Mentorship in science can set students on the right path to success in STEM education and careers — and lack of mentoring can be detrimental.
Christine Ayala for The NSTMF
July 24, 2019
Several National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology & Innovation laureates have expressed how important mentoring is to success in science education and research. Speaking to students at “Science Unscripted” events across the country, Laureates share stories about overcoming obstacles in their careers and the peers, mentors, and role models who helped put them on a path to success.
Their experiences are reflected in mentoring data of young people in the United States.
"mentoring matters and supportive STEM communities can make the difference for students thinking about giving up"
The presence of “a strong mentor is associated with a host of career benefits including more rapid career advancement, higher rates of compensation, enhanced professional identity development, greater career and organizational commitment, and greater job and career satisfaction,” according to the 2004 study Career Benefits Associated With Mentoring for Proteges: A Meta-Analysis.
As undergraduates, “engagement in mentored research experiences has been linked to self-reported gains in research skills and productivity as well as retention in science,” according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study on undergraduate research experiences.
According to a National Science Foundation survey, mentoring increased 88 percent of undergraduate students’ understanding of how to conduct a research project. Additionally, 83 percent of undergraduate students reported their confidence in their research skills increased with mentoring.
But not all students enjoy the opportunity of mentorship and miss out on the associated benefits. According to The National Mentoring Partnership, 1 in 3 young people in America complete their education without a mentor. This scenario is made worse for women and minorities in science due to lack of representation in STEM fields.
“Talent comes in all ethnicities, genders, religions, national origins, etc. If one does not tap the complete talent pool, then one is not going to be able to solve great problems.”
“Women and underrepresented minorities have been disadvantaged in these fields,” said Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first African-American woman to win the National Medal of Science. “Talent comes in all ethnicities, genders, religions, national origins, etc. If one does not tap the complete talent pool, then one is not going to be able to solve great problems.”
Jackson knows the barriers underrepresented groups face in STEM education. She started school when segregation was still legal and went on to become the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“That means — as an educator and as a scientist who believes in the power of science and technology to uplift people’s lives — we have to tap and utilize all the talent,” said Jackson.
Studies shows minority students are leaving STEM majors at an alarming rate. According to a study published in Educational Researcher, Latinx and Black students leave their STEM majors at a higher rate than that of white students—37 and 40 percent for Latinx and Black students, respectively, compared to 29 percent of white students.
Dr. Richard Tapia was one of those underrepresented students progressing through high school without a mentor or guidance for a career. Ultimately, Tapia earned the 2010 National Medal of Science computational and mathematical sciences, but growing up, his only guidance was from his mother, who began working at age 11 and never attended middle school or high school.
He was the son of Mexican immigrants and attended a “crummy” high school in Los Angeles. Eventually, after working in a car repair shop, Tapia attended community college.
“Two math professors came to me and said, ‘you’re really good.’ … ‘go to UCLA,'” he said. He then applied and enrolled.
“When I got to UCLA, they said, ‘How come you didn’t come out of high school? You could have gotten in, and you would have qualified for scholarships.’ Because nobody told me, nobody told me!” Tapia said.
Lack of direct mentoring meant Tapia took the long route in his mathematics education.
For students who have regular and dedicated mentors, decisions about their future and interests may be more clear.
Dr. Stephen Lippard credits his early mentors with helping him find his path — first to college, then to research. Lippard earned the 2004 National Medal of Science for his pioneering research in bioinorganic chemistry,
He said the key to finding a role model or mentor is to look for “somebody out there that you would really like to be, that you’re not jealous of, that you just think so much of them.”
Lippard found that in Haverford College Chemistry Professor Colin MacKay.
“He took me on as a research student,” Lippard said. “I cannot tell you that I did anything publishable as a Haverford undergraduate — in terms of research — but I learned what it was all about. I learned that science had truths that could be discovered.”
MacKay’s research-focused teaching and his mentoring sparked Lippard’s interest in research.
“[I liked] the idea that you could make something that no one had seen,” Lippard said. “An even higher call was: You could understand something that maybe people had studied for a hundred years and didn’t understand. But all of the sudden, if you have the right thoughts or the right experiment or you happen to be watching when it happens in front of you in the lab, you would be able to come up with something that was really exciting.”
“Collin brought me that,” he added.
The National Science and Technology Medals Foundation aims to have such a positive impact on the lives of students pursuing STEM education. The NSTMF will launch a mentoring program in 2020 to help guide the next generation of scientists and engineers to success.
“Through our inSTEM mentoring program, the foundation is building an inclusive coalition of inspired STEM students who are equipped and empowered to thrive in STEM careers,” said Andy Rathmann-Noonan, the Foundation’s executive director. “As we hear time and time again, mentoring matters and supportive STEM communities can make the difference for students thinking about giving up. inSTEM offers an invaluable opportunity for young students to connect to mentors and a support network that could shape the course of their lives for the better."
The inSTEM program will launch in the 2019-2020 academic year at three pilot universities.