Culturally-responsive mentorship in STEMM (the extra M is for medicine)

By Tyson Pankey, PhD, MPH

In fall 2013, I started my six-year journey towards a doctorate in Counseling Psychology. Less than a year prior to that, I began my social transition as a transman of color. While I found freedom in my newly affirmed gender identity, I also felt uncomfortable, self-conscious, and uncertain of what lay ahead in my novice Black male body. My clothes fit poorly and my reflection in the mirror showed someone half my chronological age (thanks, second puberty). Moreover, my trans identity remained invisible (or concealed) to most. The world around me expected a sure-footed, assertive, and decisive Black man. I seldom felt any of those things; at least not in a stable and enduring way. Not yet.

Throughout the early years of my doctoral program, the residual internalized stigma and self-doubt influenced by my Blackness and trans-ness found subtle ways of undermining my self-efficacy as a clinician- and researcher in-training.

Left unattended, a confluence of “minority stressors” insidiously blocked my creative energy and thwarted me from articulating the novel ideas and perspectives swirling inside of me.

This felt particularly true in predominantly White spaces, where implicit messages and explicit curricula about “good science” and “gold standards” maintained a pervasive system of social hierarchies and otherness.

One of the greatest gifts afforded to me in my graduate training was that of deliberate self-reflection and cultural empowerment. I learned that we are all subject to external and internal messaging that either promotes or undermines our development and well-being. I grappled with the fact that I had (and still have) intricately interwoven social identities and experiences, all of them uniquely mine; each of them contributing to separate and ever-intersecting timelines of maturation.

The author with Dr. Patrice Harris (former president of the American Medical Association) at Mayo Clinic’s Pathways to Physician Diversity National Summit 2020

This constellation of information and self-realization catalyzed me to begin releasing myself from a bondage of self-sabotaging beliefs. It also began undergirding deeply vulnerable conversations with my BIPOC peers who were co-journeying with me towards our respective degrees.

Together, we shared our individual and collective stories of cultural invisibility, “failure” (almost entirely imagined), and unabated psychological and emotional exhaustion stemming from our non-affirming learning environments.

We then co-conspired to propel each other and our respective communities towards greater visibility, recognition, and appreciation. Ultimately, these essential ingredients allowed me to grow into myself. These ingredients cultivated and clarified my vision and voice as a Black, trans scientist-practitioner.

Advertisement for national Twitter Chats focused on increasing the research participation of underrepresented minorities in family medicine, co-hosted by workgroup members of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine. Pictured here (left to right: Jay-Sheree Allen, MD, Tyson Pankey, PhD, MPH, Cesar Gonzalez, PhD, ABPP)

Today, I am a postdoctoral fellow working in academic medicine to promote the research and scholarship of underrepresented medical students and residents. I contribute my first-hand experience and expertise in psychology to create a more inclusive and culturally-responsive STEMM enterprise. I wholeheartedly believe we can combat health disparities and advance scientific innovation through mentorship that culturally affirms and empowers BIPOC scholars.

Effective mentorship is just as much about helping scholars to achieve a profound internal transformation as it is about helping them to accomplish their academic and career goals.

Many BIPOC STEMM scholars are quite literally moving through a life changing social transition. Early in their identity formation as future scientists, engineers, mathematicians, or physicians, our scholars are actively reconciling conflicting internal and external messages about their value, worth, and skills. Integrating all aspects of ourselves and our personal histories into one coherent whole takes time.

Poster presentation at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference 2019

For mentors and mentees alike, it’s essential to understand that this identity formation process is normative, that moving through it will require emotional and cognitive energy, and that it will look different for each individual.

A profound internal transformation is one of healthy esteem, belief, and patience for oneself, regardless of external indicators of “success” (e.g., grades, awards, grants, publications, etc.). Among our BIPOC STEMM scholars, this internal transformation is built upon the basic premise that they are already enough.

