Tiny dogs, book clubs and other innovations DPC mentors use to support mentees in the age of COVID-19

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Contact Info: ehoh@mednet.ucla.edu

In-class instruction, hands-on experiments and conferences bringing together students from across the nation to showcase research projects were all upended when COVID-19 broke out nearly a year ago. 

In that time, educators have had to find creative ways to keep their students engaged and ensure that the flow of learning was not stymied, which included figuring out how to mentor students in a virtual landscape. 

Mentoring is a key component of the DPC and like other educators, these professors were dedicated to continuing to guide their students. 

Theresa Allison, M.D., Ph.D., said the pandemic has shown her the importance of being aware of what’s happening in the virtual workplace and the need to keep things real.

“If someone’s kids want to say “hi,” I bring out the tiny dog to entertain them. If someone needs to be off-camera or on mute for privacy, that’s fine,” said Allison, a BUILD mentor and professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. 

And learning from the mentees is a big part of the fun during their meetings, she added. 

“I particularly love the fresh perspectives that new minds bring to data analysis and interpretation. My mentees challenge me to think more deeply about our research and to take it in new directions.” 

Joseph Chaney, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry at Xavier University of Louisiana and a mentor to BUILD trainees, also shared a new way to support his mentees during this time: starting a book club. Chaney says it’s been a way “to keep in contact and as a means of checking in on one another. The book club was led by my mentees and I was just a participant.” 

Patricia Cristine Heyne, Ph.D., said in order to reduce the challenges brought on by mentoring virtually, her strategy was multi-pronged: have an open mind, be flexible, be creative and be compassionate. 

“Mentoring sciences is not static and it is a dynamic process that is always evolving,” said Heyne, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “A good mentor is always approachable and present during challenging times.” 

Krystle Cobian, a researcher with the Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA, said she found it challenging to establish connections with new mentees during the pandemic because the face-to-face meetings that typically take place at conferences and meetings did not happen. 

Instead of dwelling on that loss, Cobian focused on micro-mentoring moments to find the value in interactions with her mentees. 

“My mentees have a great deal of inner wisdom. They know better than anyone what they want out of life,” she said. “I have learned that my role as a mentor is to listen carefully to what mentees say and/or don't say to determine how I can be of support.”

That support came in forms of writing recommendation letters, providing feedback on personal statements for graduate school, reviewing cover letters and helping mentees get informational interviews for career training, Cobian said. 

While he’s grateful for Zoom, Elliott Hammer, Ph.D., said nothing beats in-person instruction because of the energy his students bring. The online meetings just aren’t as effective, the professor of psychology at Xavier University of Louisiana and BUILD mentor, said. 

And because this pandemic isn’t something that he’s ever been through, Hammer said it’s difficult to draw from previous life experiences to help guide his mentees. 

“I’ve tried to keep my own chin up and make sure I’m regularly listening to their concerns,” Hammer said. “It’s harder for both them and me to keep our eye on the ball, so we’re trying to keep each other honest.”

Annica Wayman, Associate Dean in the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at UMBC, recalls that she has had lots of mentors along the way, “most of whom were from underrepresented groups like me.” During the pandemic, “students are really striving and fighting to excel despite the challenging circumstances. They deserve a lot of credit for that. They also need our care and support,” Wayman said.

Katherine Serafine, Ph.D., of The University of Texas at El Paso, raised a similar sentiment, stating that  it’s important for all mentors and researchers to remember they’re not alone in feeling that they never received training for this type of extreme stress.

“I don’t think any of us were trained for this, but we are all doing our best to get through it and some days just trying our best is all we can do,” Serafine, an assistant professor of psychology and a BUILD mentor, said. 

“The pandemic will end eventually. In the meantime, take time to prioritize your mental health, refocus your goals and stay positive about the future.”

Learn more in-depth about these mentors and others by reading their Q&A's.

Alvin Holder

Annica Wayman

Eleanor Palser

Elliott Hammer

Haysetta Shuler

Joseph Chaney

Katherine M. Serafine

Krystle Cobian

Patricia Cristine Heyne

Sunil Sirohi

Suresh G. Joshi

Theresa A. Allison

Thomas Huckaba

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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