The Science of Mentorship

It’s easy to assume that most mentoring relationships are organically formed. But effective mentoring can take many forms, and relationships are often formed through formal mentorship programs.

Show Notes

It’s easy to assume that most mentoring relationships are organically formed. But effective mentoring can take many forms, and relationships are often formed through formal mentorship programs. 

Mentoring programs require a lot of resources and investments, like time, energy, and money. But they can be incredibly effective in mentoring and retaining students in STEMM fields. In this episode, students and postdocs share stories of how mentorship programs supported them in their academic journeys. Students share how programs helped them pivot their academic pursuits, feel comfortable in new settings, and work to recruit and retain underrepresented students in STEMM careers. 

To learn more about the Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM report, and for a guide to implementing best practices at your institution, visit

Brought to you by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine

What is The Science of Mentorship?

Mentorship is essential to the development of anyone in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or medicine, but did you know mentorship is a set of skills that can be learned, practiced, and optimized?

In this 10-part series from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, you’ll hear the personal mentorship stories of leaders in academia, business, and the media, in their own words. Learn how evidence-based mentorship practices can help you develop the skills to engage in the most effective STEMM mentoring relationships possible.

If you are a mentor, a mentee, or have a role in mentorship, this podcast is for you.

Bethany Brookshire (00:10):
Sometimes mentoring relationships form just like the famous scientists write in their memoirs. A student and famous faculty member just happened to meet, hit it off, and bam, the student is successfully integrated into STEM through this organically-formed mentoring relationship. But if there's anything we've learned through this series, it's that mentoring relationships can and do look really different from this idealized norm. And often effective mentoring happens in a more structured, formal setting through mentorship programs. Is there any advantage to being in a mentoring program versus an organically-formed mentoring relationship or just relying on your advisor?
Mentoring programs do require a lot of resources and investments like time, energy, and money for everyone involved, yet so many programs exist. Clearly, mentoring programs offer something unique. This is the Science of Mentorship, a podcast from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that explores the mentoring skills that can and should be learned to unleash everyone's potential in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. I'm your host, Bethany Brookshire. Many of the students I spoke had been involved at some point in a mentoring program, a program set apart within their fields that placed heavy emphasis on mentoring. A lot of these stories resulted in successful mentoring relationships and helped galvanize students in STEM.
Dr. Jeremy Waisome (01:35):
I have participated in a number of programs, and each time I think I learned something new about myself.
Bethany Brookshire (01:43):
That's Dr. Jeremy Waisome again. Before Dr. Waisome began these programs, she was in the middle of her senior year in high school and things weren't going well.
Dr. Jeremy Waisome (01:51):
I had a really difficult senior year. I really felt like there was a lot going on that I didn't know how to process at the time around my race.
Bethany Brookshire (02:04):
As she tried to grapple with these challenges, she enrolled in a summer program at a university.
Dr. Jeremy Waisome (02:09):
I participated in what's called the Step Up Program, which is a summer bridge program that brings in high school students in the summertime. And you're paired with a peer mentor, and you get the opportunity to basically go through engineering bootcamp and take some of the coursework that you will take in the fall before you get to those fall classes.
Bethany Brookshire (02:33):
Dr. Waisome was really frustrated with academics and, at first, this frustration transferred to the program.
Dr. Jeremy Waisome (02:39):
And so by the time I got to this summer program, I had written off everyone. I was very much against even going to school, participating in the program. I remember telling people in the program that like, "I wasn't going to be involved." I just was detached.
Bethany Brookshire (02:59):
But as she went through the program, something changed.
Dr. Jeremy Waisome (03:02):
And somehow that program reignited a flame in me for education. And I don't even have the words to describe how amazing it was and how much it changed my life. I already knew that I wanted to be an engineer, so it wasn't about my engineering identity. It was more so about my desire to remain in education.
Bethany Brookshire (03:25):
This program helped Dr. Waisome recognize that she had a place in academia. As we discussed in the last episode, she met an individual through the program that helped her realize that she could be successful in this career.
