An effort to improve mentoring: A conversation with Jen Heemstra and Neil Garg

Holden Thorp

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Three weeks ago, I wrote about how graduate education is still in serious need of reform and pointed to a NextGen Voices piece that we ran describing how principal investigators can be better mentors. Recently, I learned that two outstanding chemistry professors—Jen Heemstra at Emory University and Neil Garg at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)—had launched an initiative called #MentorFirst to address this challenge. The program’s goal is to put mentoring students and postdocs not only on an equal footing with research, but first.

Below are some highlights from our conversation. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Holden Thorp: Thanks to both of you for talking to me. Let’s start with what the initiative is and how you came to start it.

Jen Heemstra: The initiative is called #MentorFirst. The idea is that we are dedicated to excellence in our roles as both researchers and mentors, but which one we put first makes a huge difference to the students and postdocs who work in our lab. Do we see ourselves as researchers, and there are these people in our lab whose job it is just to get that research done? Or do we view ourselves as mentors who are here to help those students and postdocs develop in their careers, using research as the vehicle by which to do that? If we help them do outstanding research, then that will benefit all of us. We think that the shift to prioritizing mentorship makes a real difference to students and postdocs, and they are the future of our field. And so, we're both very invested in helping all of us as faculty to continue to grow as mentors. I know that I have a lot of growth that I could do as a mentor, a lot of areas where I can keep improving. Just like anything, we never become true experts at it. We just try to continually get better and better. And that's what this initiative really ended up promoting.

Holden Thorp: Neil, anything to add to that?

Neil Garg: I'll just mention that I visited Jen at Emory in 2018, and I was really struck by all the great ideas she had about supporting graduate students and how important it was. Fast forward to now, and she is a huge voice in the community with a massive following. I think what that really showed is that there is an incredible need to promote proactive mentoring in our field, and more generally across the scientific community. So Jen and I put our heads together and came up with #MentorFirst. We talked with our graduate students and postdocs about it over a joint Zoom group meeting, and we just thought it was an incredibly important initiative. The idea is that people can go to the #MentorFirst website and find the pledge option. So if you’re a mentor, you can take a pledge, basically saying you will follow our guidelines about what it takes to be a proactive mentor: You’ll put your students first, or the students in your lab first, and prioritize their career paths and their education. But you can also be a supporter of the initiative and complete an endorsement form. And that's really the idea. There's a cool logo. It says, “Mentoring. It's in our genes.” The idea is that faculty can also post this on their website to show that they support this initiative and that they create a nurturing environment.

Holden Thorp: Why do you think the gap that you're filling here exists?

Neil Garg: It's interesting. Why does this gap exist? Well, I can use myself as an example. If I look at what we have listed on the #MentorFirst website as pledge commitments, most of them are things that I did not do when I started my independent career as an assistant professor. When I look back, my goal was research. It wasn't about the education and the mentorship of the co-workers in my lab. So part of it maybe can be attributed to the tenure process: It's the research, it's the research, it's the research. People are thinking about their job security. Then years later, once I was past that and also serving as department chair, I saw a huge variety in how faculty interact with the mentees, and it was pretty striking. By that time, I'd completely changed how I viewed the mentorship culture in my research lab. And I don't think there's been any loss in productivity that results from managing and orchestrating my group with a mentor focus; the research takes care of itself. I wish I had understood that when I started my career. So maybe partially to do with the tenure process.

Jen Heemstra: I completely agree with Neil. I think it really speaks to the way that we view faculty jobs in our field and in academia, in general. When you’re coming up as a student and then as a postdoctoral researcher, you're told, "Oh, if you become an academic, that's a research job. It's a research job. It's a research job." But then if you look at the job, yes, you are managing a research program, but really so much of the job is all sorts of things. It's human resources and finances and all of these things we were trained for. But a huge, huge part of that is leading this group of people. I think that in other fields, certainly in the industry, if you have 10 or 15 direct reports, you're considered a leader or manager, and you're given leadership and management training. But in academia, we just haven't embraced that in the same way. A big goal is to shed light on this issue and to really promote good mentoring, but we also wanted to make this really, really easy for people who want to do the right thing but don't have the resources to do that. So we worked together to create these mentoring commitments, and then we got advice from a number of the people who signed on as supporters of our #MentorFirst initiative.

