In this episode of
Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Angela
Byars-Winston, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Public
Health and Medicine, and Dr. Sherilynn Black, associate vice provost for
faculty advancement at Duke University, describe the value of cultural
awareness in mentorship. They review highlights from the National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on effective
mentorship, and discuss resources on culturally aware mentorship for
mentors and mentees.
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on May 27,
2020, with NIH host Dr. Hannah Valantine. A Q&A session with webinar
attendees followed Dr. Byars-Winston and Dr. Black’s talk.
Recorded on May 27, 2020
Download Recording [MP3]
Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast
from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from
our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can
connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Hannah Valantine:
Welcome to this webinar on the culturally aware mentoring that is
sponsored by NIGMS. I’m Hannah Valantine, NIGMS Chief Officer for
Scientific Workforce Diversity, and your host for the webinar.
Let me start by saying that NIH has always recognized the importance of
mentorship for developing the next generation of scientists and to
ensure that our nation is tapping into its entire intellectual capital
to solve complex problems. Building a diverse and inclusive scientific
workforce is essential to realizing the NIH mission of discovery and
translating those discoveries to the benefit of human health and
And that is why NIH established the National Research Mentoring Network,
whose goal is to develop evidence-based approaches to achieve excellence
in mentoring. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an even
greater urgency to ensure that our trainees are receiving the very best
of mentoring. We recognize that with the halting of research activities
at many of our NIH-funded institutions, the move to online education,
and the pausing of faculty hiring, these challenges to career
advancement will be exaggerated for everybody, and we predict that the
communities we seek to serve will be disproportionately impacted.
And this is individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups,
economically disadvantaged, sexual and gender minorities, and, of
course, women. Moreover, the stresses created by the pandemic will
likely trigger biases across the board as people revert to stereotypic
thinking that could impact mentoring practices, underscoring the need
for culturally aware mentoring, which is what our webinar is focused on
today. I will serve as the moderator for this timely discussion.
Our esteemed panelists include Dr. Sherilynn Black, who is the Associate
Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at Duke University and Assistant
Professor of Practice of Medical Education. And Angela Byars-Winston,
who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Public
Health and Medicine. They will offer engaging presentations on a variety
of mentoring topics, including the importance of cultural awareness,
effective mentoring practices, and this is all based, really, on strong
evidence from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and
Medicine report. And they will offer practical resources for mentors and
The webinar will be divided into three parts: First, Dr. Byars-Winston
will lead the presentation focused on evidence-based approaches to
potentiate talent development. We will then hear from Dr. Black, who
will talk about practical strategies for culturally aware mentoring. And
then finally, we will spend the last portion of the meeting on a Q&A
session addressing questions from attendees.
As we have much to cover, I will now turn it over to Dr. Byars-Winston
for her presentation. Angela, take it away.
Dr. Angela Byars-Winston:
Wonderful. Thank you so much for the introduction and to NIGMS and to
Dr. Lorsch and Dr. Alison Gammie and other colleagues who are leaders
there for this invitation.
As with any topic on this particular theme of cultural diversity and
awareness, we realize that there are high expectations for us to give
you the secret sauce of all the things you need to know but were afraid
to ask about things relating to diversity. Let me put that to rest and
suggest that instead we use our time to delve into the literature and
the evidence about what we know is the relevance of cultural awareness
to mentorship and its advancement of a diverse scientific workforce.
I want to spend the time that I have talking about culturally aware
mentorship as an evidence-based approach to potentiating talent
development. At the heart of our focus here at NIGMS platform is to
focus on developing the next generation of scientists.
So I want to highlight two main focus areas for my conversation with
you. The first is the need for a science of effective, inclusive
mentorship. I will highlight some findings from the National Academies
of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on effective mentorship in
STEMM that some of you may be aware of. And secondly, I’ll focus on
mentorship as a talent and workforce development tool, highlighting why
culturally aware mentorship matters, and emerging evidence for
culturally aware mentorship education.
I also want to acknowledge that after myself and Dr. Sherilynn Black
speak, we will go back into a resource from the National Academies of
Sciences report on effective mentorship that has provided an online
guide with actionable, evidence-based, informed practices and resources.
So we don’t want to leave you hanging without a go-to set of resources,
but instead of trying to hit all of them in this presentation, we’ll
show you where to find those resources.
As I mentioned, a couple of years ago in 2017, the National Academies
commissioned a consensus study to delve into the topic of the science of
mentorship—specifically effective mentorship in STEMM fields, and we use
that second M to highlight academic medicine. And we argued that since
science is a systematic study of structures and behaviors given a
particular domain, that it was useful and the time was right to bring
together the multiple disciplinary perspectives of what makes mentorship
work, how effective it is across many disciplines, from social sciences
to discipline-based education in STEMM so that we can have guidance with
informed practice about what we do, why we do it, how we assess, how we
evaluate effective relationships.
The committee was comprised of a wonderful set of colleagues that many
of us know from across the country who are thought leaders and scholars
in mentorship. Some of them also funded through NIGMS, like Dr. Richard
McGee at Northwestern, Dr. Sylvia Hurtado at UCLA, and Dr. Chris Pfund
here at UW. I had the fortune of chairing this committee for two years.
We released the report in October of 2019, after 18 listening sessions,
three commission papers, and three public workshops.
We were excited to put together a definition of mentorship, which we
think is really critical. If we’re going to talk about how to make it
effective, we first have to have a shared understanding of what it is.
