Comments from Mentoring Symposium in April, 1994 given in a symposium organized by the Women's Committee of AAI at the annual meeting of AAI in 1994
Katherine L. Knight
Thank you for asking me to talk with you about a subject that is near and dear to me - mentoring our future scientists. I know it is a topic that is important to everyone here....because the quality of our mentoring, ultimately determines the quality of the future of science.
I am honored to have this opportunity to share my experience.
Each of us shares a passion common to every sentient being - to find meaning and purpose in our lives. As scientists, we have known profound meaning in pursuing the excitement of discovery. Many of us, as part of that process, have also known another equally special type of meaning.
This is the meaning that comes from the experience of being mentored and the experience of being a mentor.
At some point, someone opened the door to science for each of us. By so doing, the mentor offered her or his mind as a source for discovering and creating our own scientific minds.
For me, the door was opened by my undergraduate chemistry teacher. While attending a small college in upstate New York, my studies in chemistry led to an invitation to work in Dr. Spremulli's laboratory. There I had the time of my life. She gave us the opportunity to explore our own minds within a setting that she tailored to each person's unique interests.
At that time, I also enjoyed math and was considering it for a major. So I was faced with a decision - but only briefly...until I realized that majoring in math would mean spending less time in the chemistry lab.
One could look back and say, A Well, my choice was based on the intellectual challenge of science, and the pursuit of truth.@ But, in reality, what I remember is that I was having fun with somebody who showed me that I could become someone I had not imagined I could be. The greater pleasure and the one I couldn't give up was the experience of working in the lab with my chemistry professor.
And, so I learned that science is about relationships. It doesn't happen in isolation - it happens within the give and take of a relationship.
I'd like to quote from a story written by a young science student about his awakening to science. This occurred within a relationship with his high school physics teacher:
(Quote) A Mr. Workman was a story teller. Usually he told us the story of Physics..In the last few days of class, he was finishing the epic story of electromagnetism. We had heard all the tales of Gaussian surfaces, magnetic flux, dipole moments, and Amperian loops. By the end, we had won all the battles, and this epic had a happy ending...I remember his words on the last day of class: A These are things we cannot see, we cannot touch, or smell or taste or hear, but they are there...Some creator made the universe a very harmonious yet enigmatic place...'As I looked up to the story teller with awe and wonder, I realized that I was staring at the creator of my universe.@(Unquote)
Within the mentoring relationship, the student's mind is transformed. New structures are built based on scientific understanding, technical skills, and most crucially - an understanding of the process of science.
What I propose today is a way of mentoring that brings together the motives of the young scientist and of the senior scientist to produce growth and satisfaction for both parties. Indeed, mentoring is a way of helping both parties do things they have never done before.
For most of us, this is a cumulative learning experience - as it has been for me...
While my first mentor, through her encouragement and the exciting environment she created, helped me identify my scientific motive; my graduate studies mentor, Felix Haurowitz, helped me seriously pursue it. With him, it didn't matter if an experiment came out as planned or not. All date were potentially new and valuable information.
Through his careful questioning, I was able to focus on the truth in my data.
And so, with Felix, I learned more about relationships. I realized that a relationship - based on the highest ideals for science - could result in the best science.
For my postdoctoral work, Felix referred me to Sheldon Dray at the University of Illinois.
While Felix helped me focus on the truth of my data, Sheldon helped me clearly communicate the truth.
With Sheldon I had the freedom to pursue any problem that interested me. And I was pretty much on my own until it cam time to write. Then I had my moment of truth.
Sitting side by side, we'd write together...then write some more - and then still more. He went
over every detail until each word was clearly in place.
Graduate and postdoctoral experiences are intensive and intimate opportunities to learn about another person's mind. Today, when I write a paper I know it reflects what I learned from Sheldon. His ideals for writing are now my ideals.
Sheldon helped in one other important way. He provided my first mentoring experiences by letting me co-mentor a few students with him.
Now I could begin to understand first hand what it took to be a mentor.
What I found most striking about Sheldon was that there was no apparent conflict between his desire to do science and his wish to be a mentor. For example, mentors must often decide whether to write up their results themselves or to take the time to involve students. The first choice would be most expedient and would take care of the mentor's immediate need. The second choice - of including the student - although more time consuming, would be driven by a motive to take care of the student. Both choices have as their goal to do science. One is solely driven by the personal needs of the mentor. The second also takes care of the need to write up results - but within the overall goal of mentoring the young scientist.
With Sheldon, there was no question that he would give up publishing more quickly in order to help his students learn to write scientific manuscripts. Students are the future of science and he never lost track of that ideal.
