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Tips That Work!: Advice from Award-winning STEM Mentors

Posted on June 13, 2018
Dr. Juan Gilbert, (right) confers with his mentee, France Jackson, during a project they developed in his Human-Experience Research Laboratory at the University of Florida.  Credit: University of Florida
Dr. Juan Gilbert, (right) confers with his mentee, France Jackson, during a project they developed in his Human-Experience Research Laboratory at the University of Florida. Credit: University of Florida

You might be an undergraduate student contemplating a science degree; perhaps you have completed your undergraduate studies and are moving into a STEM graduate program. You are ready to dive more deeply into the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but the water seems rough at first, and you wonder about advice and guidance. To whom do you turn?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a tip for you:  Seek out a mentor and establish a relationship that could be a valuable part of your education and career life.  On March 8, 2018, the NSF sponsored a lively and insightful webinar discussion that it called “Tips That Work!: Advice from Award-Winning STEM Mentors.” 

The webinar featured two recipients of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) along with two of their mentees. 

The online conversation was moderated by Dr. Julie Johnson, program director at NSF, with opening remarks by Dr. Jermelina Tupas, acting division director for NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate.  

Johnson and Tupas set about to engage the audience of young students and beginning professionals in the roles that a mentor can play in boosting their education and STEM careers. “What I think is really rewarding about a mentoring relationship is not just the mentoring or teaching, but the receiving and learning that each gains from the relationship,” said Tupas. 

Panelists included: 

•    Dr. Juan Gilbert (PAESMEM 2011), chair of the computer science and engineering department at the University of Florida's Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering; 
•    France Jackson, Gilbert’s mentee and a doctoral student of human-centered computing, who works as a user-experience researcher and designer at Intel; 
•    Dr. Sheila Humphreys (PAESMEM 2012), emerita director of diversity in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at the University of California, Berkeley (UC, Berkeley) and;
•    Cheyenne Nelson, Humphreys’ mentee and a recent UC, Berkeley physics graduate who works as a research associate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab on the UC, Berkeley campus.  

Perspectives on Mentoring 

Jackson advised STEM students to be proactive in finding mentors. “Get out of your dorm room, get out of the library, go out and meet people,” Jackson urged listeners. “Seek them [mentors] out.”

Gilbert said an important aspect of being an effective mentor is leveraging your disciplinary and lifetime accomplishments to the benefit of your mentee.  
“[Mentors] need to be in a position where they can mentor someone.  It is important for the mentor to bring to bear his or her professional achievements in a way that supports the protégé as he or she sets goals and strategies for their own success,” said Gilbert. 

Humphreys reminded the audience that there are three important aspects of STEM mentoring-- or any mentoring relationship--trust, the ability to listen and being flexible. 

“The ability to listen deeply and carefully--and understand the context of the person at the various stages of their academic and professional path--is very important. Your mentoring style and the ability to mentor must be nimble and adaptable to the situation of the mentee because individuals have different contexts, different needs, different situations, which evolve as they progress in their careers,” she explained.

Mentees Share Perspectives

Jackson agreed that trust cements the mentoring relationship in good and tough times. “As a mentee, you won't always be right,” she said.  “There will be times when your mentor will be tough on you. But if the message is delivered in a way that's respectful, and there's already an understanding between the two of you, then it will be well received and not taken personally.” 

Cheyenne Nelson (mentored by PAESMEM winner Sheila Humphreys) and Jackson both emphasized the need to be pro-active about building a network of mentors. 
Nelson said searching online can uncover resources for finding mentors. “Find your peers. I found Cal NERDS (a faculty-mentored research and career preparation program in California for undergraduates and graduates) from Google,” said Nelson. Moderator Johnson added that LinkedIn is a valuable resource for proactively finding mentors in STEM groups that may benefit a mentee’s career. 

“You don’t lose anything by trying to reach out to a mentor,” said Jackson. “Find someone with whom you have something in common. If you express to a potential mentor that you’re interested in something, they will respond,” Jackson said. 

Leveraging the Award

During the question-and-answer period, Gilbert and Humphreys discussed the impact the PAESMEM honor has with respect to their on-going mentoring efforts. Gilbert said greater visibility and networking opportunities are among the major benefits of receiving the award. He said those benefits also translate into opportunities for his current and future mentees. 

“I always tell my Ph.Ds. that important aspects of building a promising STEM career include the quality of the research you are doing, and does your advisor have ‘juice’. Those conversations exist.” Gilbert added that the PAESMEM gives a mentor visibility, and that so-called “juice,” by connecting them into broader networks whereby the mentor’s recognition carries over to the mentees.

Humphreys echoed Gilbert’s assessment and offered a case in point.

“I received the PAESMEM at the same time as another awardee (Professor Lorraine Fleming, acting dean at that time and a professor of civil engineering at Howard University). I came back to my home institution, the University of California at Berkeley, and connected with one of Fleming’s civil engineering students enrolled in a doctoral program at my institution. Thereafter, Dr. Fleming came and spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration of our campus’ black student group. That would not have happened without the PAESMEM connection,” Humphreys recalled.

Take-home Tips

The webinar wrapped up with each panelist giving key take-aways for the audience on forming outstanding STEM relationships. Nelson noted that mentees need to stay focused on their personal goals. “Remember to stay true to yourself in the mentorship process. Your mentor may be this amazing, kind, successful human being, but they aren’t you. The goal of successful mentorship is to make you a better you. It’s not to turn you into a Mini-Me of your mentor,” she advised. 

Humphreys reminded listeners that everyone needs a plurality of mentors at different stages in their lives and careers. “It’s the most rewarding activity to be mentored, and to mentor. As mentees have said, you must ask for what you need from your mentor. Just be honest, be bold, and be brave.” 

Listen to an audio recording of the webinar.