So the National Academies put forth this definition of mentorship as “a
professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over
time to support the professional and personal growth and development and
success of the relational partners through the provision of career and
So we acknowledge that part of talent development for our early career
colleagues or trainees is that we have both career support and
psychosocial support in their advancement. Three highlights that I just
want to raise out of many that came in through the National Academies of
First is that the effective mentorship research shows that it is
associated with positive mentee outcomes—and I’ll define that in a
second. Effective mentorship is a learned and developed skill. And
thirdly, recognizing and responding to cultural identities contributes
to mentorship effectiveness.
The first point that I want to highlight is that effective mentorship
has been empirically linked to positive mentee outcomes, which I define
as those factors that we are usually looking for as outcomes of any type
of training—persistence, performance, productivity—and we have found
evidence over and over again (many of the evidence studies that we’ve
found came out of NIGMS-funded studies) that enhanced mentee
productivity, self-efficacy, career satisfaction, and persistence (which
we’re all really interested in) is related to effective mentorship.
A particular study that we had funded through NIGMS a couple years ago,
myself and Chris Pfund, we specifically found evidence that supported
the effective mentoring relationship itself will shape and calibrate the
ways that mentees perceive their own abilities, their own competencies,
and their own skill sets which then drive these desired outcomes.
The second point I want to highlight from the National Academies is that
mentorship is a learned skill. So since we have these high-stakes
mentoring relationships, which we know lead to outcomes that we’re
interested in for our trainees, we wanted to acknowledge the fact that
mentorship education actually makes a difference in making those mentors
more effective in that talent development process. Many of us on the
call, especially since this is NIGMS sponsored, are familiar with the
mentor/mentee training curricula that have been developed over the last
15 or so years led by Jo Handelsman and taken on with Janet Branchaw and
Chris Pfund and other colleagues that have produced a number of
curricula that are validated with standardized competencies, adapted
across different disciplines and for different career stages.
We also have evidence that when mentors get training or mentorship
education, they self-report increased effectiveness to be a mentor, and
they actually changed three months later in terms of behaviors that are
more productive in being effective mentors. So taken together, we have
evidence so far that the relationship matters in how trainees perceive
their own abilities and their persistence in STEMM pathways.
We have evidence that mentorship education matters and makes a
difference in the mentor’s effectiveness, so the third point I want to
highlight with those two pieces in mind is that recognizing and
responding to cultural identities contributes to mentor effectiveness.
The National Academies committee found a large amount of evidence that
suggested that culturally responsive mentoring is a learned skill set in
which all mentors, regardless of their background, show interest in and
value students’ cultural backgrounds and social identities.
This is not just about individuals who come from underrepresented
backgrounds being more responsive to their students who are from
underrepresented backgrounds. We’re saying all folk can be culturally
responsive. We found evidence that various dimensions of identity, like
science identity and cultural identities, are empirically linked to
academic and career development and even the experience of the mentoring
relationships in STEMM.
Now here’s the twist. Again, we have high-stakes relationships that show
mentorship matters in how trainees persist, how they perform, and we
have evidence that when we educate mentors in how to be more effective
it actually improves their performance as mentors. But there is a
mismatch in terms of what students are experiencing and what mentors are
prepared to address, and that’s what I want to focus on for the last few
minutes of my comments.
STEMM students, according to several studies—this is just one example by
Kara Muller and other colleagues that was conducted with Mentornet
students, which is an online platform for mentoring. She found that all
students, but especially those from underrepresented groups, wanted to
talk about issues linked to race/ethnicity matters with their mentors.
They wanted to talk about how race and ethnicity affect their career and
academic development, and ways to overcome barriers related to
But many studies have shown that mentors, especially those from groups
that are well-represented ethnically in STEMM fields, like
white-identified individuals, people from well-represented Asian ethnic
groups, tend toward colorblind attitudes.
This is an interesting conundrum that myself and Chris Pfund and our
research team—again funded by NIGMS—delved into a couple of years ago
for a R01 study we had. We asked a group of mentors who were
predominantly white-identified, a few Asian ethnic-identified faculty,
who are working with mainly undergraduates in the summer REU biology
programs who were predominantly from underrepresented groups in the
sciences, should you directly address cultural diversity in a mentoring
And you can see they’re not on the same page. More students than the
mentors wanted to talk about issues relating to diversity. Some further
insights that came from that study that I think are relevant to the
conversation today is that how mentors viewed diversity was very
interesting for us.
We found three main themes: One is that cultural diversity is often
viewed as an interference variable—something that got in the way of
doing real science. Secondly, for mentors who did experience culture and
science as related or relevant to each other, they focused on their
mentee’s culture, not their own. So kind of a cultural voyeurism. I’m
interested in culture if it’s interesting to them, but not because of me
myself. And then thirdly, the final thing we found was that mentors and
mentees disagreed on whose role it should be and when to address
So at the end of the day, what we found is that mentors noted that
regardless of their attitudes around diversity, they all agreed that
addressing cultural diversity is complex and few of them feel equipped
to handle it. So taking what I shared earlier about the importance of
mentorship education and that we have evidence that it can make a
difference in mentorship competency and their sense of confidence, we
took advantage of the experience through the National Research Mentoring
Network that Dr. Valentine referred to in phase one to develop a
Culturally Aware Mentor Training, building on this evidence base of
effective mentorship education.
