Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mentor Musings

A few weeks ago I attended a scientific conference and participated in an undergraduate mentoring program run by our science society. The program targets underrepresented groups to increase diversity of people who might consider wetland science as a field.

It was a rewarding experience, but a lot of work. The mentors were each paired with a student, sometimes according to common interests, but not always. Although there were some planned workshops for the students and an overall schedule of such activities, the mentor-mentee pairs were left to their own devices to work out daily interactions. Not having done this before (mentoring at a conference), I wasn't exactly sure how much "shadowing" and meetings to suggest. My mentee was the youngest participant (freshman) and very shy and seemed quite overwhelmed by the meeting. I did not want to push her too much, but did not want to let her hide and not participate.

We met once or twice a day to compare notes and had lunch together a couple of times. I followed her for half of a day to sessions she was interested in and she shadowed me to the session I presented in. During the first evening social and poster session, she stayed with me and I introduced her to various people ranging from non-threatening students to the most well-known scientists in our field. Because she seemed so shy and intimidated, I spent most of that time having her meet and talk to graduate students who were friendly and willing to spend time with us. 

Overall, I think she was confused by the presentations and upset because she could not understand what they were talking about. I assured her that she was not alone (in being confused by speakers), but I don't think she believed me. Some of the other mentors said the same thing about their charges, so perhaps they were a bit too inexperienced to get much out of the presentations. Maybe a really mature freshman might be different, but it seemed to me that the older students were getting much more out of the meeting and the chance to meet scientists and graduate students and to understand science talks.

Several of the older students in this program presented posters of an undergraduate research project they had conducted. I was extremely impressed with them and the poise and confidence they exhibited during their poster session. I spent some time talking to several and also watching their interactions with other scientists. This was clearly a great opportunity for them to present a poster at an international meeting and see what that experience is like before they get to graduate school.

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