Dr. Jeremy Waisome (03:36):
The person who developed the program, who's a Jamaican man, and I had never really seen someone who was black and an engineer until I saw him.
Bethany Brookshire (03:47):
Dr. Waisome participated in more formal programs well into graduate school, and she started realizing just how critical the mentoring aspects of these programs were.
Dr. Jeremy Waisome (03:56):
I also did programs as a graduate student that aren't really marketed as mentoring programs, but now that I'm someone who studies mentoring, I see that that was a really significant component of those programs and the models that they were built on, most of them primarily focusing on cohort-based processes and making sure that you establish community early on.
Bethany Brookshire (04:30):
Finding a community within STEM is so important to keep students going for the long haul of graduate school and beyond. Students told me about so many moments when they were having difficult times or just felt burdened by the weight of their academic or laboratory responsibilities. In these moments, they found some of their most helpful support in the camaraderie of their peers. For many underrepresented students, they might find themselves underrepresented among the peers in their STEM program. This might make finding a community more challenging. It's not that people mean to be unkind, but as we discussed in previous episodes, they might not create a welcoming environment. So many of the underrepresented students I spoke with found a network of peers and a community in a mentoring program. When Luis Dominguez Junior began his studies at the University of Houston-Downtown, he felt, at first, like he was all on his own.
Luis Dominguez Junior (05:19):
And I was a good student. I was very studious. I kept my nose into books, if you will, but I didn't know any of my peers. It was very isolating. So there was something missing there.
Bethany Brookshire (05:30):
Luis then heard about a program and it intrigued him.
Luis Dominguez Junior (05:33):
And at the University of Houston-Downtown, there's actually a program called Scholars' Academy, which basically takes all the students within STEM majors. It's competitive, so you have to apply for it, but it takes those students, if you get accepted, and you have to do regular seminars, various other requirements that you have to uphold every semester.
Bethany Brookshire (05:57):
This was a really rigorous program, but it helped Luis find something he didn't realize he needed.
Luis Dominguez Junior (06:03):
The beauty about it is that introduced you to all these highly-motivated students and puts you in a group with, say, 8 or 10 other of your peers that are studying the same major and that are led by a peer mentor. So you have this peer mentor-peer mentee relationship. And I found that, incredibly, once I joined Scholars' Academy, it accelerated my growth as a student because there's so many different perspectives. There's so many things that I just learned just from my talking to my group. I found that immensely helpful in comparison to when I first got there, where I was just nose in the books and not really knowing any of my peers.
Bethany Brookshire (06:46):
This support from peers was unique. It wasn't like a faculty member with years of experience guiding a less-experienced student. It was a group of students going through a shared experience, each bringing their own perspective to the table and helping each other as they shared similar burdens.
Luis Dominguez Junior (07:01):
I think it's that sense of familiarity. All your peers, and your peer mentor, they're studying this. They're in the same degree plan as yourself. They have a similar background usually at UHD. You're buying the same textbooks. You're studying this for the same exams. And, especially the peer mentors and other students that are really motivated, you see that they have internships or job offers that are waiting for them upon graduation. And for me, I remember seeing that, and I saw that as inspiring and motivating because of that sense of familiarity. They're a student just like me, same program, same school, grew up nearby me, and I just felt that to be very compelling and really started asking myself why I can't be in that position as well.
Bethany Brookshire (08:02):
As students establish community in their fields, mentoring programs can also help them if they find they need an additional or different mentor to fulfill their needs. Adding or switching mentors can be a bumpy experience. In some cases, mentoring programs can help smooth the way. Anthony Keys, from our previous episodes, was involved in a few mentoring programs himself. He told me that there were certain ways these programs helped his peers find the right path and the right mentor.
Anthony Keys (08:28):