We piloted it with 70 mentors across three different sites in the
country, and we found that they actually had increased gains
self-reported after they completed the training in being intentional to
create opportunities to discuss diversity issues with their mentees, and
being able to respectfully broach the topic of race/ethnicity in their
And important about this Culturally Aware Mentor Training is that we
have a pretty deep dive, six hours right now, in-depth training where
folk do what we call inside work and outside work. We decided to focus a
hard charge on racial/ethnic diversity in mentoring relationships,
because that’s the topic most people don’t want to talk about, and we
figured if we can move the needle around race and ethnicity and get
mentors to talk about that, perhaps they would be willing to talk about
other dimensions of human diversity.
This inside work invites mentors to go through a structured series of
internal self-examination of who they are as cultural beings—their own
cultural identities, habits of minds, ways of being, etc. And outside
work, which is really thinking about developing a critical consciousness
about the research training context and the environments that our
trainees are in and thinking about access and opportunity and equity.
We published that a couple of years ago, so there is some interesting
reading there if you’d like to follow up on that. The key takeaway for
this intervention is really about being intentional. In order to address
a problem, you have to first acknowledge that it is one, and so we spent
a lot of time in the CAM, or Culturally Aware Mentor Training talking
about looking for opportunities and seizing opportunities with
intentionality to address diversity and not waiting for it to bubble up
from the trainees.
I’ll close with a couple of quotes and then begin to open this up for
conversation. I’d like to hear your feedback. These are some of the
quotes from faculty who actually took part in the CAM training, or
Culturally Aware Mentorship education. One said, “I’m more sensitive to
my own culture and am better prepared to think and ask about how others’
cultures affect their work and lives.”
Another person said, “I have been an advocate for diversity in
admissions committees, but now I feel empowered and hope to use evidence
to change attitudes.” Another person said, “Will change, dramatically,
my role in PhD admissions and mentoring in my lab. Will make me aware of
their viewpoint and needs to succeed.”
We are very fortunate in this second phase of NRMN to have been funded
with one of the U01 projects to do a deeper dive into testing the
effectiveness of CAM interventions. We’re using a randomized control
trial that will be nationwide and hope that the country opens up so we
can get back out in the field. We are excited to play around with the
question of dose for CAM training.
As we originally rolled out, it’s a full day, seven-hour commitment (six
hours of content, lunch, and a couple of breaks) and a lot of our
colleagues said, “This is great, but I can’t get my faculty to stay in a
training all day. Can you do something shorter?” So we said, hey, let’s
test it out and figure out if the impact is similar or different if we
have a half day versus a whole day.
So those are some of the questions we’ll be pursuing in the study, and
there’s a reference there of our website. That is the close in my
comments for now, and I’m excited to hear some questions.
Thank you so much, Angela. That was an outstanding presentation
underscoring the evidence base behind the need for culturally aware
mentoring. It’s just superb. We’ll now have about five minutes to take
some questions before we move on to the next speaker. There is a
question with regard to culturally aware mentorship, about the
availability of routinely doing this through the NRMN and getting NRMN
support to do this. Can you speak a little bit more about that, Angela?
I think I understood the question to be about the availability of the
CAM training through NRMN?
I would direct that person to the hyperlink that has the
cimerproject.org/cam-nrmn. That’s where you can get more information. We
are still enrolling sites. We have space for about a dozen or so more
sites. We’re working with 32 campuses and have about 20 confirmed. It’s
a five-year project, and so we are interested to partner with and
collaborate with folk.
So right now the second phase of NRMN, as many of you all know from
NIGMS, is not doing programming and interventions. We are studying
mechanisms and effectiveness of the interventions that do exist already.
So NRMN itself is not providing training at this point, and that’s why I
also offered the website of cimerproject.org. They are specifically
available and set up now to offer fee-for-service training.
Some of the material is available online for free, asynchronous, where
people can use self-directed learning for those curricula and don’t have
to wait for the country to open up and have face-to-face training again.
But for those who are specifically interested in the Culturally Aware
Mentorship training and perhaps being a collaborator with us, we’re very
excited to hear from you, so please do check that link. We’d love to
hear from you and follow up.
So there’s an additional question that I think is terribly important.
How can we encourage institutions to embed this idea of culturally
sensitive mentoring in all of their mentoring efforts?
So I’m going to suggest you go to chapter 7 of the National Academies
report. We have laid out a series of recommendations that have provided
ideas for leverage points for various leaders and scholars on campus to
think about how to engage senior leaders like Sherilynn Black when you
think about a provost’s office that’s responsible for faculty, to have
the evidence of why investing in, supporting, and recognizing and
rewarding effective mentorship, especially around culturally aware
mentorship, is necessary.
So from our end, from the CAM team, our goal is to give as much evidence
as possible so that senior leaders and chairs and deans understand
there’s evidence that suggests when you invest in building the capacity
of faculty in this way to be culturally responsive, culturally aware,
here is the likely return on your investment.
We are wanting to take a scientific approach to this so that we don’t
just have people being encouraged to do things for which we have no
evidence. And we have to be honest about that. We’re still learning a
lot about how and where cultural diversity shows up in the mentoring
relationship, where it has an impact, how the impact of the mentorship
education around culturally aware mentorship actually translates into
So I encourage us to please check the chapter that’s on the role of the
institutions that’s in the National Academies report and then follow-up
with our CAM team through that link that I shared.
So there’s one last question before we move on. What is your view,
Angela, about requiring versus encouraging the use of these practices?
I lean right now on encouraging because there is enough evidence to
suggest that when these mentorship education opportunities are taken
advantage of, there is an impact on trainees. As a faculty member, I
know that we have pushback when someone tells us what to do, and the
only reason I’m not going to say that it should be required is because
we don’t yet have institutional practices and systems that reward it and
recognize it. This is a time investment that I suggest should rise to
the level of being recognized for tenured promotion and advancement.
