What a student wants to tell you about research mentorship

Mary Barber is an undergraduate student at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

She studies Chemistry and English Literature and spends her days shifting her brain from microbiology and organic chemistry lectures to reading Proust and Nabokov to running experiments in the lab.

Mary is a funded research intern at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre and works in the department of Cardiovascular Medicine. 

Her current passion is using human induced-pluripotent stem cells differentiated into cardiomyocytes to understand how cancer treatment perpetuates heart disease.

One day, when she grows up, Mary hopes to be a physician researcher, treat patients with heart problems, write books, and do yoga every day. She tweets from @MaryC_Barber.


Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

In high school, I wanted to be a makeup artist. Before that, I wanted to be an architect.

Somewhere in the midst of my adolescent ambitions, an excellent chemistry teacher told me I had real talent in chemistry, brought me scholarship applications, and guided me towards a career in the biomedical sciences.

Five years later, I am a third-year Chemistry student at my university, slated to take biophysical chemistry, biochemistry, and physics in the upcoming fall semester.

If it wasn’t for good mentorship, I would undoubtedly be a different person today and wouldn’t have found the opportunity to study science and conduct biomedical research. I would not have found my calling. Excellent, intentional mentorship has been instrumental in guiding me through the jungle-like journey of choosing a career.

I owe much of my scientific opportunities and success to those mentors who have taken special interest in me as a scientific thinker and developed me into a good question-asker and answer-seeker (i.e. a scientist). Research mentors are crucial in counseling students through the scientific process and training them to be the next generation of people who push the field forward.

Most readers of the Research Whisperer have likely moved beyond my training and scope of expertise, but I would like to offer some perspectives on what a desirable and effective mentor looks like to the maturing student researcher.

Thinking about my past and present mentors, here are the three defining qualities of those who have been the best and most effective in my research journey thus far.

1. Give responsibility and, eventually, autonomy

I was fresh out of my first year of college when I had my first research experience. I worked in a biochemistry lab and was very much anticipating what research work entailed. I wanted to ask questions and was filled with ideas. Yet, I often felt like a set of hands that could help in cranking out research and less like a person that had the capability to take on productive responsibility. I thought that I had the aptitude to really become a scientist but lacked the experience with developing and carrying out my own research ideas.

My current research mentor gave me responsibility in the first week of working with him. He handed me a problem and bestowed on me the responsibility to use my brain to think of a solution. It was incredible. There is something so empowering about working through a problem on your own as a student. I felt encouraged to explore, not restricted from asking questions and looking for answers. I’ve been able to use my skills in writing and graphic design to create online content, patient infographics, and scientific proposals. Importantly, I’ve been given responsibility that eventually allowed autonomy in making decisions around my research.

This consideration is listed first because I really think it is the most important part of good mentorship. Nothing discourages a student more than feeling like just another set of hands for lab work. The best part of science is the creative process, and an excellent mentor dispenses responsibility and allows the student to feel a sense of autonomy regarding their work.

2. Speak words of truth

As a student researcher, it is important to have a clear lines of communication. Conversations about career goals, current problems, and future directions have been prominent with my research mentors. The best mentors tell me when I am doing well and working in the right direction, and when I am not. I’d ask you to use caution when offering criticisms to your students, though. While it’s a necessary and healthy part of scientific training, remember that we are working to become scientists. I’ve been talked to as if I should already know and be dedicated to a specific field of scientific research; this was more harmful than helpful in helping me discern where I want to go in my future.

I’ve had varied experiences of “honest” conversation with research mentors. A poor research mentor tells the student to make definitive, concrete decisions early in training. In contrast, the good mentor doesn’t try to persuade the student to pursue a certain field because of personal reasons but, instead, encourages an exploration of their own curiosity. A good research mentor uses words that are encouraging and thoughtful, yet honest and constructive. Personally, the best research mentors I’ve had speak not only of my desirable qualities but also offered ways to improve my weakest ones. Your student won’t forget what you say, so check that it is honest and helpful.

3. Know your student, personally and professionally

Mentors have the unique position to be both career advocates and sources of life advice. I’ve had mentors who knew about my career ambitions and often counseled me on how best to achieve those goals. They knew that I wanted to answer challenging, patient-centred research questions and to untangle mechanisms of disease pathogenesis. They guided me in these areas.

In my view, though, the best research mentor knows that I have these ambitions and remembers my birthday, congratulates me on a good exam period, and respects my personal challenges. This may seem an unusual recommendation but I think mentors should extend beyond the laboratory because, basically, student researchers are people.

Developing a personal relationship with your student will allow them to feel comfortable enough to ask questions about career goals, seek advice on life decisions, and will generally foster a happy and encouraging environment in the lab. Taking an interest in the lives of your students will make them feel like worthy and valuable parts of the research team. While the focus of mentorship is on the science and many professional aspects, it really helps to remember that your student is a person with interests and experiences beyond the lab.

The mentor-mentee relationship allows students to gain insight into a life of research and envision themselves as a scientist in the future. There are many more aspects of a good mentor that I could describe but these are at the top of my list.

I firmly believe that mentorship carves out the path a student will take and should be considered as an important part of career development. We can thank good mentorship for many of the scientific feats we have to date, and I can only imagine where the next generation of well mentored student researchers can take us.

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