal mentor is not so great at techniques, so they could have a mentor for techniques, or a mentor for statistics, and a mentor for career stuff and professional possibilities. Maybe their formal mentor is good for laboratory stuff, but terrible for personal stuff. You can’t expect that your academic mentor to be the best person to talk to about whether or not you should have a child, or how you’re going to deal with some ethical problem in your life. Individuals should have a fan of mentors, then you don’t have to fault your formal mentor for not being everything.
Jennifer: I was surprised. I’ve had people tell me that I’ve been their mentor, and I didn’t even realize I was. You just never know when someone is relying on you in that way. The more connections you can make and the more conversations you can have, the better. One more thing, mentoring can be reciprocal if you are open to it. I called a student I was mentoring for help with a different student. Turns out my mentee was struggling with a P.I. [principal investigator]. We exchanged stories and our different perspectives were very helpful in solving our problems which was an amazing thing, and not something that you expect.
The blog of the Institute for Women's Policy Research
Mark Cooper and John Marx write about universities.
Driving Advice for Lost Angelenos
INSIDE THE ART, CRAFT AND BUSINESS OF WRITING for Film, TV, Books, Stage, Print or Digital Media (with Particular Attention to Comedy)
rock and roll