And as we start to move the needle at the systems level where the time
that mentors spend, that faculty spend, improving their practice as a
mentor gets rewarded, recognized, incentivized, etc., I will not say
that it should be required. But I’m hoping that we are moving there.
And I think that the next step is we have to provide evidence, which is
why NIGMS and their investment in this work from NRMN is so important.
Let’s provide the evidence, and then we can let institutions and systems
understand that the evidence suggests that this is not only a good
practice for the student outcomes, but it benefits the professional
development and effectiveness of our faculty.
Thank you so much. This really underscores the role that NIH is taking
in leadership of this, in particular NIGMS, and I am delighted to see
the NIGMS Director, Jon Lorsch, is actually with us. Thank you, Jon, for
all of your support in this work and also for Alison Gammie, this great
work, and I will now turn it over to Dr. Sherilynn Black for her
presentation. Sherilynn, take it away.
Dr. Sherilynn Black:
Thank you so much, Hannah, Angela. Thank you so much for underscoring
all of the evidence that we have all been working on through research
and collaborative work together for so long now.
What I was asked to do today was to do a little bit of a different
approach. Angela laid out the evidence-based imperative for mentoring.
I’m going to talk a little bit about what the situation is on the ground
right now. Through my work as Associate Vice Provost at Duke University,
I work directly with faculty and students, and a lot of the issues that
Angela raised I’m seeing firsthand, especially in light of the pandemic
So the first thing I want to start out by saying is that over the last
three months I have been working with faculty extensively, and I think
it is pretty safe to say that there is a universal feeling of just being
overwhelmed. So many people are dealing with a number of issues right
I curated a list here of just some of the issues that I’ve navigated
with faculty over the last three months. You can see here some faculty
have been suffering from COVID-19; some have parents and family members
who have been sick. Others have been unable to complete their research
remotely and are struggling with managing expectations of productivity
for themselves and their students.
People are working through challenges that are associated with virtual
teaching. I think a lot of us can identify with that. Many faculty have
reported not feeling equipped to support and mentor their students, and
that’s causing them a lot of anxiety. Also, personal challenges with
family members and loved ones, increased professional responsibilities,
navigating childcare and homeschooling.
And finally, generally feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about how to
plan for the future. The thing to think about right now is that in the
midst of all of this anxiety, we are all still trying to mentor our
students. But I think it’s important to understand that our brains are
not exactly wired to make that an easy feat.
I’m a neuroscientist, and I always like to think about this in terms of
how our cognitive load is working. And in times of stress and trauma,
the brain has a harder time facilitating empathy and becomes more
egocentric. So in this particular study I’ve identified here, the
subjects had a harder time recognizing their own or other’s emotions,
and they also had a harder time making a judgment by taking on another
So basically what that means is that the more stressed you are, the
harder time you have thinking about what’s happening with others and
their wellbeing, which means that it can make mentoring feel very
challenging right now. But the problem is when mentors cannot mentor
effectively, it makes us feel like we’re on a rudderless boat without a
captain, and students really need that guidance to make sure that they
can navigate the challenges of this pandemic.
Many, many students that I’ve talked to over the last three months are
struggling, and they are really looking for their mentors to step up and
take a leadership role to support them, to reassure them about the loss
of productivity, about what’s happening in the future, and specifically
students from underrepresented backgrounds are probably facing
additional circumstances that make this pandemic a little bit more
difficult to navigate—and I’ll talk a bit more about that in a moment.
But it’s really important for all mentors, regardless of whether you’re
a postdoc or a faculty or an administrator, to be aware that these
circumstances exist, that the students are having a hard time, and to
consider how to lead these interactions through crisis moments.
If you think about how cultural awareness fits in as a lens on top of
this already highly stressed space, culture defines who we are and how
we engage with the world. So all of our mentees will have unique
experiences according to their personal background and lived
experiences. And this might mean that expectations between mentors and
mentees might be different in perspective and in scope, especially as we
are in uncharted territory like we are right now.
So the thing about culturally aware mentoring is that it actually
benefits all mentees, because as we all think about our personal
backgrounds, lived experiences, and the way that we are engaging with
one another as colleagues, it helps all of us to bring a more authentic
version of ourselves to the workplace. It builds a healthier
professional structure and an ecosystem on each research team, and it
also helps all of us as faculty to think about different communication
styles, personality types, goals, and motivation styles for each mentee
that we have.
Now we know that preceding this pandemic we were already going through
many different systemic challenges to creating diverse groups in
science. This is nothing new. This is something that’s been ongoing for
centuries in this country.
We’ve seen a lack of cultural awareness in mentors, systems that inhibit
mentee self-efficacy, imposture syndrome is something that many of you
are probably familiar with, a lack of role models, many first-generation
students who might have reduced cultural capital, small cohorts of
underrepresented students that leads to a lack of engagement, and
implicit and explicit biases which result from structural racism in
Now one thing for us to know about biases is that right now it is
undeniable that they are heightened. Hannah mentioned this in her
opening remarks. When we’re stressed, we tend to rely more on our gut
feelings in social situations than actually having rational thought and
Also, we know that when we’re making final decisions when we’re
stressed, we’re also basing those on unexamined, innate responses. So
that means that individuals that might normally be more mindful and
thoughtful about how others are doing or think about how someone else’s
experience in this pandemic might be a little more challenging than
their own or different even than their own, that level of thought for
many people is not happening right now, and that’s deeply impacted
I was able to speak to a number of students and get some direct
challenges they’re facing right now during COVID-19, and these are some
of the many challenges that I heard mentioned. Concerns about academic
and research progress and productivity. Again, imposter syndrome—but
this is based off of having so many Zoom meetings and people being
concerned about their background environment.
