The latest Soapbox Science mini-series focuses on the role of mentors in science. Tying in with this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, where almost 600 young scientists have the opportunity to meet each other and 25 Nobel laureates, we’ll be looking at the importance of supportive relationships and role models. We’ll hear from a mix of mentors, mentees and projects set up to support scientists and we aim to explore not just the positive examples of good mentoring but what can happen when these key relationships are absent or break down. For more discussions around this year’s Lindau meeting, check out the Lindau Nobel Community site.
Gurmit Singh is a healthcare and HIV digital activist, educator and researcher. Gurmit is the co-founder and co-facilitator of The HIVe (http://www.hiv-e.org), a global community of researchers, practitioners and activists to improve health and human rights with community-based and led HIV prevention and education using digital and networking technologies. He is also the co-convener and co-facilitator of We Decide, an e-democracy learnscape for equity and social justice. He is an ESRC Scholar at The University of Leeds UK researching how to improve the impact on practice and patient care of using Web 2.0 networking technologies for online healthcare continuing professional development. Previously, he worked as Education & Professional Development Coordinator at the International AIDS Society, Geneva. This worked resulted in a prize-winning online mentoring innovation for use in distance education and online healthcare professional development to improve practice, focusing on widening access to global collaborative learning for health care professionals and researchers from developing countries.He is on the Editorial Board of the Digital Culture and Education open-access journal. He was Programme Chair, IADIS International Conference on e-democracy, Equity and Social Justice, 2010-11. He spoke at a symposium at AMEE 2011 Conference on The future of online continuing medical education: Towards more effective approaches. He spoke at ProPEL 2012 on Reflexive Networks. His research has been published in the Cambridge Handbook on Second Language Teacher Education, the Handbook on E-governance and Social Inclusion, the journals Digital Culture and Education, Distance Education, and Interactive Technology and Smart Education.
As an educator and researcher working online to improve professional and community development and fight HIV, I have found online mentoring to be a powerful tool to connect mentors with upcoming researchers who benefit from targeted access.
Responding to the need for more and better research from those at the front line of the battle against HIV in their communities, a targeted online mentoring programme to prepare and write up scientific abstracts for the International AIDS Conference has significantly improved the quality of science produced and presented from researchers in resource-limited developing countries.
The online abstract mentoring programme uses a structured template and feedback form. Authors who wish to receive rapid and targeted feedback use the template to fill in their draft abstracts. These are then directed to mentors recruited from a pool of volunteer scientific experts and peers. Mentors provide structured feedback to abstract authors, which can be used to refine and improve their abstracts prior to submission.
This innovative online mentoring programme for abstracts was launched and provided to all abstract authors who were preparing abstracts for submission to the IAS 2009 conference. The success of the pilot led to wider publicity and expansion of the programme for the AIDS 2010 conference, in which a record of more than 500 abstract authors received rapid mentoring from scientific experts in a short period of 3 months. The programme is now running into its fourth year, having become established as a successful and effective online educational practice that leverages simple digital technologies to transcend the low impact of expensive, one-off workshops.
The programme highlighted the main benefits of online mentoring for improving scientific literacy. Many junior researchers find it difficult to apply what they were learning at traditional training workshops on scientific writing. Here, they were just a face in the crowd, with everyone eager to get the one expert to look at their writing and help with their specific issues. Many junior researchers can be shy to approach high-level scientific experts at conferences, but they have a wealth of knowledge and insights of local circumstances, what works, what doesn’t, and why, which deserves wider sharing among a global scientific community. Meanwhile, peers and experts acting as mentors have valuable tacit knowledge, which is much harder to detail, copy, and distribute as ‘evidence’ but can be located, leveraged, and applied to develop junior researchers skills and raise scientific literacy standards. All that was missing was an efficient and high-quality mechanism to connect mentors and novices from all around the world to collaborate on practical tasks as research was being turned into science.
Through working together, the online mentors – who remained anonymous to maintain scientific integrity – helped new researchers understand scientific writing as a literary practice with a particular genre and discourse. This practice-based approach enabled the benefits of online mentoring over time and distance and built the confidence, self-esteem and emotional engagement of the abstract writers.
Seeing the promise of the online mentoring on scientific abstracts, mentors have suggested broadening the approach. One mentor, for instance, recognized that mentoring after a piece of research is completed is more difficult than a process of preparation well in advance. Often it may not be the writing or presentation per se, but the fact that the analysis or design is limited. Thus, enhancing these aspects, as well as online mentoring, would be a real boost for novice researchers. At the same time as the focus on scientific abstracts allows reaching more junior researchers more quickly, there could be a selection process for promising endeavours with a good chance of publishability as full research papers which could be allocated further mentoring.
Based on these initial results, I am convinced that the benefits of online mentoring deserve wider applicability for developing scientific literacy. On a recent 2 year community development project to build The HIVe that I co-facilitated, online mentors built the capacity of novice community-based researchers from developing countries to turn their short abstracts into full research articles. While this online mentoring process only used e-mail and Skype, it modeled a practical way of increasing the capacity of emerging researchers who lack access to rigorous mentoring in their local communities. With online mentors, they negotiated the intricacies of weaving social sciences theories into their writing and gained a valuable asset, a published and peer-reviewed journal article. This kind of online mentoring transitions from a top-down to reciprocal knowledge construction, and is building a resilient social network among activists, practitioners and researchers to improve community-owned and led science in relation to HIV prevention and education.
My experiences with online mentoring to improve scientific literacy have prompted me to shift my own educational practice and become an advocate of ongoing low-cost and targeted online mentoring to build the literacy of junior researchers. If, as scientists and educators, we believe in the goal of creating more effective and equitable global learning communities which overcome the historical marginalisation of those not traditionally inducted into scientific streams, then more research is required on the conditions for supportive online mentoring, the struggles early career researchers from developing countries encounter, and the systems of power in which science is conducted and regulated.
Given the challenging financial climate for research, and the need to spark learning in the moment of writing science, the development of practical approaches to online mentoring can contribute to improving scientific literacy through collaboration and interaction with scientists located elsewhere physically but closer digitally. Rather than more and more conferences, seminars and workshops, why not use the Internet and mobile technologies to mentor junior researchers, professionals and frontline workers so that they become legitimate contributors to important scientific conversations without leaving the communities where they are most needed?
For further details about online mentoring, please refer to Singh, 2010; 2011.