What is a mentorship?
University of Nottingham (UNM), School of Mathematical Sciences, Associate Professor, Dr Ho Weang Kee, believes, “A mentorship, much like any relationship, takes time to build and it is a two-way relationship. It offers the human aspect, something that computers or the internet cannot do. When you find the right mentor, it’s like meeting friends that click. It’s effortless to maintain the relationship.”
Shivaani Mariapun, a Ph.D. student under the mentorship of Dr Ho shares, “Seeking a good mentor starts with having a vision about where you would like to see yourself professionally in the future. Next, is identifying role models in your field of interest that can help you fulfil that vision. For me, there is mutual trust, and my mentor is invested in moulding me into a proficient scientist. My mentor is also someone who is very driven and passionate about doing good through impactful science and this is a source of inspiration for me.”
Mentor-mentee winning formula: Positive attitude, sincere, committed for the long-term
Dr Ho, who attributes an important part of her success to her mentor, Cancer Research Malaysia Founding Chief Executive, Professor Datin Paduka Dr Teo Soo-Hwang, believes, “The most important thing is a positive attitude from both sides. As a mentee myself, willingness to learn and accept honest feedback is important. The feedback may not be beautiful at times but do not take it personally. Stay positive and take in comments openly. Learn from mistakes and correct them.”
Tapping into personal learnings, UNM Associate Professor with the School of Pharmacy, Dr New Siu Yee, shares that her tip to mentees is to be sincere, and open to opportunities. She adds that, “Support from mentors, both directly and indirectly, is very important as it provides great motivation for mentees to stay persistent in the science field. This includes providing personal advice, being a referee for award or fellowship applications, as well as connecting us to other potential collaborators.”
UNM School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Assistant Professor, Dr Alison Kim Shan Wee, believes in the power of being reliable and persistent. “Mentors are making a personal investment in time and effort to guide us, so we need to make it worth their while. Every interaction is a learning opportunity, so stay hungry for knowledge.” She also emphasises the importance of commitment with simple things like being on time and being prepared for meetings. “Mentorship becomes productive and impactful when we are guided over a long period of time in our career. So, we should be persistent in maintaining the mentorship,” adds Dr Alison who is a recipient of the L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award in 2022 for her conservation work with mangrove swamps.
Navigating challenges: Communication, confidence, expectations
“Within a research career, bumps in the road stem from the research itself. To optimise the mentor-mentee relationship, we need to ask the right questions and correct mistakes fast as mentors are often very busy,” Dr Ho shared, on navigating challenges.
Dr Alison cites communication, doubting one’s own merit, and being over-dependent as her challenges in a mentorship. She shares, “Coming from an Asian background, I was demure and ambivalent. With the help of my mentors and practice, I learnt to be assertive and confident, which later translated into my science communications and scientific writing. Another challenge was moving out from the comfortable position of a mentee. At some point, the nestling must leave the nest. I am grateful that my mentors supported me in developing my own research direction.”
Shivaani also opened up about her struggle with communicating her challenges, in addition to identifying her mentor’s expectation of her and prioritising tasks. “Regular conversations helped me ensure that the expectations and goals of my mentor and I were aligned. Furthermore, these conversations gave us opportunities to communicate openly about issues related to our research and work out actionable solutions,” said Shivaani, a recipient of the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award in 2019, in recognition of her work around understanding how mammographic density contributes to prediction of breast cancer risk among Asian women.
Dr New, a L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship for Women in Science Young Talent Programme Award recipient in 2021 for her work in discovering efficient ways to construct a new generation of DNA biosensors, shares that her challenge was with maintaining a connection with her mentor across geographic differences. Attributing an important part of her success to her mentor, Dr Su Xiaodi, a Principal Scientist from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore, Dr New said she addressed the challenge by making an effort to keep the connection warm with occasional greetings and updates on the professional front.
Sustaining the cycle of mentor- and mentee-ship
Dr Alison recalls, “One of my mentors, Dr Annika Noreen, the Programme Manager at Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center from the University of Washington, once said to me, “Role models are essential. Look around, and if we don’t see many women in top positions in science, how can younger generation of female scientists aspire to succeed?”
“Mentorships are very important to progress greater participation and advancement of women and girls in science, especially among the younger generation. At the end of the day, we remember people for how they made us feel. I hope to be that teacher remembered for making my students feel important and cared for,” concludes Dr Ho whose work revolves around formulating breast cancer risk assessment tools, recognised with the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Fellowship Award in 2017 and subsequently qualifying for the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Rising Talent award at a global level in 2018.
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Posted on 21st March 2023