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.
Michelle L. Oyen is a Lecturer in Mechanics of Biological Materials in the Mechanics and Materials Division and the Engineering for the Life Sciences (Bioengineering) group in the Cambridge University Engineering Department. She holds a B.S. degree in Materials Science and Engineering and an M.S. Degree in Engineering Mechanics, both from Michigan State University and a Ph.D. degree in Biophysical Sciences and Medical Physics from the University of Minnesota. She joined Cambridge Engineering in 2006 following an appointment as Research Scientist at the University of Virginia Center for Applied Biomechanics. She is a member of the Materials Research Society, and webmaster for the new UK-based Bioengineering Society.
Engineering has undergone a revolution in the 21st century, and is just as likely to be associated with medicine or biology as with bridges and buildings. I work in the interdisciplinary field of bioengineering–using engineering principles to understand the natural world. Given how broad this field is, it is perhaps not surprising that I have three degrees in three different subjects: materials science, engineering mechanics, and medical physics. These educational experiences have prepared me to work both in biomedical engineering, with an aim to improve human health, and in more general bioengineering, as in learning from nature to make more environmentally-friendly materials.
As a Lecturer in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, I have to wear many hats including teaching, research, and both internal and external service. I lead a research group which is currently averaging around ten people, and consists of Master’s and PhD students from all over the world. Mentoring these students is the most rewarding part of my job. Of course I am responsible for their scientific development and progress, but I am also strongly involved with teaching them communications skills, both written and oral, helping them choose and then progress along a strategic career path, and generally navigating their lives during the time that they spend in my group.
Mentoring is a natural part of my job, and arguably one of the most important aspects of my day. Being an effective mentor in my world requires a number of skills that were not necessarily obtained during the course of my formal Bachelor’s-Master’s-PhD studies prior to starting in this post. A key requirement is to be culturally sensitive in the environment of the global university. As an American living in the UK, my default position is to be hyper-aware of the differences between the local Britons and me. My research group looks like a mini-United Nations with current and past members from Continental Europe, Africa, East Asia and America, as well as England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The mentor-mentee interaction depends very much on the cultural background of both mentor and mentee, and is unique for each pairing.
Further, there are two separate aspects to my role as a mentor: one that is general and one that specifically addresses the unique challenges arising for women in science and engineering. My group averages about 50% female, so these gender-related aspects are a substantial focus within my group, but I also find that young women from other research groups have approached me for advice and assistance on occasion, and I have always welcomed such approaches. In this context, mentorship can range from the profound–what are the realities of trying to balance academic and family life–to the seemingly superficial–should female students wear heels and short skirts to lectures and practicals in an Engineering department. All of these are serious questions that affect the day-to-day lives of young women, and thus require thoughtful answers.
As part of my general ethos for managing a group, I like to emphasize a team attitude, which opens the door for peer mentoring. Examples include students critiquing group members’ practice presentations ahead of conferences, and asking them to review each other’s manuscript drafts before they hit my desk. Peer mentoring is important to me on a philosophical level, but it is also extremely practical. One of the greatest impediments to effective mentoring in an academic setting is time. By encouraging peer mentoring, I can present opportunities for students to gain their own mentoring experiences while eliminating the requirement that all mentoring comes via me, thus preserving my time for a greater variety of tasks.
It is easy to grow cynical of modern academic life, as it has become increasingly governed by numbers, such as the size of your research contracts and the bibliometric analysis of your publications. My hope for my fellow beleaguered academics, especially the young ones just beginning their careers in academia, is to resist the temptation to put mentoring on the back burner. Yes, it is true that mentoring does not contribute to your funding portfolio, but relationships built with students through mentoring can’t help but contribute significantly to the total group output. And most importantly, time spent mentoring the next generation provides respite from worrying about the numbers, and provides the rare opportunity for an unadulterated sense of accomplishment when students start to thrive in their research roles.