Food insecurity has been something that has been coming up quite a
bit—maybe more than people would expect. Financial concerns. Many people
have been furloughed or dealing with childcare. Financial and physical
assistance for parents and extending family care. Uninsured family
members, especially as it relates to citizenship and documentation
status, family separation issues.
Many of the students have shared that they feel that their family
disproportionately fills service positions and they are concerned about
their loved ones who don’t have the luxury of working from home right
now and cannot socially distance. And they also don’t feel safe engaging
in activities that reduce stress and increase wellness. And I want to
say a bit more about that final point.
Right now, our mentees are inundated with headlines that are reinforcing
to them the inequity that exists in this country, and they are dealing
with that in the midst of trying to think about their science and also
dealing with work. I did a very quick Google search just this morning,
and these are many of the headlines that screamed out at me for the
Native American, Black, and Latinx community. There are a lot of health
disparities that we’re well aware of but thinking about these issues on
top of the pandemic, on top of thinking about science, is proving to be
very, very challenging for many students.
And going back to what I mentioned about not feeling safe, one student
said to me, “I was told that I should go out and exercise to relieve
stress because I can’t go anywhere else while I’m socially distancing.
Well then we get headlines like this that talk about black doctors
getting handcuffed for going outside wearing a mask. We saw the horrible
images of George Floyd, that just came out yesterday, being murdered by
police officers, and Ahmaud Arbery being killed out for a run.”
So in the midst of these highly stressful international pandemic
conditions, we have underrepresented mentees who are being inundated
with consistent images and scenarios that are threatening their personal
safety and wellbeing. So for faculty, what can we do?
Well, I’ve tried to come up with a few tips that I think we can all just
think about and think about ways you can possibly layer them onto our
current practices. The first one is to always work to increase inclusion
and equity for your mentees. And this is something that you can do all
the time, even in the midst of a stressful situation, by just working to
meet your students where they are and being transparent about where you
This is not the time to not be transparent or not have conversations
that are rooted in honesty and authenticity. Everyone is having
different experiences relative to their own environments, and so that’s
very important that they see that level of transparency from you. Also,
give agency to those who are most impacted. And by that I mean make sure
that the students who are being impacted have a voice in what’s
happening in their career.
Make sure that they feel that they empowered in some way. Don’t make
assumptions about the lived experiences of others. I know this has been
happening quite a bit where there are many students who have said, “I’m
having experience X, but people are looking at these headlines and
thinking that I’m having another experience that’s not relevant to who I
And also provide space for differences of opinion and perspective. This
is something that’s really critical right now because we’re all
experiencing this pandemic in different ways, and some students are
using science as an escape, and others are feeling that they can’t get
anything done right now. And I think that I could actually say that same
point for faculty. We’re seeing different experiences across the board,
and that’s OK.
Also, as you’re thinking about ways to build your own capacity as a
culturally aware leader, I mentioned this earlier about being authentic
with your own experiences and your limitations. This is very key. I’ve
heard many students that have said, “I’m so stressed out and my advisor
has not provided me with any support.”
You may be in a space where you just don’t feel that you can offer that
support right now, so maybe the better option is for you to connect them
with people at the institution, or nationally, who are experts and can
actually assist in that area. Also, make sure that you’re validating the
experiences of others. This is very important.
All of these things are relative to our own personal experiences, so we
don’t need to rank-order trauma or grief right now. Allow trainees a
voice in how they need to be mentored. I know there are many students
who may not feel that they are empowered to speak up, but right now is
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and you don’t feel that you can maintain
the same pace, it’s important to let your advisor know. Communicate
often and clearly and ensure a common understanding. There have been
many miscommunications as a result of being on Zoom. I think none of us
are surprised by that. So making sure that we’re always making sure that
there is a common understanding at the end of conversations is
And also elucidate your role in the relationship. Make sure that your
students know, “This is what I can offer you right now, and this is how
I am committed to your success, and this is what things will look like
Also just a few thoughts about virtual platforms. We’ve all been
struggling through the joys of figuring out how to connect by Zoom, and
I know for some people it’s easier than others. But I definitely suggest
to spend additional time ensuring that everyone is on the same page and
understands the key issues in the same way. Not being able to assess
body language or eye contact in the same way virtually can make
consensuses very challenging when you’re having a discussion. You can
think you said something; someone else could say something else.
The other point of that is that I’ve been trying to give everyone a lot
of grace. I feel that I can say that many people are not at their best
right now, so there can be lots of space for misunderstanding. Also, try
not to make assumptions about intent and tone in a virtual context. Ask.
Different cultures perceive things in different ways. People have
different experiences. If you’re uncertain about what someone means or
why they said something, it’s best to ask and be fully transparent
through a virtual platform.
Invite students to engage in a number of ways to consider which formats
will be most appropriate for their current situations. So again,
empowering them to have a voice in how they’re moving forward. Normalize
that things are not normal and work towards a new normal—I think we can
all relate to that one.
And finally, adjust expectations for productivity and outcome timelines.
