The Case for Student-to-Student Mentoring in Bench Science

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Image: Science Source

By David S. Rogawski and Juliano Ndoj

Several years ago, one of us (Dave) was a first-year Ph.D. student working to develop new cancer drugs. Needing an undergraduate assistant to help with routine laboratory tasks like mixing solutions and purifying protein, he recruited a college sophomore (Juliano) who had no previous research experience but was eager to pursue a scientific career. Over the course of three years, our mentoring relationship transformed into a powerful scientific partnership that helped propel both of us toward the next stage of our careers.

While our partnership flourished, we discovered that graduate-to-undergraduate mentoring relationships are not always successful. A survey we conducted at the University of Michigan showed that 19 percent of undergraduates were dissatisfied with the overall experience of working with a graduate-student mentor. Larger proportions reported problems with specific aspects of mentoring — their mentor hadn’t helped them feel part of the lab team or had been impatient when they were learning a new technique. Some relationships foundered because of low expectations and lack of enthusiasm.

Our partnership proved so beneficial for both of us that we wanted to share how it worked. If more students were aware of the mutual benefits of graduate-to-undergraduate mentoring, we believe they might work harder at strengthening their own relationship and get more out of it.

The benefits go both ways. Multiple studies have shown that undergraduates benefit from participating in research — they gain technical skills and exposure to the culture of academic science. Less frequently mentioned are the personal and professional rewards for the mentors. One study found that mentors frequently underestimate the personal rewards of working with undergraduates, including friendship and increased energy and enthusiasm in the lab environment.

Our experience highlights some of those unexpected benefits. As a graduate-student mentor, Dave noticed that his passion for science was reignited by Juliano’s excitement for research. When the daily frustrations of bench science threatened Dave’s motivation, talking with Juliano about the overarching goals of the work helped him remember why he first got interested in drug development.

Teaching Juliano also turned out to be a highly valuable way to identify gaps in Dave’s own knowledge. For instance, he realized he needed to review enzyme kinetics in order to be prepared for Juliano’s questions.

Finally, Dave found teaching to be both enjoyable and useful for honing his scientific-communication skills, which are essential for a career that requires frequent interaction with peers and the public. The manner in which scientists share and present complex information is at least as important as the content — which is also true of mentoring.

Another benefit for mentors is the joy of discovering that one’s mentee has become independent. In our experience, as Juliano became more interested in research, he spent more and more time in the lab. At first Dave was reluctant to leave Juliano unsupervised when he was purifying protein, and he felt nervous when Juliano worked too quickly or didn’t double-check his results. As Juliano experienced setbacks that forced him to repeat experiments, he grew more and more meticulous. Soon he acquired complete ownership over his work, and his productivity increased. Thus, as Juliano grew as a scientist. he simultaneously began producing important data for the lab.

You can share the frustrations. Both graduate mentor and undergraduate mentee can benefit from having a partner to commiserate when things go wrong (as they often do) in the lab.

That became clear when Juliano tried to introduce a mutation in a gene we were studying. For months he made the attempt, tweaking the protocol slightly each time. Week after week the results were unsuccessful. Dave worried that these difficulties would reveal the periodic dreariness of lab work, and that Juliano would be discouraged.

Eventually, however, the mutation worked, and we looked back on the process as a tough experience that we’d shared and could now joke about. A sense of camaraderie grew between us — an outcome less likely to occur with a faculty mentor who tends to offload the daily frustrations of bench science to a mentee. Rather than discouraging Juliano from further research, the struggle helped consolidate his initiation into the scientific establishment.

The mentee becomes the mentor. Experienced undergraduates who remain in the lab for more than a year may, in turn, be able to teach newcomers. After two years in the lab, Juliano graduated from college and returned to work in our lab as a technician. Now that he was able to work full time, his skills improved even further. Before long he was able to make substantially larger quantities of protein than Dave could, while also becoming expert at other techniques.

Dave was impressed by Juliano’s development, but he was most proud to see him teaching others in the lab. Juliano taught half a dozen students and technicians how to perform multiple types of experiments. Juliano was patient and friendly with the newcomers, as Dave had been with him. Thus, after making an effort to mentor a single student, Dave’s influence was multiplied when his mentee taught others in turn.

Juliano worked in the lab for more than four years, made major contributions to several projects, and assisted many lab members with their work. He is now in medical school at Michigan State University. His successes and contributions were initiated by a focused investment of mentorship from Dave. And Dave benefited immensely, because his dissertation included many important results collected by Juliano.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of graduate-undergraduate mentoring — given that both parties are in the early phases of their careers — is the potential for mutual support and inspiration. By sharing the significance of their research and its relevance to society, as well as their career aspirations, graduate students can inspire undergraduates to set meaningful goals for themselves. On the other side, in the long and sometimes frustrating course of graduate study, an undergraduate mentee can inject fresh enthusiasm and help renew a spirit of curiosity and creativity in the lab’s research endeavors.

We suspect that some graduate/undergraduate relationships fail because neither party has adequately understood the potential benefits or invested the necessary effort to attain them. Training takes time and patience, but done correctly, graduate and undergraduate students alike can motivate each other, yielding increased productivity from which everyone benefits.

David S. Rogawski earned his Ph.D. and M.D. from the University of Michigan this spring. In June he will start an internship in internal medicine at California Pacific Medical Center, in San Francisco, before completing a neurology residency at Stanford University. Juliano Ndoj graduated from the University of Michigan and is now in medical school at Michigan State University

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