How the pandemic widened scientists’ mentoring networks

In the final episode of this seven-part series about mentoring, Ruth Gotian and Christine Pfund outline their hopes for post-pandemic mentoring and the changing nature of other collaborative relationships in scientific research.

As lockdowns took hold and mentoring sessions went online, many conversations moved beyond workplace topics and led to honest exchanges about work-life balance for the first time, they say.

The most successful relationships were ones where mentors led by example by showing their own vulnerabilities as they juggled home schooling, running labs, and trying to publish, they add.

“The pandemic opened an opportunity for us to talk about what’s happening in our home life in a way that had never happened before,” says Pfund, a senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gotian, chief learning officer and assistant professor of education in anaesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, anticipates a future where early career researchers cast their net more widely when selecting mentors.

“I think the pool of mentors has expanded exponentially, because we can easily and comfortably look outside of our department, outside of our institution and outside of our industryNo longer do we have to meet in person,” she says.


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How to keep the scientific-mentoring magic alive

Some researchers never lose touch with group leaders or committee members who mentored them as graduate students.

As Jen Heemstra, a chemistry professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, says of one early-career mentor: “I was absolutely terrified of them. They couldn’t even understand why because they’re a very kind and wonderful person.

“We’ll see each other now at conferences, we’ll be in the same town to be reviewing grants together, or whatever it is, and, and we’ll spend time together as friends. But they’re also someone I know I can go to if I need advice on something because they still, you know, have been in the field a lot longer than I have, and so they have a lot of wisdom to share.”

Martin Gargiulo, who teaches entrepreneurship at the INSEAD business school in Singapore, says that mentoring relationships are like parenthood:

“There is a point at which your children, your mentees, need to become independent from you and need to challenge you. And if you didn’t get to that point, you didn’t do your job. So building the relationship, letting go and rebuilding that relationship, perhaps under a different mindset, is important,” he says.


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The many mentoring types explained

Reverse mentoring, peer-to-peer, group sessions. Choose one or more to tackle a tough career transition.

Andy Morris, employability mentoring manager at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, describes himself as a professional Cupid, connecting students who are seeking careers in industry with mentors who can help them achieve their goals.

He tells Julie Gould how the employability mentors he works with in industry differ from the employer mentoring offered to researchers when they join an organization or take on a new role.

Lucia Prieto-Gordino joined a mentoring programme after becoming a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute in London in 2018.

“You unavoidably encounter situations that you have never encountered before. And your mentor is there to help you navigate those situations with their experience,” she says.

And Carol Zuegner, an associate professor of journalism at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, describes the reverse mentoring sessions held with former students to help her navigate the digital age.


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Mentoring, coaching, supervising: what’s the difference?

Good scientific mentors can provide both careers and psychosocial support, says Erin Dolan, who researches innovative approaches to science education at the University of Georgia in Athens.

They provide answers to questions and often use their own professional network to help colleagues who want to move to a different sector, for example.

How does this compare with the support offered by academic supervisors? Gemma Modinos, a neuropsychologist at King’s College London, explains.

Finally, career consultants Sarah Blackford and Tina Persson explain how mentoring differs from coaching. They outline the techniques used by professional coaches to help researchers decide on a course of action to reach their career goals.


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How COVID-19 changed scientific mentoring

Many mentoring relationships were disrupted by the pandemic, particularly ones that relied on regular face-to-face contact.

How did these established mentoring relationships survive the switch to virtual meetings?

In the third episode of this seven-part Working Scientist podcast series, Julie Gould also explores the challenges of being a mentor beyond those presented by the pandemic.

Alongside the emotional investment and the absence of much formal training in mentoring techniques, there are also logistical and time management pressures.

Jen Heemstra, a chemistry professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, tells Gould: “My role is to be a bit like an athletic coach. I want to help everyone be able to perform at their best. And different people have different modes of motivation.”


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The mentoring messages that can get lost in translation

Science has become more international in the past few decades. This means that you might encounter a variety of people from different geographical and cultural backgrounds in your lab. So how does this affect your mentoring relationships?

In the second episode of this seven-part Working Scientist podcast series, researchers share some of their cross-cultural mentoring encounters.

These range from Asian attitudes to hierarchies, to a Scandinavian enthusiasm for peer-to-peer mentoring and a very British fixation with mentoring and afternoon tea.


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Why science needs strong mentors

How can science better support and reward academics who, alongside running labs, writing grants, authoring papers and teaching students, also devote precious hours of their working week to mentoring colleagues?

In the first episode of this seven-part Working Scientist podcast series, three winners of the 2020 Nature Research Awards for Mentoring in Science describe why this part of their role is so important and needs to be recognized more prominently.


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Communities, COVID and credit: the state of science collaborations

This week, Nature has a special issue on collaborations, looking at the benefits to science and society that working together can bring. In this collaboration-themed episode (produced jointly with the Nature Podcast and Working Scientist podcast teams), we discuss the issue, and the state of research collaborations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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Business of science: The transferable skills that straddle academia and industry

How does graduate school and academia prepare you for entrepreneurship and a commercial career?

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a social scientist who swapped a faculty position to launch a craft beer consultancy, says: “I’ve been in the position of acting as a department chair, and like most of us in who’ve done kind of full time, faculty appointments, have to navigate colleagues, navigate administration. We simultaneously do a lot, and a lot of things of consequence, prepping courses, building a curriculum, maintaining our research programs.

“The complexities of navigating those spaces provided me with a great head start to doing client work. To be honest, client work is a lot easier in comparison to navigating personalities in academia.”

Javier Garcia Martinez, who founded Rive Technology and now combines a business role with an academic position at the University of Alicante, Spain, adds: “Our education as scientists in terms of rigour, looking at data, connecting the dots, makes us very well equipped to launch a startup.

“Any group leader is also an entrepreneur. You need to raise money from industry or from government, you need to deliver papers on time, present in conferences, you need to hire, you need to inspire your team, you need a vision, you need to develop new technologies.”

“I know when my students come to my class I can share with them not only what’s in the textbooks, but also my own personal experience on why a patent is important, and how to create a team.”

This is the final episode in our six-part Business of science series. Previous episodes looked at investor pitches, registering patents, technology transfer teams, scaling up and learning from setbacks.


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Business of science: The setbacks that can help your start-up succeed

The road to commercializing research is strewn with challenges, but how can science start-ups prepare for developments that are harder to predict, such as a global pandemic?

Daniel Batten, an investor and business coach in Auckland, New Zealand, describes strategies to prepare for unexpected events as well as more common crises, such as failed funding rounds or supplier problems.

Barbara Domayne-Hayman, entrepreneur in residence at the Francis Crick Institute in London, says the path to commercialization seldom runs smoothly, which is why it is important to have a ‘plan B’, together with a network of trusted mentors.

“Things never go exactly as you expect, even when things are going well. There’s usually some bumps along the road. Resilience is the single most important thing that you need to have,” she says.

“You have to be the one that actually continues to keep the faith. You just have to keep picking yourself up and carry on.”

This episode is part of Business of science, a six-part podcast series exploring how to commercialize your research and launch a spin-off.

The series looks at investor pitches, patents, technology transfer and how to survive the inevitable setbacks along the way.


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