The mentorship experience: Undergrads teaching a grad student

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

By The Grey Wolf

“Wow! My Honours research student just finished his research presentation and is wrapping up his writing for his Honours thesis!”

The 20th and 21st of September 2018 were two important dates for the undergraduate Honours research students here in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Science, UNSW Sydney.

Not every Ph.D. student experiences this, but in some labs, taking an undergraduate student under your wing is common. I’ve directly supervised 2 Honours students, 4 summer vacation students and 2 short-term project students. I believe that the personal relationships between a junior undergraduate or junior Ph.D. student, with a more senior Ph.D research student is an important element in the overall research experience.

Mentoring is not teaching. Teaching is delivering knowledge, principles, theories and and methods in our research. Mentoring is teaching, but also conveying the everyday experience. Effective research mentoring is crucial for student success during their undergraduate research. During my mentoring period, I feel the need to know more in the literature, I worry about the accuracy of information so I don’t communicate the wrong things (protocols, methods, principles), I am constantly feeling I should be sensitive to the changing needs of my students during the research process, I see the need to be more patient and be more considerate of personal concerns. Just from this incomplete list of seemingly difficult acts, why should a Ph.D. student even consider mentoring an undergraduate research student? Below are two main skills I’ve developed and I’ve written them in a way that describes what I consider useful experience.

Planning goals and setting expectations. Depending on the kind of students you get, some may be easier to work with than others. Certainly, from the various students I mentored, I’ve developed various ways to manage their plans to ensure they spend their time more effectively in the lab. But even so, how can you convince them that you know best? Well, you don’t. In this two way street, you have more experience, but it is important to also create an open environment and create an informal conversation to communicate the desired outcomes and goals. You next start setting expectations. I was raised in a country where people basically don’t perform their best if they are not given monetary value, but being mindful there are some exceptions. As Ph.D. students, we are often offered scholarships to support the long-term commitment in our research but how should we approach undergraduate research students who basically pay for the research experience? While it is tempting to expect publication quality results that you can use to publish in a journal, don’t make that your expectation. At the same time, you shouldn’t treat your undergraduate students like they are free labor. Don’t expect students to finish genotyping all your mice for a duration of 8 hours a week for 6 months just because it is easy work and you just need someone to repeatedly extract genomic DNA and perform some PCRs. So what can you expect? You plan and set reasonable milestones. Assess from the very beginning what the students already know and whether they have the skills you require for the upcoming steps and processes in their research. Set your expectations and plan your goals in a manner that is respectful for the students and yourself.

Showcasing and teaching resillience. You’re already tired enough as a Ph.D. student, some days you need to work longer hours than others. Even after a 9 am to 5 pm shift in the lab, you return home, having some time to finally catch up on that one Cell Metabolism paper published 3 weeks ago. Now you have to deal with the problems of another research student? Through mentoring, you pretty much become resilient and persistent. The first character of my first name in Mandarin means ‘perseverance’ (I have a 2 character first name), and I think perseverance is an important trait you enhance and/or gain from mentoring. Setbacks are normal. Cloning woes, cell culture contamination, mislabeled tubes, failure to get a CRISPR-KO mice, dead ends in your hypothesis. You pretty much need to emphasize to the student how they should handle setbacks and provide examples of how you would deal with it. Undergraduate research students make errors, some less than others. Do the basic checks to make sure everything was correct. A simple calculation error? A simple mislabeling? Always review the plans in advanced, keep bugging them, keep hounding them. Make them explain to you to prevent student errors. Despite all your efforts, it can be frustrating when a student still makes a mistake. In such cases, keep the student motivated and maintain a forward-looking attitude. Emphasize the good and correct things that your student has already done. But does this always work? Certainly enough, you build resilience but will you be able to model this enough for your students to stay lifted? I cannot guarantee this will work but making your student feel bad and giving constant negative remarks will definitely not make things better. I lived in a very culturally diverse country and certain cultures find inflicting negativity to be a way to build resilience. I have also come across this way of “tough love” in certain scientific labs but it breaks the students in ways that will influence their decision. Some are experts at their experiments and everything works beautifully, but they eventually decide to quit research. Even worse, some channel this way of mentoring and it spreads to the next generation of scientists. Inevitably, setbacks do occur, but your own resilience as a mentor is key to the research experience.

A Ph.D. can be solitary endeavor, but when you have an accompanying undergraduate student, effective research mentoring develops the Ph.D. student in many ways. While that is great, how do you know you’re providing effective research mentoring? Are you doing the ideal things? How can you ensure your undergraduate student is on track? How do you know your students fully understand? An interesting article (Hannah Callender Highlander (2017) Keys to successful mentoring of undergraduate research teams with an emphasis in applied mathematics research, Letters in Biomathematics, 4:1, 244-255) provides a good idea of what we can do as Ph.D. students but perhaps I will provide a more personalized outlook on a different day.

Signed #phdstudentinthelab

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