You would see students get moved around to another professor. And it would be because the student maybe had a conversation. They were like, "I'm kind of interested in computational chemistry, but I'm working in the organic lab because I feel like I need these techniques." And sometimes that professor would be like, "Oh, actually, why don't you go work with this professor for a while?" And so you would see students changing labs. And sometimes students just didn't get along with their PI. Some students had a clear expectation of what kind of mentor they wanted, and they would be like, "This professor is not responding to my emails. I can't find them in their office. And whenever I'm trying to get answers to some of these questions, they push me off onto another person in the group. And then that person doesn't even know who I am."
Bethany Brookshire (09:13):
Anthony showed me that mentoring programs can help students who are navigating tricky situations, like negative mentoring relationships or just the desire to change research and switch labs.
Anthony Keys (09:23):
So I think if you're just a student looking for an advisor, it's much harder than if you have a program that helps facilitate those conversations.
Bethany Brookshire (09:32):
Anthony's programs gave him and his peers access to high-quality mentoring, independent of joining any one laboratory. And this was especially important because these programs served another purpose. They worked to make sure that underrepresented groups were recruited and retained in STEM fields. First, there was the MARC program.
Anthony Keys (09:50):
MARC, it stands for Maximizing Access to Research Careers. And one of the main objectives that it has is that is to diversify minority and underrepresented groups who are going into STEM fields and careers.
Bethany Brookshire (10:07):
And then there was the LSAMP program.
Anthony Keys (10:08):
It's the Louis Stokes Minority Alliance Participation program. This is another one that helps maximize, basically, diversity in STEM fields as well. And it also tries to make sure that students continue in their higher education degrees, so not just getting their bachelors, but going towards a bridge to master's program or a bridge to doctorate. So it's just a lot of programs that are basically the cores to retain students, create a more diverse working force, and really see how you can measure their growth over time.
Bethany Brookshire (10:42):
Both of these programs work to recruit underrepresented students into STEM fields, with the LSAMP program specifically working to encourage those students to pursue higher degrees. Programs like these are necessary. Students from all backgrounds and experiences possess amazing talent in the sciences, but not all of these students have the same access to pursue their STEM dreams in higher education. Mentoring programs can help provide networks and connections that students from majority groups might simply take for granted. I was reminded of Nicole Bentley who, in our last episode, told me about how her experience as a Native American made her graduate school journey very different from that of her white colleagues. In her undergraduate career, Nicole was at New Mexico State University and, like Luis Dominguez Junior, she was able to form a network of peers from similar backgrounds who worked to support each other.
Nicole Bentley (11:28):
At New Mexico State University, we had native student organizations, such as AISES, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. And they had a club and I got involved right away, but also seeing people in the club doing or hosting events on campus or being involved with Native American and STEM fields, I seek them first just because of their leadership abilities and being able to meet with them frequently during the club meetings. And then just having open discussions about, "Hey, what's going on? Hey, I'm having like a tough time with this class. Do you know of any resources and stuff?"
Bethany Brookshire (12:10):
When it came time to choose a graduate school, a former connection from AISES got Nicole in touch with the Native American Educational and Cultural Center at Purdue University. She was eventually recruited by them to start her graduate program at Purdue. And while the center wasn't a formal STEM mentoring program, the people running it worked hard to help Nicole feel safe in her new environment.
Nicole Bentley (12:30):
There's hardly any Native Americans in that area, or people of color, so that was a culture shock for myself. But if it wasn't for their efforts of connecting me with other advisors and professors and getting me into that summer research opportunities program, then I wouldn't have been comfortable going to school there. And then they also had resources for Native American students as a fellowship. It's called the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership for master and PhD students. And my partner, who I met at New Mexico State University, we had our daughter at the time who was two years old. So we both graduated from New Mexico State University, and it worked out perfect for him and I to go to Purdue together and with our daughter. So early on, it was that relationship that the, NAECC established with us that made us comfortable to go that far. And they've been a huge support for us through our master's program.
Bethany Brookshire (13:26):
Not only did the center help her and her family feel comfortable, but it provided her with a community of other indigenous PhD students and faculty members who could provide unique support.
Nicole Bentley (13:37):