They are already talented and capable. They have nothing to prove to you (the mentor), the institution, or the field in order to be “enough”. When we actively communicate and convey an unconditional positive regard (a term coined by psychologist Carl Rogers) towards our mentees, we free them to actualize their inherent growth-seeking tendency with fewer self-limiting (or self-aggrandizing) beliefs or behaviors.

In practice, mentoring with unconditional positive regard includes:

  • explicitly telling our mentees that they are smart, talented and belong
  • encouraging them to share their perspectives and opinions, without criticism or minimization
  • affirming and appreciating all intersections of their cultural identities; and
  • creating a safe space for mentees to disclose their internal experiences without judgment or retaliation

By doing so, mentors optimize the conditions under which our mentees’ naturally occurring ideas, creativity, and abilities come forth and materialize. Here are three other guiding principles to effectively mentor BIPOC STEMM scholars:

1. Practice vulnerable leadership.

Much of STEMM is built upon hierarchies of power. Such systems pose significant psychological risks for BIPOC scholars, particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds who often have lower efficacy in negotiating power dynamics. Effective mentors flatten power differences within their mentoring relationships through deliberate vulnerable disclosure. One of the most illustrative examples of this type of communication includes empathically sharing one’s own experience(s) of self-doubt or imposter syndrome as a STEMM professional. Vulnerable disclosure not only validates and normalizes mentees’ experiences, but it also strengthens relational trust and rapport. Basic tenets of reciprocity suggest that the more effectively mentors can role model appropriate vulnerable disclosure, the more likely mentees will adopt this same practice in return.

2. Incorporate appreciative inquiry into mentorship.

Mentoring BIPOC STEMM scholars should exclusively leverage a strengths-based approach. One of the most powerful strengths-based strategies is appreciative inquiry, an intentional style of questioning that evokes a respondents’ truest and most imaginative self. Once unearthed, individuals can harness self-insights to create novel solutions to pressing concerns or challenges. Examples of appreciative inquiry for BIPOC scholars could include:

  • What persons or community (past, present, or both) are you bringing with you into this space?
  • What messages or values would your community of support share with you at this time? Imagine their input or encouragement (what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like).
  • How might you carry your ancestors, family, or community with you into your current project, task, or challenge? This could include messages, symbols, rituals, etc.
  • In what environments or within what relationships have you most thrived? What allows for your thriving? How can we utilize this information within our current relationship? Within the working or clinical learning environment?

3. Promote social justice through action and advocacy

Our BIPOC scholars have been and will continue to be brilliant and resilient. Yet, there is much work to be done to lessen their load. Demand for them a more inclusive and affirming training environment and curriculum. Contribute to meaningful changes that increase cultural representation and inclusion in coursework, research, and workforce. Speak out against discrimination, inequity, or injustice in every space you inhabit. Address lingering biases and blind spots and commit to self-reflection and growth.

Graduation with friends, classmates, and fiancé. Pictured here (left to right: Alexandra Ramirez Stege, Tyson Pankey, Ivan Cabrera, Anna Fetter)

In every interaction, see your mentees for the powerful human beings that they are, recognize them and their many contributions to your life and the field, and appreciate the opportunity to influence, and be influenced by, their uniqueness and richness. When we do so, they will come to see and believe in themselves, find their voice, and follow their vision in STEMM.

About the Author

Tyson Pankey is a clinical health psychology fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic where he specializes in behavioral sciences within family medicine residency education, and transgender healthcare. Dr. Pankey earned his BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his MPH from the University of Kansas School of Medicine & Public Health. He completed his PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Pankey has been recognized for his educational initiatives and interdisciplinary clinical practice and research, all of which promote culturally-responsive patient care and equitable healthcare services. His passion is healthcare advocacy that promotes well-being and resilience among underserved and underrepresented patients and providers within integrated medical settings. Dr. Pankey is a member of SACNAS, the American Psychological Association, and the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine. Connect with Tyson on Twitter @DrTysonPankey.



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Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.