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.
Stephani Page is a rising 5th year graduate student at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is pursuing her PhD in the Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics and is a member of the Bourret/Silversmith Lab in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology.
There are many qualities that signify an outstanding mentor: compassionate, wise, and humble; forthright, patient, and honest; knowledgeable, generous, and genuine. When I think of all of the individuals whom I have called “mentor”, they have demonstrated all of these qualities. The attributes and qualities of good mentorship cannot be assigned to gender, race, religion, or economic status; I have had many mentors from diverse backgrounds. Largely due in part to the depth and diversity of the relationships with people who have taken the time to mentor me, I feel equipped to step out into the vast unknown: a career in the sciences.
I am a Black woman, and although my ability to be receptive to the guidance of others has never hinged on race and gender, I often find myself desiring the perspectives of other Black women. To be clear, while Black women are not the only group from which I seek mentorship, they are a vital contingency of my cohort of mentors. There often is a commonality of experience made unique by our race and gender. Consequently, from one Black woman to another there can be a uniquely crafted kind of mentorship relative to the challenges of being black and female in a white and male dominated profession.
Case in point: My white male PI is a great mentor. He is highly respected both as a scientist and as a person by his peers. Additionally, as the Director of Graduate Studies for Microbiology & Immunology and as a professor in that department, he brings a high level of sensitivity to the challenges of all of the students. My PI also embodies the attributes I listed above, and he is an example of the type of mentor I hope to become. Nonetheless, there are aspects of my experiences that he cannot completely comprehend. He is astute enough to recognize and acknowledge that there are difficulties, challenges and pressures to being a female person of color in the sciences, but because they are not his experiences, he cannot fully understand and guide me through such situations.
For any student, regardless of race and gender, there is pressure to perform and flourish. That pressure is, at the very least, heightened by race and gender. I have to thrive in an environment that at times discourages my presence. Many people function under the notion that because racism and sexism are no longer accepted as social norms that they also no longer exist. In a society that has self-identified as post-racial and gender inclusive, many seem to have denounced the idea that negative stereotypes and preconceived notions of people can still remain in the subconscious and, thereby, effect treatment of others. My experiences suggest otherwise.
In the face of the reality that is racism and sexism, I, personally, am challenged to engage and learn from every critique. I have determined not to allow racism or sexism, even when apparent, to be excuses for missed opportunities for my growth. This makes me, more often than not, take on an elevated sense of responsibility for the treatment and feedback I receive from others. I have to tailor my reactions and behavior so that I am not too conciliatory while tempering myself so that I do not seem too aggressive or too “angry”. The resulting stress, the bruises to my confidence, and the need for an outlet can often only be met and comforted by a positive encounter with someone who can relate to the delicate balancing act. Thankfully, I have been able to find and interact with such individuals, however, as Black women, we are underrepresented in every discipline of science and thus not plentiful. For myself and others, it can be difficult to find and build relationships with other Black women who are scientists and who are able to be mentors. As graduate students, some Black women will not encounter another Black woman in science over the entire course of earning a PhD.
The overall motivation for my desire to see more Black women as mentors in science is not self-centered. I believe that science needs the perspectives, ideas, and creativity that can only result from diversification. As more underrepresented women and men of color are offered positions, more of them will take up roles as PIs, research advisors and administrators, and I am certain that more of my needs and those of others like me will be met. In order to navigate a career that I love, but that requires years of exhaustive training and that comes with no guarantee of financial reward, I have to be thoughtful of what will ensure my success. This applies to everyone.
I greatly value what I have gleaned from my experiences with all of my mentors. To be a mentor in any capacity is one of the best ways to give of ourselves as we grow from success to success. To be a mentor to an underrepresented minority in science is to support the expansion of perspectives, ideas, creativity and possibility in science.