to lose) but lacks all sense of a general plan of action. This
student has no prior research lab experience, can’t seem to devote the minimum ten weekly hours to research, and is simply
bereft of all direction. Feeling overwhelmed with your own
project, teaching load, and now mentoring this student, the
idea of banishing yourself to the underground, cell phone reception–less depths of the library to partake in leisure reading
sounds like a nice alternative. But you must restrain yourself.
You can do this!
1. Establish Clear Guidelines
The first step in cultivating your newfound mentorship involves laying out the ground rules. The goal is to be as explicit
as possible. If your PI desires undergraduates to devote ten
hours to research per week, and your student is failing to
satisfy this requirement, then sit down together and draft a
schedule. Keep in mind that for the first few weeks, you will be
heavily immersed in safety training and method instruction.
However, as the supervisor, you are able to establish and alter
the timetable protocols of your mentee’s in-lab investigations.
I can recall how during my first mentorship experience, my
student claimed to only be available from 6:00–7:00 a.m. and
10:00–11:00 p.m. (when the lab was empty). After obtaining
the individual’s class schedule, I helped block off research time
during normal lab hours (9:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.). Indeed, your
mentee should work around your schedule. If you find yourself
constantly rearranging your life (i.e., dinner dates, gym time,
sleep schedule) to meet with your mentee, then you’re doing it
wrong. Striking a balance is important for both of you.
Your most essential responsibility as a mentor is to instruct your student about lab safety. This includes ensuring
completion of departmental-wide safety courses, such as x-ray, biosafety, fire, and laser safety training. Show the student
the locations of the eye wash, fire extinguisher, and safety
shower in your laboratory. It is also crucial for the individual
to have suitable personal protective equipment (gloves, goggles, lab coat, etc.) prior to embarking on lab work. Demonstrate difficult procedures and have your mentee repeat them
in your presence. Make sure your student fully understands
and follows the safety procedures in your lab.
It is expected that high school and undergraduate students have not completed laboratory work beyond the scope
of their coursework. In these projects, there is one predetermined, set answer. After years of structured schooling and the
pursuit of the perfect 4.0, many students are unfamiliar with
the shortcomings and nonlinear nature of research. For your
grade-grubbing mentee, the prospect of reporting failed experiments, inconclusive data, or broken equipment may evoke
significant distress. Make sure you establish ethical standards
with your student regarding performing experiments and
reporting results. Explain that only honest answers will be
accepted, which are the standards upon which meaningful
research is produced.
2. Promote a Sense of Community
Often in the laboratory environment, a mentorship can de-
velop into a “check the box” practice as opposed to something
that is authentic and derived from personal interactions. Hu-
mans are fundamentally social beings and as such, we flourish
in interpersonal relationships and synergistic exchanges. The
microcosmic research laboratory is not exempt from this
central belief, and a strong community is advantageous for de-
veloping confident researchers.
Welcoming environments that encourage student participation but also hold everyone responsible for his or her duties
tend to produce successful mentorships. For the mentee, a
mixture of positive reinforcement and negative consequences
(i.e., embarrassment due to being ill-prepared for a group
meeting) is vital. The more encouraging the environment, the
more likely students will be to yield good work. This is in your
favor, as a happy mentee is typically not only more productive,
but also a pleasure to be around (making you look good in the
eyes of your PI and time spent with your mentee more enjoyable). Undergraduates, and especially high school students,
are young and still trying to emulate professional behavior;
by engaging the inherent emotional desires that a community
provokes (a feeling of belonging and obligation to the group),
an established research community can help thwart immature
conduct. You can help develop a sense of community for your
mentee by inviting her or him to lab group meetings and journal clubs, which promote open discussion and collaboration.
Bringing your mentee to social events is another great
way to foster professional relationships among group members. Whatever the affair entails—be it all-you-can-eat sushi,
laser tag, glow bowling, or something else—involving your
mentee in the activities can help create a more robust and natural community. During a group pumpkin picking gathering
last fall, for example, I discovered that my mentee and I share
a similar appreciation for baking and Stephen King novels. I
have felt more connected with the individual since this event,
which has significantly strengthened our mentorship.
3. Motivate Your Mentee
Research naturally possesses its own ebbs and flows. However,
some periods can be particularly gruesome, with scientists
going months without a promising result in sight. While I
have yet to meet a researcher completely invulnerable to these
arduous stages of research, the key to overcoming them in-
If you find yourself constantly
rearranging your life (i.e.,
dinner dates, gym time, sleep
schedule) to meet with your
mentee, then you’re doing it
wrong. Striking a balance is
important for both of you.