And so, from Sheldon, I learned the most compelling lesson of my mentee experience: One's pursuit of science could occur within a mentoring relationship. In other words, there did not have to be a conflict between pursuing my research program and pursuing my mentoring relationships. I now knew that, whether as a mentee or as a mentor, I would continue to pursue discovery within a relationship.
Yet, ahead of me were years of learning what all this meant.
It's after these years of following my mentor's examples and refining them based on my experience that I can now begin to describe my own ideals regarding the meaning of mentoring.
At the heart of mentoring are two basic choices. These choices are between actions that respond to the needs of students-these are caretaking choices-and actions that respond to the mentor's personal needs that do not explicitly gratify the needs of students-these are personal choices.
Parents make choices like this all the time. And the rewards of mentoring are like those of a parent. Also, like parenting, there are special challenges along the way.
Let's look at what happens in this process of developing young scientists.
When they first walk into our labs, students bring to us a sacred motive: the desire to pursue discovery and to become excellent scientists.
Our role is to help them refine that desire and regulate their ability to pursue it.
We begin this process by making certain that their scientific experience is positive and is centered on a relationship with us. For example, the wellspring of good times I had in undergraduate school fostered an expectation that propelled me headlong into my graduate work.
Along with this initial boost, it is our consistent caretaking that allows students to eventually own their own scientific minds.
Throughout my career as a scientist and a mentor, I have been discovering what the nature of those caretaking choices is. I would like to share a few precepts that guide me as a mentor.
The first precept concerns how we help students attain stable agency in pursuing their scientific ideals.
Let me explain what I mean by Astable agency.@
Stable agency means that students can reliably regulate their choices and their actions according to their ideals. And, once students can stably regulate their scientific motives, we can say that they own their own scientific minds: that is, they know what they are doing; they are aware of the choices they make; and they consistently make those choices based on their ideals.
Stable agency develops within the mentoring relationship.
Students come to us very enthusiastic about their desire to do science. Yet, early on, that motive is not completely regulated. At times, students have difficulty deciding when to pursue science and when to do something else. They often need help in making these choices. They are making important decisions about their careers and need a relationship in which to refine that decision-making process.
For example, a first-year student told his mentor early in the week that he planned to go hiking the next weekend. It's now Friday and the student hasn't changed his plans. His mentor knows that his experiment is at a stage where, if it were abandoned for that period, it could be lost. How can the mentor best take care of him?
The choices include simply telling the student not to go. However, this means the student doesn't have the opportunity to make the choice himself, which is what he will need to do in the future.
Another possible response is to say nothing. Allow the student to go hiking and let him experience the loss he has given himself. This response could be facilitative if the student were further along in his development. However, because he is a first-year student, he probably
needs more guidance. So in this case, the caretaking response would be take the student aside, clarify his choices and their consequences - then allow him the freedom to make his own choice.
Let's look at another example. This concerns a student who prepared an abstract for a scientific meeting. The document must be submitted today. At 3 p.m. the student hands the write up to his mentor to be reviewed for the first time. The student points out that he has to leave immediately for a personal appointment. The mentor reviews the abstract and realizes that it needs significant revisions. She is also aware that this is an important opportunity for the student. How can the mentor best take care of him?
The mentor can revise the document herself or she can send it in as it is. Neither of these responses, however, would help the student learn to handle this type of situation in the future.
The caretaking choice would be to hold the abstract until the student returns to the lab, even though this may mean missing the deadline. The mentor then explains that the document was not submitted because it needed revisions. Through the mentor's caretaking, the student learned what would be required next time he submits an abstract.
Although the mentor in this example had personal feelings of frustration because of the student's behavior, she did not act on those feelings. She recognized that to do so would only alienate the student. By choosing caretaking motives at a crucial moment like this, we help students learn to regulate their scientific motives...in other words, to attain stable agency.
The second mentoring precept concerns responding to the individual needs of a student based on our ever-deepening understanding of their minds.
Working with students over a period of years is an opportunity to know how their minds work. And, for them, it's the opportunity to know and increasingly trust our minds.
When determining how to take care of students, we need to consider where they are in their scientific development. We also want to consider their individual needs. For example, a third-year student reaches the point where her data suggest two different approaches to a problem. She must make a choice. How can the mentor best support the student in making this choice?
The mentor knows that scientifically one choice is better than the other.
The mentor needs to consider: Can the student learn from a failure at this point in her development or would it be better for her to have a successful experience? The mentor always wants to enhance the student's sense of agency in pursuing her scientific motives. Sometimes this means allowing the student to make the less than optimal choice - knowing this will give her the best opportunity to develop her own ability to make choices in the future.
