Building Your Mentoring Portfolio

 June 6, 2014

Student working in the lab

Have you thought about mentoring but worried that you weren’t qualified? Do you feel like it’s too big a time commitment? I felt the same way, but one summer of mentoring changed my entire thought process and helped me shape my mentoring experiences to work for me. 

If you believe you want a career in science education, programming or outreach, I would highly advise finding mentoring opportunities during your graduate student career. These experiences on your resume signal to search committees that you are serious about the path and have made it a priority alongside your research. Universities such as Harvard, Washington University-St. Louis and Duke offer prestigious institution-wide awards to recognize both students and faculty members who are exemplary mentors.

My first summer of graduate school, I looked for places to volunteer on campus and in the community. I knew I needed to start thinking about career options and building experiences early on, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I quickly ruled out formal teaching during the summer. How could I be qualified to teach anyone anything? I hadn’t even taken my preliminary exams!

My first role in science outreach was as a graduate student mentor with the Duke University Summer Research Opportunities Program, which provided immersive research experiences for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds in the sciences. For many of these students, this was their first research experience and they needed a crash course in the basic biomedical sciences. At the end of the summer, helping my summer students navigate their research and grow during their time at Duke turned out to be a rewarding learning opportunity for me as well.

Along with another graduate student mentor, I taught basic lab etiquette, critical assessment of primary literature and navigation the graduate school application process. I was so worried that I wouldn’t have all the answers due to my limited experience. However, I quickly realized that my inexperience was an asset. As a first-year graduate student, the application & interview processes were fresh in my mind. That positive experience gave me the confidence to continue pursuing similar opportunities.

Over the past several years, I have continued to mentor on campus and in the community. I concentrated my efforts on science education and outreach, and this served me well. My mentoring efforts were twofold: I built relationships with mentees and also developed my teaching skills, particularly commanding and engaging my audience. I also found myself teaching new content outside my area of expertise. I demonstrated the structural role of proteins through a day of baking bread with various flours. Knowing I could keep the attention of 20-30 6th graders on a Saturday morning really put me at ease when I guest lectured for undergraduate courses.

There are multiple mentoring opportunities to choose from in the RTP area, and many student groups such as the Bouchet Society and WiSE advertise opportunities on their listservs. I participated in activities ranging from one-time presentations of my research to an overnight trip that taught students about coastal ecosystems. These experiences were designed to serve and educate the students I worked with; however, they were rewarding for me as well. You can select activities that fit your desired level of engagement, so I encourage you to seek mentoring opportunities on campus and in your community. You can build your academic portfolio and support the next generation of outstanding scientists in the process!

Dr. Zakiya Whatley received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring in 2013. She is a May 2014 graduate of the University Program in Genetics & Genomics at Duke University.