So I turn to a lot of Native American graduate students or the Native American Educational Cultural Center folks that held down the floor at the NAECC and other native faculty or people who were involved with the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership, SIGP, fellowship there. Yeah, they were basically my first go-to of... Well, with Native students, it was always just a conversation. It's like, "This weird thing happened this week, and I'm not sure what to think about it." Because we would meet weekly as well or going to the faculty or the staff and saying like, "This happened. I don't really know what to think of it, or I may be overreacting or overthinking this, but can I run this by you really quick?" So you would just have a opportunity to vent with each other, and maybe that's all we needed sometimes was just to vent and have that safe environment and safe space within each other to be able to do that.
Bethany Brookshire (14:44):
The Center knew that when indigenous students arrived at Purdue, they likely wouldn't feel right at home. So it worked to provide support through faculty and peer mentors who help students like Nicole feel like they belonged, not just at the school, but in their chosen fields. STEM programs that exist outside of standard academic programs may not always be centered around mentoring, but often mentoring is a significant aspect of the program. In our previous episodes, we heard from Trayvon Giles. Trayvon was part of two unique STEM programs. One was the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement or RISE program, which focuses on introducing students into research careers. The other was the same one Anthony keys was part of, the MARC program, which works to increase diversity in STEM research. As Trayvon started these programs, he realized that they took effective mentoring really seriously.
Trayvon Giles (15:40):
So in these programs, we were assigned mentors based off of the area of research you wanted to go into, which was discussed beforehand. So that was factored into who was accepted into the program or not is you had to have a mentor that could actually fit your needs. And so, for example, I was interested in neuroscience, but my school only had two faculty that had labs in the neuroscience area. And one of the labs were full, and the other lab wasn't full. And so we had to have a very candid conversation about if I would be willing to join this lab just because it's neuroscience, even though it isn't my particular interest. And that's how I gained my first neuroscience mentor, which was Dr. Hato.
Bethany Brookshire (16:24):
These programs understood that students could struggle without the support from an effective mentoring relationship, so much so that they wouldn't even accept students if there weren't any mentors to guide them. Mentoring programs can be effective tools to establish strong mentoring relationships. And usually there are people who oversee this aspect of the program and can work to ensure that mentors are supporting students in the most effective way possible. It's not to say that an organic mentoring relationship outside of a formal program can't provide students comprehensive support their STEM journey. They absolutely can, but what I started to see is that programs can be incredibly effective to mentor and retain students in STEM fields. Because of this, they're worth the investment of time, energy, and money. Some mentees may feel inspired after their programs to do mentoring of their own. Trayvon told me about a moment this happened for him, as he became involved with an organization called Black In Neuro.
Trayvon Giles (17:15):
They just started a new initiative for pen pals, where you can write to sixth graders. And so I signed up to be a pen pal because one of the things is I'd never, ever thought I could be a neuroscientist because I had never met a black neuroscientist before. And so I just didn't know those two things could interact with each other. And so, to me, I just think about the idea of a bunch of six year olds getting a bunch of letters from neuroscientists, that will change their life. And I think, to me, that's super impactful.
Bethany Brookshire (17:54):
In Trayvon's case, a program supported him through his own STEM journey. He then felt empowered to start guiding the future generations of STEM researchers, letting them know that their dreams are worth pursuing and there's a place for them at the table when they arrive. In Trayvon's case, Black In Neuro was one of many mentoring networks that started online in 2020. It was one of many things that changed that fateful year. For one thing, our lives moved to exist primarily online. And this meant that a lot of mentoring relationships moved online too. In our next episode, we're going to hear from students about what mentorship looks like after 2020 and how it might change moving forward. Until then, you can learn more about the science of effective mentoring in STEM at If you're enjoying the Science of Mentorship, please tell your friends, colleagues, students, teachers, and of course, your mentors and mentees about our podcast, and help others discover it by giving us a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening.


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