When Melanie Schaffler, a third-year Ph.D. student in neuroscience, was approaching her candidacy exam last year, an oral defense of her research proposal, she wanted to get a solid practice session in. Fortunately, she had a couple of great audience members in mind: postdocs Shawn Bates and Natoya Peart, members of a mentoring circle with whom Schaffler had been meeting regularly.
“They both came and offered more of a faculty perspective than some of my peers could,” says Schaffler. “They asked really good questions so I could be prepared for the real thing.”
The mentoring circle program that has benefitted Schaffler and other scientists and scientists-in-training around Penn brings together postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates in informal groups that allow mentorship and learning to flow freely. Though the initiative is fully inclusive, the focus of the circles is to offer support to STEM trainees who identify as members of underrepresented minority (URM) groups.
Spearheaded by Brittany Taylor, co-president of the Perelman School of Medicine’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC), and Shawn Bates and Tiffany King, co-chairs of the BPC Diversity Committee, the mentoring circles allow postdocs to gain experience mentoring, undergrads to reap the expertise of trainees further along in their academic journey. The program also permits graduate students to act as both mentors to undergrads and mentees with the postdocs.
“We’re trying to create these microcosms of support all around Penn,” says Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher in Louis Soslowsky’s laboratory in the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
The impetus for the effort dates back to August 2017, when the Diversity Committee of the BPC held an ice cream social with the Ernest E. Just Biomedical Society (EE Just) and the Pre-Freshman Program through the Penn College Achievement Program (PennCAP). The three groups share an affinity—EE Just has a mission of serving underrepresented Ph.D. students and PennCAP offers support to many URM students, as well as those who identify as first-generation or low-income. At the event, Laurice Flowers, a postdoctoral researcher in Penn Medicine’s Dermatology Department and former co-chair of the BPC Diversity Committee, raised the idea of bringing members of these groups together in a more structured way through mentoring circles.
The concept immediately gained traction.
“As an undergrad at the University of Virginia we had a peer advising system,” says Taylor, who was the first in her family to attend college. “Many of us found that to be one of the reasons, being from an underrepresented minority background, that we were able to be successful throughout undergrad.”
The BPC Diversity Committee went on to co-host a social event in the spring of 2018 with EE Just, the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology, PennCAP, and PennKIPP, a partnership with the KIPP charter school network to increase college completion for underserved students. There, BPC members introduced the idea of mentoring circles and held a speed-networking session to organically create connections between postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads. Participants also filled out surveys about their preferred mentor or mentee style. Out of that session, the first cohort of mentoring circles emerged. Following, the BPC Diversity Committee hosted a Diversity in Mentoring session facilitated by John Drazan, member of the BPC Diversity Committee and postdoc in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
Since then, the circles have met through various platforms, including through the Take Your Professor/Mentor to Lunch and Host Your Class programs, part of a New Student Orientation & Academic Initiative through the Office of the Provost.
Shawn Bates, who studies the neural mechanisms involved in stress in Seema Bhatnagar’s laboratory at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has embraced the opportunities the mentoring circle provides.
“I was elated when I learned about the circles,” he says. “I know that I wouldn’t be here today without the mentoring I received from both senior and peer mentors, so I wanted to take that opportunity to pay it forward and give back.”
The experience of mentoring itself has been a boon for Bates, who hopes to find a faculty position at an institution that prioritizes interaction with undergraduates. “My current lab is predominantly postdocs and technicians, so having the opportunity to spend time with undergrads and graduate students has been helpful.”
He sees the focus on bringing underrepresented minorities from different stages of the STEM journey as being particularly valuable. “For students, many might not have a lot of opportunity to see scientists who look like them and come from similar backgrounds as theirs,” he says. “In my experience, spending time with URM scientists has definitely been enriching, and has helped me at times when I felt impostor syndrome.”
For Schaffler, who says “you can never have too many mentors,” her circle has provided the chance “to connect with people who are in the position that I eventually want to be in.” At the recent Society for Neuroscience conference, Schaffler and Bates discussed sessions and networking events to attend. Bates also introduced Schaffler to scientists in his network at the meeting.
Last month, another STEM Networking Mixer, held at the W.E.B. Du Bois College House, attracted around 75 attendees, and another set of mentoring circles will soon emerge from those interactions. A variety of campus organizations participated in the planning of that event, including the Minority Association of Pre-health Students (MAPS), the Penn chapter of Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, and the Office of Research and Diversity Training. Another social event is planned for spring 2020.
Mecky Pohlschröder, professor and undergraduate chair in Penn’s Biology Department, has overseen and offered support to the effort from the beginning, and now does so with Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, an assistant professor in the department.
“These networks provide a safe environment where every student and scientist feels valued, where they’re perceived as a valuable asset,” says Pohlschröder. “My hope is that through this initiative, we will see more students interested in pursuing a career in STEM, and in the process, undoubtedly strengthen the field.”
Sitting in on the networking and social events have been a learning experience for Pohlschröder as well. “We as faculty members need to be open to learning so we can better serve URM students,” she says. “Rather than saying, ‘This is what you need,’ we need to listen to what they’re telling us the problems are so that in a collaborative effort, we can work toward a sustainable solution.”
For the time being, the mentoring circles program is geared primarily toward students and postdocs in the biomedical sciences, but the group hopes to expand to include other STEM students across Penn. Leaders of the effort also plan to invite faculty members to join the mentoring circles and serve as mentors to postdocs.
Justin Arnold, a sophomore from Cinnaminson, New Jersey, who recently declared a biological basis of behavior major, attended the mixer last month after learning about the opportunity from Schaffler and through MAPS, in which he is a member. He looks forward to getting placed with a mentoring circle shortly.
“I want to hear the perspective of the other side, what’s it’s like after graduating undergrad,” says Arnold, who began working this year in Abdus-Saboor’s lab with Schaffler and others.
“There’s not a lot of Black and Latino individuals in science really,” he says, “and I think that having this opportunity shows what’s out there and shows that what you can do is possible; what I can do is possible.”
If you are interested in join a mentoring circle or supporting the effort, please contact the BPC Diversity Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.