This is hard for us as faculty to even do for ourselves, so we can
imagine that through the power filter and power structure the students
are especially feeling this. So making sure that we’re always thinking
about how to reassure them and help them to have appropriate outcome
And as we’re thinking about these things—and I’ve mentioned this
frequently—communication is a huge part of this structure. This is the
time to really focus on how to highlight communication strategies. So
think about building your team into a space that has shared
responsibility and everyone has a voice in current and future plans.
Let everyone speak up, share what they think, share how they think you
can move forward. Many of us may be on virtual platforms for quite a
while, and so doing this together can be a great way to build community
amongst your team. Create opportunities for your mentees to share and
engage with one another. Incorporate shared community values while also
considering the individual needs of each mentee. Make sure you’re giving
opportunities to speak both in groups and in a one-on-one setting, just
like you would if you were in person.
And you can use this time to update things like mentoring compacts,
individual development plans. I know NIGMS is requiring those for many
of the grants, so many of you are probably already involved with those.
And any other tools that foster communication and clarity of personal
I’ll just give another plug. Angela already mentioned the National
Research Mentoring Network, but a lot of the materials that I just
mentioned are present on that website. And I also think doing different
kinds of thought exercises with your team can also be important. You can
discuss similarities and differences for your mentee’s current
experiences as a scientist, how that differs from what you’re going
through, how it’s impacting the work as a team.
Can you all think creatively about ways to make sure the work keeps
going forward? And I also always suggest to identify one tangible goal
to accomplish so everybody can feel that your work is still progressing
forward. This can be very important not only for scientific progress,
but also for mental health.
And to wrap up, I just wanted to say that as faculty we are always
talking about mentoring students—we’ve been talking about that a lot
today—but it’s very important that we honestly assess our own wellbeing
before we mentor others and while we’re mentoring others. And I know
we’ve all seen this picture when we get on an airplane. They say put on
your own oxygen mask before you put that on for your students—well, we
say students—but it is an important thing to consider that we need to be
looking out for our own wellbeing and making sure we are bringing
positive insights into the mentoring relationship. And with that, I will
close and take a few questions.
Thank you so much, Sherilynn, for that outstanding presentation, taking
us down to the real practicalities of what we do. So we have five
minutes to take questions directly related to your presentation.
Somebody has raised the question of how do you bring up the questions of
the differences in race and ethnicity between mentor and mentee, and how
do you first of all, open a conversation about that? Secondly, how do
you take it into effect when you are thinking about what to actually do
as a mentor?
I get this question a lot, and a lot of faculty say, “I would really
like to broach this topic, but I’m not sure how to do it in a way that
won’t be offensive or feel like I am stepping on toes.” And what I
always say is one easy way to do this is right now, as an example, there
are a lot of things happening societally that are deeply impacting
And I always say you can start out as faculty by saying—to the whole
team; it doesn’t have to be just to the one student that’s
underrepresented—“This is how I feel about what I saw that just
happened. If any of you would like to talk about it, or if anyone has
any insights about it, I’m always here.”
Or to have a group conversation about it. But I think that using
different strategies to try to broach the subject, thinking about things
that are similar and common between yourself and your mentee, that’s
always a good strategy.
I always say that, in my opinion, the worst strategy is to say nothing,
because it can invalidate someone’s personal identity and who they are.
And I think we can all imagine if we are trying to do the best work that
we can do, being the most authentic version of ourselves is how we do
that best work, so always trying to make sure that we’re giving people
the space to bring that fullness into the lab environment.
Another question that is directed to you is how frequently do you need
to do this raising awareness and training of mentors? And does it matter
the career stage that you’re talking about?
I would say, and I can let Angela weigh in on this as well. I think that
this type of conversation should be wrapped into everything that we do.
I was on the committee that wrote the report for the National Academies
about graduate education two years ago, and mentorship came up over and
over and over again as a salient predictor for success in the biomedical
workforce. It needs to be discussed early, often, and always.
And I think that if you’re thinking about how culture overlays with
that, in my personal opinion, culture is a part of professionalism. We
all are highly collaborative in an international environment as
scientists, so the idea that we would not be mindful of how we engage
with our colleagues, how we interact with one another, how we view
difference, how we think about different ideas, in my opinion, if we’re
not doing that on a consistent basis, we’re not being the best
scientists that we can be. So I would say always.
Great, thank you for that. There’s no question about that.
So Lyl, what are you seeing in the Q&A box?
There has been a lot of chatter about people thanking you guys for
delivering such a great presentation. So that’s good.
One of the ones that I’ve had here is: What do you see as some of the
most challenging aspects of integrating culturally aware mentorship
practices in an increasingly diverse academic community?
Angela, do you want to take a first stab at that question?
Absolutely. Fear. People are afraid of failing. They’re afraid of making
a mistake. They’re afraid of being misunderstood. They’re afraid of not
looking competent. They’re afraid of being mislabeled, misinterpreted.
What we spend a lot of time addressing in the CAM training, for those of
you who may be on the call who’ve been a part of it, is really unpacking
what’s behind the fear. I think in a space in biomedical sciences where
we are excited to use our science and our research and our techniques
and our methods to control phenomena, to observe it, to make
predictions, here’s where human diversity makes it very much
uncontrollable. It’s unpredictable.
You may ask a question and get a response for which you have no
rebuttal. You may feel like going into a cultural diversity
cul-de-sac—can’t figure out how to get out. I just asked you, “How are
you doing?” and your student actually answers truthfully. It stinks
right now, in the last 48 hours, for a lot of people in a lot of pain
for a lot of reasons that Dr. Black just mentioned, what’s happening on
the national scene.
