By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Science, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
This year, for the 15th consecutive summer, the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) will be hosting undergraduate interns as part of the NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) program. The GEMM Lab will provide research experiences to no less than three REU interns for a 10-week period starting mid-June. Along with Leigh, Dawn, and Allison, I will be a daily “mentor” to one of these students; a role that the HMSC REU program takes very seriously.
I used quotation marks here because although I have been supervising/helping/engaging/leading teams and students for many years, I only really learned this new word, “mentoring”, after moving to the US. In my native language, French, the word “mentor” exists and has the same meaning as in English (i.e. a person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school; Cambridge Dictionary). However, the verb derived from this noun – “mentoring” – does not exist in French and the word we use instead sounds more like “supervising”. Actually, an advisor to a trainee or intern is often called “maître de stage”, literally meaning “internship master”, which conveys a pretty different message from the title mentor…
Why does that semantic nuance matter? Well, I believe that the words we use are an extension of the way we see the world. Fact is, although I have been an advisor to several students before, I had never received any formal mentoring training up to today and I never put that much thought into what mentoring meant to me. Well, I certainly did not see myself being anyone’s Master! So, what is the difference between mentoring and supervising?
A quick google search gave me a hint… supervision is very much task-oriented, it’s about overseeing a person’s activities and providing instructions and recommendations to ensure that the task is successfully completed. That’s all good and well, but mentoring adds an additional layer of care for the person’s long-term development, in an approach that strives to be more holistic. That approach may seem obvious to many academics today, but unfortunately things don’t always happen that way. Many of us could cite several cases where we have observed students being used as additional work force without much attention given to their wellbeing, learning, and personal development. Who has never seen a real-life professor like that of Phd Comics (Illustration below)? On top of that, mentoring styles, and the academic system as a whole, have long shaped the new generations of scientists to resemble their senior mentors, hence perpetuating inequity in education and a lack of diversity in research carriers.
I discovered that there are a lot of great resources out there to help early-career scientists navigate the waters of mentorship (e.g., Center for Improved Mentored Experiences in Research, OSU guidance for DEI learning). I also really appreciated the fact that the HMSC REU program director, Itchung Cheung, would take the time to meet all future mentors ahead of time, and make sure that they had the tools and resources to be good mentors. He made it clear that a student has many mentoring needs (e.g., role models, emotional support, access to opportunities, professional development…) and that it is not possible for one person to fill all these shoes. As PhD student Rachel Kaplan pointed out “It takes a village to raise a PhD student”! That being said, there are a couple simple rules that everyone should agree on before taking on interns or new students. I will not list all these best practices here but some of main take-away messages for me were the importance of planning, having clear expectations while staying flexible, encouraging interns to take an active role in setting goals and providing critical feedback, and fostering a welcoming environment in which the student can feel a sense of belonging.
Along those lines, I would like to end on a more personal note. Although I never received formal mentorship training, I do believe that I learned some of these skills in the most traditional way; that is by learning by example. And (hopefully!) this process did not turn too badly because I was lucky to have great mentors to look up to. Among other qualities, my mentors always made me feel like I belonged, like what I had to say mattered. Reflecting upon my years as a graduate student, I now realize that this feeling is one of the things that allowed me to love research, with all its setbacks and challenges. My mentors always made me feel like I was among their priorities, whether it be by returning manuscript edits in time or listening to me present all of my latest analysis outputs and coding tribulations. Holistic mentoring is a bit of a jargony word, and although I am still learning the theories underlying that approach, I know that if that’s what I experienced as a mentee, then that’s what I will try to do as a mentor!
To learn more about research experiences for undergraduate at Oregon State University, check out this link.