In this case, the mentor did not intervene when the student chose the less than optimal approach. He knew that the student needed to have the experience of working through this type of situation. However, the mentor carefully monitored her progress and consistently posed questions to help her discover where her choice was leading and when to stop pursuing this choice. Consequently, the student learned how to redirect herself when she made less than optimal choices. Just as important, she learned that she could rely on her mentor to help her no matter where the learning process led them.
Over time, as students experience our continued caretaking, their sense of trust increases. It becomes easier for them to bring us their questions and problems. As they now choose to work more closely with us, they have the opportunity to see their scientific process through our minds.
For example, one second-year student consistently overinterpreted her data, which resulted in her designing one experiment after the other, often based on unidentified assumptions. One day in frustration she went to her mentor wondering why her experiments never worked.
Obviously, one choice is to tell her exactly what to do. Yet, what impact would this have on her sense of agency - on her ability to make decisions based on her ideals?
A more heuristic response is to ask questions so that both the mentor and the student can reflect on her process. When asked, the student realized she simply didn't know what her assumptions were. As a result of this discussion, she started writing down her assumptions for each experiment. With time, her experiments worked more reliably, and she began to approach her experimental designs with a growing sense of confidence.
Within the mentoring relationship, the mentor has the opportunity to offer her or his ideals. Students incorporate those ideals into their minds and use them as the basis for developing stable agency.
The last and perhaps most important precept concerns recognizing the inevitable setbacks that occur in the course of students developing their own minds.
The road to scientific discovery is not without its bumps and curves. Similarly, the process of becoming a scientist has its advances and setbacks.
Student setbacks are inevitable and can be one of the most challenging aspects of mentoring. Often mentors experience both frustration and disappointment when these setbacks occur.
For example, a postdoc gets to a point in his work where he has to make a key decision. He needs to choose between two experiments. The mentor knows that he has enough of an autonomous scientific mind to make this choice. Yet, when he chooses the less than optimal experiment , the mentor wonders what has happened. They've spent considerable time working on this problem over the past 18 months.
Moments like this baffle us. What should we do - especially when we know that the student has the required knowledge and skills?
Consider what happens to students within the mentoring relationship: They come to us wanting to be scientists. Through our help, they begin to succeed at becoming who they want to be. At the same time, this experience of succeeding - and of being taken seriously - can stir up some strong feelings...feelings that often cannot be articulated but may be acted out in ways that result in setbacks. The wrong choices are made. results are accidentally destroyed - things go wrong.
These setbacks are an important part of the mentoring process. When they occur, we are at a crucial moment in the relationship. When faced with a setback, students experience a loss. And, they may react to this loss be defending themselves...saying, A How could I do such a dumb thing?@
In these cases, we need to help students regain their perspective - and with that, their sense of stable scientific agency. In other words, we need to help them see what has happened and what they need to do to get back on track.
In this case, the mentor pointed out the error in judgement, then invited the student to review the process that led to the choice. Through her questioning, the student realized where a lapse occurred. He overlooked some obvious data that would have directed him to the optimal choice.
Shaking his head, he wondered out loud how he could have done this. He had never skipped this step before.
When setbacks occur, we're tempted to vent our frustration toward the student or toward ourselves. However, we can most effectively help the students and ourselves by recognizing that we have reached a milestone. Because students have the pleasure of succeeding in their work, there are these moments of self-induced loss. These are special opportunities for caretaking and helping students turn away from the desire to either berate themselves or defend their actions. Through our mentoring, at these key moments, we can help students regain their scientific agency. At this same time, the relationship is greatly enhanced as students experience our unwavering support and care.
Our students and post docs bring to us a motive to become the best scientists they can be. To become an ideal scientist, the young person needs help identifying what is most meaningful and how to pursue it. The Awhat@ and the Ahow@ are unique to each person. I have no formulas - only the advise to look, listen, and observe. Students tell us through their actions what they need and value most. We cannot change their motives - nor would we want to. We simply want to identify what those motives are and help them see what we are seeing so they can consciously choose what is most meaningful.
I started by talking about my experience as a mentee and how I learned from my mentors that science is about relationships. And, now speaking as a mentor, I know that, in fact, the best science occurs within a relationship where the highest ideals are shared day to day.
I remember one of the first students I mentored - and going to his thesis defense. As the room filled with faculty and students, I felt a pang of anxiety as I remembered a lab presentation, two years before, during which this student was overtaken with a temporary amnesia...and was unable to continue.
Now I watched him calmly walk to the podium, command our attention - and hold it. For an hour, he shared with us a keen mind...a mind, structured piece by piece, on our shared ideals. And now here it was - available for the world to know, enjoy, and discover.
At moments like this I am reminded that...it is a pleasure and a privilege to be a mentor.