And these are not abstract ideas, and campus is not immune from these
same issues. We have students, I have colleagues—last night I led a
webinar for black faculty in the school of medicine, and several of them
were talking about how they just crawled into a corner in the NICU
(she’s a pediatric MD) and had to cry for an hour yesterday just
thinking about what happened in Central Park, what happened in
Minneapolis, what’s been happening all over for a long time, and
thinking about how does it make sense to come to campus every day and
talk to folk, especially in a hyper-white space like Wisconsin—as great
as it is—I’ve been here 23 years, but it’s a hyper-white space that
doesn’t get a lot of these issues.
So it’s fear that holds us back, and so I think it’s a brave act, I
think, to be culturally aware for that reason. I think it takes a lot of
courage. In the traditional sense of the Latin word “heart,” it takes a
lot of heart to say, “I’m going to come out of my comfort zone.” And to
go to Dr. Black’s point, when we don’t as faculty take the onus on
ourselves to address these issues and broach these topics, it is unfair
to leave it to the vulnerable folk with the least amount of power in
these mentoring relationships to address these issues.
And I would also say amen to everything Angela just said, but also add
that for change to occur, it means that someone’s comfort in the power
structure has to be disrupted or perturbed. And so I think that the
reality is we have a lot of people who are very interested, perhaps, and
even believe that they are willing to engage in this at a deep level,
but when it comes to disrupting their own comfort and existing in a
system that was built for their success but maybe not everyone’s
success, it’s very hard for people to see beyond that sometimes.
So a lot is said about the culture of mentoring, creating that within an
institution. Can you speak a little bit about that, how can we actually
begin this change? Because you were talking about some fairly radical
changes in the way mentoring is done. Speak a little bit about that.
Sure, I can say a bit about that first. I think that what Angela touched
on during her presentation about the way that mentoring is rewarded in
the promotion and tenure process is critical. There are many
institutions that are moving in that direction—especially, and I think
this is really a testament to NIGMS—the fact that many components around
mentoring are now being layered into grants in such a way where faculty
are really having to prioritize this in a way maybe they have not
But the more that faculty are talking about it and the students know
that these sorts of things are out there, I think that what begins to
happen is, like it or not, there is an inertia of change that’s going in
this direction. I also think that for a lot of faculty, they say—and I
hear this all the time and I would feel the same way—”I’m open to trying
something if you provide me the opportunity to increase my skills and
efficacy in that space.”
And I can speak specifically at Duke, we’ve really worked hard to
provide a lot of training opportunities for faculty who are interested
in gaining additional skills in this area. And as those faculty start to
do it, the students are talking about it, their peers are aware of it,
and there starts to become a cohort of individuals who are really
committed to mentoring, and that begins to facilitate this culture that
you’re talking about.
So I think you both made the point that culturally aware mentoring is a
skill set. You learn about it and then you can practice. But we have a
question here that says, “Maybe some people are just always going to be
unable to be good mentors. They might be great scientists, but they were
never cut out for mentoring, and they just shouldn’t do that.” What is
your response? We’ll start with you, and I’d like to take Angela’s
response to that as well.
I think that if there is proper motivation and if people are
incentivized in appropriate ways, people can do anything in academia. I
think that we’ve seen that firsthand. As a prime example, think about
the way that RCR used to be handled. Before it was a blocking point for
people to be able to get grants, people may not have taken it very
seriously, but once it was said you have to have an RCR plan, suddenly
everybody had an RCR plan. And it might not have been that everyone
agreed with it, but it’s now become part of the culture where people are
actually thinking about how to engage in responsible research. I think
that the idea that people cannot become good mentors is only a
limitation of the mentor themselves who would not try for behavioral
Again, I’m a neuroscientist. There is enough plasticity in all of our
brains to have behavioral modifications late into our years. If we’re
really motivated and we actually care, we should do it. Like I said
before, I really think that what inhibits people is this fear of a loss
of their own comfort and their own status and space in a community, and
we have to start thinking about do we care more about ourselves and our
position or that of the greater good? And I really think that’s the
Great. Angela, what do you think? Are good mentors born?
Are good mentors born? I think that’s the same question that was
debunked, “Are good teachers born or are they made?” And I think the
evidence came in saying it’s a little bit of both, but you can make good
teachers. And to build on Dr. Black’s point as a neuroscientist, I’m a
psychologist, and so I also believe in the unlimited behavior potential
I think what it comes down to is what do we mean by good mentors. I do
believe there are continua of proficiency and effectiveness, and I’ll
simply say that everybody has the potential to level up. And I think
that’s where inviting people to do mentorship education is wherever your
starting point is, where else do you have edges for growth to level up
your skill set to be more responsive and effective for your trainees.
So I have two really practical questions. One is, how do you deal with a
situation when your colleague thinks he or she is a good mentor, and, in
fact, they’re really terrible and you’re hearing otherwise? How would
you actually go about that? Because we often face that, right? We hear
it through the mentee who comes to us, and we’re not their primary
mentor, but they are having a hard time with their primary. How do you
actually deal with that?
I have had to deal with that situation a number of times in different
administrative capacities. One thing that I typically do is—this is sort
of ironic, considering the previous question, but—I always try to start
out from a space of assumption that everyone is trying to do what they
think is best for the student. I try to make that my baseline
assumption, whether it’s correct or not. And usually what I’ll do is
pick out specific instances where the mentor has done something that may
have been less than optimal and talk with them about, “I want you to
know that this decision you made impacted your student this way, and I
feel certain that was not your intent. So can we have a discussion about
how you came to that decision and what outcome you were seeking to
accomplish by the behavior that you did?”
