Christine Pfund on Maximizing Mentoring Relationships

Posted on November 9, 2017
Christine Pfund photo conducting STEM mentoring workshop.
Christine Pfund conducts workshops to improve STEM mentoring. Photo credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Christine Pfund [pronounced fənd], executive director of the new Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER), recently sat down with the PAESMEM team to discuss her work on STEM mentoring relationships. A principal investigator for the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), Pfund authored a chapter for the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) 2017 report, Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges and Opportunities. She also presented on advancing STEM mentoring best practices during the PAESMEM/AAAS 2017 STEM Mentors Alumni meeting in April 2017.

Q: What are some key aspects of the chapter, “The Role of Mentoring,” that you wrote for NAS?

Pfund: In this chapter, I focus on the benefits of mentorship for both the mentor and the mentee, and really emphasize that the success of any mentoring relationship is the mentee’s ability to successfully advance in their chosen career path.

There are different models of mentorship which depend on context. For example, smaller institutions that conduct undergraduate research experiences might adopt a model where faculty members directly mentor undergraduate trainees. Of course, this can occur at larger institutions too, and that’s wonderful; however, there are also models where participants include a faculty member, a graduate student, and an undergraduate student. This is an exciting opportunity for the graduate student to learn mentoring skills from the faculty member, and practice those skills with the undergraduate student. The undergraduate student has an opportunity to interact with both the graduate student and the faculty member. This is a tremendous learning opportunity for this triad of individuals in a mentorship. It’s a piece we don’t often talk about, but it is an amazing part of the mentoring enterprise where these young scholars-in-training get to work with undergraduate trainees, take on the task of mentoring, and learn how to do it well.

Mentoring may be viewed as altruistic, but paying it forward benefits mentors in a very tangible way. The entire research enterprise relies on each generation training the one up-and-coming. Mentors who foster research self-efficacy in their trainees, even at the undergraduate level, share new ideas and perspectives and reap the benefits. Research has also shown that intentionally building diverse research teams and fostering inclusive environments directly benefits the research itself.

Q: What is evidence-based mentorship?

Pfund: When we talk about evidence-based mentorship, we are referring to practices, interactions, and activities that research studies demonstrate will have a positive impact on mentoring relationships. We are referring to the behaviors in which you engage as part of that relationship; the decisions you make about how to interact in that relationship; and the knowledge and skill base from which you draw to optimize that relationship. All of that comes from an evidence base. Now, we point to those approaches in mentor training because the evidence shows these practices have resulted in persistence of diverse groups in the sciences, which is the ultimate goal. So, if the hypothesis derives from optimizing the mentor relationships, tending to the unique element of every relationship and the elements of diversity--and you can use an evidence base to do that--then you should see enhanced persistence in STEM education.

Q: Where does persistence in STEM education lead? 

Pfund: It depends. It’s not just about those going on to be faculty. It’s much broader than that. In my article, we clearly said success is when the mentee is able to gain the skills and knowledge they need for their chosen career path. Of course, nearly all who work in STEM education hope that a large majority of those careers are in STEM fields. But there’s a wide variety of educational and career paths.

Q: How is your work advancing evidence-based STEM mentoring?

Pfund: Our work, through both CIMER and NRMN, is primarily focused on optimizing the skills of mentors and mentees through training to address a targeted set of competencies. Importantly, these competencies are based on attributes that decades of work have indicated should impact persistence of diverse trainees. These include attributes in five domains of skill development: research, interpersonal, psychosocial, cultural and sponsorship.

I’ll give you a specific example: Research has shown that a student’s belief in their ability to do research (known as research self-efficacy), and the belief that a research career is worth it (known as outcome expectations) will influence their interest and their persistence in STEM. The theory is that if both mentor and mentee are better able to build the research self-efficacy of the mentee, mentees will be more likely to persist in science. We are working to develop and test approaches that will help mentors and mentees be more effective across all of the targeted attributes. We are also partnering with folks from across the country who have developed exciting mentor and mentee training materials to share ideas, test diverse approaches and centralize the materials available.

When you presented at the STEM Mentors Alumni Meeting in April, you spoke about some of the steps needed to advance research and efficacy in STEM mentoring. Where did this work originate from and can you share a couple of these steps?

Pfund: That was based on the work I did for the National Academies’ in-depth look at undergraduate research experiences. It spoke to the challenges that lie ahead for the field of STEM mentoring research. We need a shared, functional definition of mentoring and a detailed list of the roles mentors are playing so that we can articulate what success looks like within mentoring relationships and in what context. We must also work to identify attributes of effective mentoring relationships and develop metrics for assessing the knowledge, skills and effectiveness. These will encourage more methodically rigorous studies. All of these things will help us advance the research on mentoring. I have had the privilege of working with scholars from across disciplines to do research on mentoring and am excited about the progress that is being made around the science of mentoring and the opportunity to learn more and maximize the research mentoring experience for diverse trainees.

Q: Do metrics count in terms of the numbers of mentees pursuing career paths in STEM?

Pfund: Absolutely, numbers matter. Amazing people are doing amazing things to enhance the skills and the confidence of their mentees -- that includes the PAESMEM recipients. Our work is not so much about helping great mentors continue to be great. It’s about having more mentors optimize in their mentoring practice so that we don’t just have a small collection of PAESMEM recipients who excel in mentoring, but we have thousands of mentors with the skills and knowledge to maximize their relationships.