Thoughts on mentoring, and why it matters

Listen at least twice as much as you talk. Be an advocate when it’s needed. Insist on success. Provide a safe environment, free from assumptions.

PAESMEM awardee Shelia Humphreys during an undergraduate research poster session at UC Berkeley. Credit: Courtesy of Shelia Humphreys.

January is National Mentoring Month, a celebration of mentoring and the good it can do for individuals and communities. Every year, NSF celebrates mentors via PAESMEM: the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics & Engineering Mentoring. PAESMEM is the highest mentoring award in the U.S.; it recognizes outstanding efforts of mentors in encouraging the next generation of innovators, and developing a STEM workforce that truly represents America.

PAESMEM winners are from all fields of science and engineering. They are former directors of NSF and classic-car-collecting mathematicians. They’ve worked in cheese factories, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., turned inner-city Houston students into field-savvy geologists.

We asked some PAESMEM alumni what makes a good mentor, and why mentoring matters, especially in STEM.

D. Allan Butterfield was raised in a small town in rural Maine. He was the first in his family to attend college, where he majored in chemistry, thanks to “lots of scholarships and loans.” The summer before his senior year, his physical chemistry professor, Robert Dunlap, selected Butterfield to help with NSF-funded research on the properties of liquids.

“He put the same expectations of accomplishment on me as he did his graduate students,” Butterfield said. “I thrived in this environment, and learned really for the first time the joy of research discovery and realized one could make a living by thinking.”

Today, Butterfield is a professor of biological chemistry, and associate vice president for research, at the University of Kentucky. He studies Alzheimer’s disease and oxidative stress in the brain. He is a 1998 PAESMEM awardee, recognized for his commitment to mentoring graduate students — mostly women, minorities and people from economically disadvantaged Appalachia; all groups underrepresented in chemistry.

“Maximizing STEM educational and research opportunities for all citizens of this country — regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious preference, or socioeconomic status — directly benefits the U.S. economic enterprise,” Butterfield said. “To exclude or minimize opportunities for any diminishes all of us. Mentoring of individuals in STEM areas is smart economic planning for our country.”

At the undergraduate level, women and minorities are earning increasing numbers of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. Many more are working in STEM fields. But disparities still exist. The graph above, from the 2016 version of the Science & Engineering Indicators, shows the yawning gap in STEM master’s degrees.

STEM mentoring can help close those gaps.

“We must consciously introduce a diverse audience to the excitement of STEM research, the broad possibilities involved in a STEM-centered career, and the many opportunities available to undergraduates who pursue STEM,” said Sue Lasser, an academic enhancement counselor at Clemson University and a 1996 PAESMEM awardee.

Ratnanther with students. Credit: Courtesy of JHU Engineering.

A diverse STEM workforce can also mean more diverse STEM research. Tilak Ratnanather, a professor in the biomedical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University, has spent much of his career working to bring more deaf and hard-of-hearing students in STEM fields; work that helped win him a PAESMEM in 2012. Ratnanather, who is deaf, specializes in auditory sciences — a field he thinks would benefit from more deaf and hearing-impaired scientists.

“The idea of having more and more deaf people doing hearing research is important,” he told Johns Hopkins. “Someone with a cochlear implant knows from experience what it is like to live with one. And in the past few years, there are more and more people with cochlear implants who want to do STEM work as a way to ‘pay it back.’”

“It’s not just a matter of opening doors; it’s important to show mentees that those doors even exist.”

Mentoring can also “eases the path for students who lack information, or exposure, to STEM,” said Shelia Humphreys, a 2012 PAESMEM awardee from University of California, Berkeley. And it can leverage the talent and ingenuity of all parts of the U.S. population.

Shelia Humphreys with one of her mentees, Emmanuel Adeagbo, now a PhD student. Credit: Courtesy of Shelia Humphreys

Her advice to mentors? Be committed to the overall well-being of your mentees — not just their professional achievements and advancements (though those are important too). Be honest. And listen.

Freeman Hrabrowski, President of University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), gave similar advice in a 2014 editorial. Hrabrowski represented UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which won a PAESMEM in 1996. The program supports undergraduate science and engineering students who want to pursue doctoral study.

“It is important to create a climate in which students, faculty, and staff can be honest about the problems they are facing, work together to develop strategies that can be effective, and share feedback about what is working,” he wrote. “Listening to different voices is essential.”

Positive reinforcement is another tool in the mentor’s toolbox, said Diola Bagayoko, professor of physics at Southern University and another 1996 awardee. Science and engineering graduates face a competitive environment post-graduation. The advice, support and push of a good mentor can help them succeed.

Having high expectations is also key, said Butterfield. Insist on rigorous standards for success for the mentee, he said, so they know their research accomplishments are equal to (or better than) students in majority groups.

Richard Tapia, a 1996 PAESMEM awardee and Rice University professor, with a mentee. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Tapia.

“Our country’s founding documents, suitably amended, proclaim the inalienable right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Those founding principles are not reserved for only some, but for all. STEM mentoring of underrepresented persons honors this founding principle of our country.”