Growing Together: The Mentee/Mentor Relationship

By Dr. Michelle T. Juarez

We all face challenges as we go through our education and training. We question our decisions and look for direction from the examples of our predecessors. There is a point in time when we gain the ability to reflect on these experiences and begin to provide others with advice. In the current age of online resources, we are no longer limited to seeking mentors from within our own schools or locations. In the past year, I have had the good fortune to virtually mentor a graduate student through a series of conversations using the Guided Virtual Mentorships platform offered by the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). This experience reminded me that mentoring offers positive outcomes for all participants in the conversation; in this case, not just for my mentee, but for me as well.

As a community of underrepresented minorities in science, we need to participate as both mentors and mentees. Our collective knowledge is a strength and our experiences can lead the next generation of STEM professionals.

It has been more than ten years since I completed my PhD, and I have accepted the challenges I faced as integral parts of my overall career path. The act of discussing these experiences with a mentee gave me a new sense of affirmation as I recognized my mentee was facing some of the same feelings of isolation I had experienced. As we continued, our conversation developed into more of a shared reflection rather than a one-sided, mentor-to-mentee lecture.

My mentee chose to invite me to be her virtual mentor after NRMN’s algorithm recommended me based on my gender, education path, and our shared love of the outdoors. After being matched, NRMN’s flexible framework allowed us to check in every two weeks across the next four months and respond to discussion topics we received via email and online video chat for immediate visual feedback that allowed our conversations to have a more personal feeling.

Timeline: Productivity vs. Training

Entering a graduate studies program often exposes trainees to a new learning environment. The goals of graduate training focus on developing scientific skills such as technical and communication skills. For graduate students, the broad expectations of research seem to conflict with the training schedule. One NRNM discussion topic that resonated with my mentee and me was time management. It is challenging to find a work-life balance when outside forces dictate your timeline. We all struggle with the timing of events in our lives, and as a graduate student it sometimes seems as if your time is constantly lost to a schedule created by other people. A research supervisor generally thinks about time in terms of productivity whereas a student often measures time in terms of training. If the research supervisor and student do not have an open conversation about timelines there is a potential for a conflict of expectations.

In my conversations with my mentee, the discussion of this time management topic released a huge burden of guilt she felt. In many of our cultures, women do not question authority and do not have the tools to initiate a critical conversation. In particular, we spoke about the advantage of having a thesis committee to provide feedback to the research supervisor and encourage the adoption of a training timeline. I shared details about my experience during graduate school. My research mentor focused on the future goals of the project without considering my training goals. When I expressed my plans for defending my thesis, my advisor’s only comment was it was not a feasible schedule. Poor mentorship combined with my own lack of confidence prevented me from realizing all my accomplishments during my graduate studies. With the support of the chair of my department, I persisted through organizing my dissertation and defending my thesis.

Aligning expectations for your own career while still conforming to the requirements of a training program is a challenging exercise. The lessons learned are valuable, and I see now how to apply these techniques in my own situations of promotion and advancement.

Empowering Our Differences

In the current STEM training environment there is a wide range of individuals, cultures, and backgrounds that intersect in a common space. Some people flourish in this environment while others may feel diminished. Having the support of peers can be a strong force to combat negative feelings. For many of us in STEM fields, family support can be difficult to obtain because our families may not understand our need for constant training. Even as we compare ourselves to friends, there is a tendency to focus on what is missing from our lives. In my career, I have been lucky to have the support of my family.

However, I still have feelings of isolation because my professional goals are not common in my community. It is difficult to justify the choices I have made because few members of my family and friends appreciate how a career in science has become more than my job.

One of our NRNM discussions started with sharing our feelings of being the “other” in our situations and then transitioned into a conversation about proactive ways to address concrete issues arising out of this dynamic. We questioned, for example, why a person should be passive in the face of a microaggressive comment and why training sometimes focuses on what not to do in a hurtful situation. As an alternative approach, we discussed the strategy of turning an irritating or offensive comment into an opportunity to open a dialogue with the other person and, in some cases, help them recognize where they may be exhibiting unconscious and unhelpful bias. We envisioned a new focus in training to empower a person to celebrate their differences and redirect the negative comments or actions of others rather than ignore them and become more isolated. Overall, the development of new communication tools can help bridge the gaps between all parties in the conversation.

Reflections

Reflecting on my virtual mentorship, it is great to realize that I feel as reenergized as my mentee. Our experience was a mutually beneficial exercise in sharing our strengths and confronting our weaknesses. Together, we made an active step in a positive direction toward our future successes. By revisiting my past, I gained a stronger sense of how to craft my future. By learning the story of my career path, my mentee could see a certain light at the end of the tunnel and has a renewed and expanded vision of career possibilities.

My final reflection is that mentoring is a continuum: the more people that join the discussion, the stronger all our voices become.

NRNM provides a safe space for everyone to explore their own journey, share, reflect, and grow, gaining wisdom from elders and passion from the next generation. The most important strategy to address a difficult situation is communication, and we can all benefit from practicing these conversations with an ally.


About the Author

Michelle T. Juarez, PhD, is an Assistant Medical Professor at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at the City College of New York. She received her BS from the University of California, Berkeley and her PhD from the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Diego, completing training in both plant and animal developmental genetics.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, she has driven across the U.S. twice, doing graduate work in NY and postdoc work in CA. She is the first and only member of her family to complete a PhD and work as a scientist. Currently living in NY, she has an independent research lab studying fruit fly genetics as a model of injury and repair mechanisms. Her lab includes high school and undergraduate students. She has particular interests in STEM literacy and mentoring the next generation of scientists.