Inclusive Mentorship with High School Scholars: The Duke University Neuroscience Experience

 April 10, 2024

Science belongs to everyone, and as a senior graduate student, one of my goals as a rising mentor is to share access to my field. I am a recent co-chair of the Duke University Neuroscience Experience (DUNE), an annual summer program designed to serve science-oriented high school students in the Triangle area. I am additionally a current mentor to Duke undergraduate students. Learning how to identify and meet my trainees where they are relative to our shared projects is an ongoing process, but it is one in which I keep the goals of inclusive mentoring at the front of my mind. DUNE provides trainings for their team members and mentors, which heavily influenced my own approach to mentorship. These trainings and the DUNE community have been incredibly formative in my development as an academic researcher and mentor.  Programs like the DUNE mentor trainings are vital to the development of mentorship skills that will build a more accessible and inclusive STEM culture.

I have worked with DUNE since its founding in 2020 by Kirill Chesnov and Divya Subramanian, Ph.D.’22. As a fifth-year Neurobiology Ph.D. candidate, I have studied and worked in three different research institutions over the last eleven years. For that reason, I am deeply enmeshed in the implicit professional expectations of academic culture, as well as the nuances of my own research project. Communicating with new trainees, therefore, is a persistent work in progress as I try to shed the jargon and unnecessary technical details that obscure important concepts. As I serve as a research mentor to Duke undergraduate students, I aim to develop mentorship skills that embody the values of DUNE in my work with these future scientists and doctors.

The Duke University Neuroscience Experience

Early research experience is important in the educational paths of students who seek STEM careers. The primary goal of DUNE is to contribute to an inclusive STEM future by building an early on-ramp for students from historically marginalized backgrounds into science. The DUNE program provides practical exposure to the day-to-day work of academic research. For this reason, it’s critical that

DUNE students poster session
DUNE participant with Trevor Alston, former co-chair of the DUNE Program and Ph.D. candidate in Neurobiology

DUNE builds an inclusive learning environment by providing its scholars with an explicit introduction to the “hidden curriculum” of academia—the unspoken expectations that are intrinsic to academic cultures—and by fostering strong interpersonal rapport between mentors and scholars.

To accomplish the goals of teaching the hidden curriculum and fostering strong interpersonal relationships, DUNE applied for and won a Professional Development Grant from The Graduate School. This funding supports mentor training sessions focused on practices of inclusive mentoring—teaching scientific concepts and protocols in a way that is personalized and flexible to accommodate trainees’ diverse backgrounds and prior academic experiences. These concepts are especially critical when working with high school students, who are typically in a research lab for the first time in their lives during the DUNE program. Training sessions are attended by members of DUNE leadership, including myself, as well as the graduate students, technicians, and postdocs who directly mentor DUNE scholars.

Preparing to Teach the Hidden Curriculum of Academia

Education about the hidden curriculum of academia comes from careful forethought about how a trainee will experience a research project and the professional expectations that the mentor will set. To this end, our training in Research Project Management is taught by Dr. John Pearson, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology.  Dr. Pearson guides mentors through discussions about building an eight-week summer project and communicating with students to evaluate progress in these plans over time. Practices that may be habitual in a lab, like sharing the results of an experiment with a mentor within the same day or week, or answering emails in a timely fashion, should be explicitly discussed with new trainees. This attention to setting expectations facilitates integration into the lab culture and progression with a project. Therefore, with my own summer students, I generate a shared Google Doc with modifiable goals for each week of the summer, which helps me to keep project expectations clearly stated and in conversation. We sit down together each week to assess how our plan is progressing. Should we do another joint experiment? Do we have all the tools ready for the next week? Does the student feel comfortable doing the next experiment independently? We amend our mutual plans accordingly.

Prioritizing Practices of Inclusive Mentoring

Tailoring science education to the needs of individual trainees depends on intentional development of the mentor-mentee relationship. This is the focus of the three-part Inclusive Mentorship orientations directed by Dr. Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Associate Director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Her core principles include getting to know trainees, identifying shared goals for a training experience, meeting students where they are with scientific concepts, and practicing honest and open discourse. The sessions are accompanied by peer activities to practice asking open-ended questions and active listening, as well as readings that promote discussion about how racism and bias in personal, institutional, and cultural domains can impact an individual’s learning experience. This training provides a strong backbone to the start of the summer program, fostering mentor-mentee relationships that are gradually tailored to the individual DUNE scholar.

I also bring the core values of these trainings to my own mentees. I take time between protocol steps to chat about classes, hobbies, and personal histories. This rapport improves my understanding of the personal context in which research concepts are internalized. Furthermore, my lab has a long history of effective mentorship via one-on-one journal clubs, as modeled by my own mentor, Dr. Jörg Grandl. I meet individually with my mentees early in their time in the lab, to jointly review the papers that form the basis of their project. I apply the approaches of asking open-ended questions and active listening in these sessions. My mentees describe, in their own words, the central focus of the study as well as the questions asked, and evidence found in each figure. I ask them to explain specific graphs that relate to their experimental work in further detail. These conversations help me to identify where my mentees are in their comprehension of core concepts, and provide clarification when relevant.

Developing as a Mentor in the DUNE Community

An implicit feature of participating in the DUNE mentorship trainings is the opportunity to learn from and work with highly experienced, thoughtful, and compassionate mentors—both the faculty

students with DIBS sign
DUNE participants, summer 2023

instructors and fellow DUNE mentors. The collective mentoring experience of the DUNE team is a rich resource for mentoring early-stage trainees, a benefit to both the scholars in the program and participating graduate students like myself. The document that I make for my summer interns is based on versions other DUNE participants shared with me, and how I ask open-ended questions of my trainees is shaped directly by how I watch DUNE mentors engage with their scholars. DUNE participants comprise a vibrant, cross-department community of scientists who support and inform each other’s approaches to mentoring and science education.

Preparations for DUNE 2024 are underway, and a new cohort of Duke trainees will participate in mentor orientation. Speaking from my personal experience as a mentor, dedicating time to deep learning and consideration about mentorship yields a more positive and effective training experience for both the mentor and the mentee. I highly recommend workshops like the DUNE mentor trainings as a critical supplement to graduate education.


Marie Cronin headshot
Marie Cronin

Ph.D. candidate, Neurobiology

Marie Cronin is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Neurobiology and former co-chair of the Duke University Neuroscience Experience (DUNE) program. Prior to studying at Duke, Marie completed her B.A. at the College of the Holy Cross and a postbaccalaureate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.