And a lot of times it really does just come down to we’re in such a rat
race of go, go, go that when you really sit down and have to
thoughtfully examine your own behavior, sometimes that is honestly
enough to at least get you thinking about how to make some behavioral
changes and modifications.
But I also think we talk a lot in academia about this bystander culture.
If you see things that are going on that are not optimal—I mean, I know
I personally feel as faculty that it’s my responsibility and obligation
to try to do what’s best for the students, and it doesn’t mean that I
antagonize my peers, but it certainly means that I try to do what’s best
to build the best climate that I can at the institution.
So I think not only having honest discussions, but also identifying your
own challenges and sharing with your colleagues about trainings you’ve
taken that have helped you to overcome certain behaviors, things you’ve
learned that have been helpful to enhance your mentoring skills, and
also ways that you could possibly help them to move forward as well.
Great. Angela, what do you think?
Thank you. I’ll just add, building on Dr. Black’s comment, the
importance of positive peer pressure. It’s unfortunate that we don’t
have the audio capability for other people on the call to share because
we have great examples—I can tell by the names on the screen—of several
institutions around this country who have great examples and strategies
for how to level up suboptimal mentorship by faculty.
One example I know of is having a chair who requires for his graduate
trainees that their CVs are shared and discussed at the end of the year
by the faculty, and the goal is to put the light on the faculty of the
mentees to talk about what they’re doing well and where they could grow
as mentees to move that CV of their trainee along.
And so as you start to have positive peer pressure, thinking about,
“Wow, so-and-so’s trainees are doing X, Y, and Z. Maybe I could be doing
that as well.” Or, “This person seems to be more productive with this
mentor; perhaps I can do those things.” I think we’ve seen concrete
examples like that, but I’m going to suggest we look at the possibility
of leaders like deans and chairs thinking about positive peer pressure,
because we know that incentivizes behavior, rewarding them and
acknowledging good behavior as opposed to calling out bad behavior.
Thank you. That was really helpful. Here is a problem that we’re hearing
a lot about and I would like to spend some time on. It’s to do with how
do we address the unrealistic expectations about productivity during
this pandemic that certain students are feeling, especially as we return
to work? So the feeling that I’ve got to go in, I’ve got to get this
done, and yet there is a fear of safety, there’s an unrealistic
expectation because there’s been a real pause in the research that has
gone on before, and yet the expectation is I’ve got to publish my
papers. How are you handling this? Because I think this is going to be a
big issue for all academic institutions.
I don’t think anyone has the right answer to this, but I go back to what
I mentioned earlier about it is so important to talk to each student
individually and see where they are and where their head is, and to work
together creatively to think about things that can happen during this
time of physical distancing so that they can still be productive. One of
my friends who is running a lab said to me, “You know, I have had every
single person to work on a paper in my lab. Every person has submitted a
student fellowship. Like what else do we do? And the students are having
I know that people are using different strategies. I know there’s one of
my colleagues at Duke who had each of her students write down their
dream experiment they would do. Some people are doing lab meetings where
for each lab meeting that’s virtual they learn about a new technique or
structure that will be important in the lab when the labs reopen
But right now I think everyone is just trying to find creative
solutions. But again, the key, in my opinion, is to make sure that
you’re checking in with each student, because there may be some students
who say, “I want to write five papers. I will write reviews. I’ll do
whatever because I need to take my mind off of this.”
And there are some who may be having real mental health challenges and
are just not capable of doing that work. So not making assumptions that
everyone is in the same space.
Great, thank you.
May I add? I know our time is about to wrap up, but I want to remind us
in response to the things that we can do to help address our students’
realistic expectations and reimagining what the reality is for their
productivity is that we have a wonderful set of tools that we put
together. The National Academies report has an online tool that
accompanies it, and Lyl has been gracious to paste it into the chat box.
And if I may just pull up my screen one more time and just share that.
This is an interactive tool that you can use and find useful resources,
including mentoring tools. So if you look at this guide, there are
topics at the top that are drop-down menus, and I encourage us all to
look at the “Action and Tools” drop-down menu. It will take you to a
section, as you can see on the right side of the slide, that has a
section called “Mentoring Tools.”
As well as responding to a previous question Dr. Valantine fielded,
which is developing a culture of mentorship and what institutions can
do. So I just want to remind us and encourage us to use some of the
resources that are in this guide that may be useful, I think, for
answering some of these on-the-ground questions as we start to return to
One last question, which is really important, and it’s around how do you
gain credibility as a culturally aware mentor, especially if you are
from a majority group—a cis white man or woman. How do you gain that
credibility so that you can then recruit more students/trainees from
underrepresented groups? Quick answer.
I’ll give it to Angela first.
I wish we had other colleagues to be able to talk about that. I think
it’s about positive peer pressure. Our students, our trainees will be
the litmus test. They are the ones who vouch for us in our culturally
aware behaviors that are effective and responsive to them.
I would just say having a sense of humility, not believing that you know
all the answers, coming there with a spirit to learn and to truly engage
and appreciate everything about the students that you’re working with.
That’s how you gain credibility in the community.
Thank you both extremely for all of your contributions to this session.
Thank you to NIGMS leadership, including Jon Lorsch, institute director,
Alison Gammie as well. I hope this session was valuable to you all and
that the information you’ve found usable and will take it back with you.
And I hope that everyone stays safe and in good spirits and thank you
again. I will close this session.
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