Jen Heemstra: The goal was to say, "Hey, from one person who's trying to learn this to another, we realized that we're all busy and we all have a lot of stress coming at us from lots of directions, but we know that lots of us out there want to grow in this area. We want to work together and share some basic practices, really actionable ideas for things that people can do in order to improve the quality of their mentoring." So it's not supposed to be guilt-inducing or judgmental at all, but rather just an attempt to share some really low–energy barrier ways that faculty can improve their mentoring and improve the culture in their lab.

Holden Thorp: Aside from people signing up for your initiative, what are things that the institutions could do better?

Jen Heemstra: That's a great question. We would love for this to be a springboard for institutions to create a framework for promoting mentoring among their faculty. I have started to think about whether institutions could create #MentorFirst groups. It would be great to bring together groups of faculty who were all interested in growing together as mentors and maybe (in post-COVID times) provide a nice lunch for everyone and meet on a semi-regular basis, a few times a semester maybe, to talk about how they're growing as mentors, to share stories, to share things that they're struggling with, and to support each other in that. We hope that when people go to our mentors initiative and click the pledge button, it's not a one-time thing, where they think about mentoring in that 5 minutes and then they walk away and don't do anything differently. Certainly, universities can also be rewarding this, just like they reward faculty for participating in diversity, equity, and inclusion training, and just like they reward other work that points toward excellence in education or research. We would love to see #MentorFirst participation being rewarded by universities as well. We would love to see it be something that faculty could talk about in their tenure promotion materials, saying that they took the pledge and also describing what they have done to be an outstanding mentor to their group and how they have grown as leaders.

Neil Garg: Just to add a few other ideas about what institutions or departments could do, I think the simplest on a very general level is just to talk about it more. If there's a problem with regard to mentorship in a department, we typically just try to solve it and keep it quiet. We try not to draw attention to such things. So I think just talking about it, like, "Hey, maybe that could have been handled differently. Here's a different way to do it" would help. At regular faculty meetings, someone, maybe the vice chair for graduate studies, could give an example of a successful and an unsuccessful mentoring case. I also think it would be very cool and controversial to evaluate faculty mentorship formally across the board. I don't know exactly how to do that. Obviously, there are websites for Rate My Professor. I'd be a little terrified if there was a website that said Rate My Research Mentor, but maybe that's what's needed. But at an institutional level, something like that could be implemented at departmental levels. Then, as Jen alluded to, it could tie into the promotional process. Right now, there are certain metrics required to be promoted in any of our institutions. I don't know that how one acts and performs as a mentor is currently a part of that in a substantial way. No disrespect to UCLA—I do think UCLA cares very much about education and mentorship, but it's just not as formalized, I would say. And maybe some formality around it would help.

Holden Thorp: Would you like to add anything before we end our discussion?

Neil Garg: Just that we sincerely hope that this puts a spotlight on the importance of mentorship. That's the overall goal. All of us as faculty, no matter how great of a job we think we're doing, have room for improvement. And that's one of the fundamentals of the #MentorFirst initiative, that a mentor is a person who is constantly growing in their role as a mentor. So if nothing else, hopefully everybody who hears about this initiative takes a moment to reflect on their own practices and think about how they can grow as a mentor. There is nothing to lose by doing that. This should not be confused with, "Okay, if you care about mentoring, you don't care about your research anymore." That's not what this is about at all. It's about the synergy between the two. We really only have something to gain by being awesome mentors. Again, that's really what this initiative is about, and I hope that's what people take away from it.

Jen Heemstra: Too often, the conversation about research and mentoring pits the two against each other in a zero-sum game, as though if you want to be amazing at research, it has to be at the expense of your mentoring, or if you want to really, really value mentoring, then that is going to come at the cost of your research. We want to shatter that narrative, and we want to create a new narrative that really these two things are synergistic. As Neil mentioned earlier, the more we pour ourselves into being amazing mentors, the more we can empower and motivate and support each of the people we work with. Being an outstanding mentor and an outstanding leader is not about having all the answers. It's about showing up and helping every person in our group to be their very best and to learn and grow and come out of our lab prepared for their future in the best possible way. As we do all of those things, outstanding research is the natural outcome, not something that gets shoved aside. And so, we can still do outstanding research, but do it in a way that supports people, creates a positive academic culture, and helps more people to be outstanding scientists in government or law or industry or academia or wherever they go. And if the past 2 years have taught us anything, it is that our future is reliant on science. Whether it's coping with pandemics or thinking about how we overcome climate change, our future as a society is reliant on scientists, and it's reliant on us as academics to be providing the best possible training and mentoring for scientists.

Holden Thorp: That's terrific. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.


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