One on one: A Discover BMB mentoring experiment
Six small white tents stood in a row along one wall of the exhibit hall at Discover BMB, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s 2023 meeting in Seattle. Inside these tents, each furnished with a table and two chairs, the society hosted its first in-conference one-on-one mentoring sessions. Over three afternoons, 38 mentors offered guidance in 103 appointments booked by 88 mentees.
How did it go? We asked the staff director who organized the sessions, the mentors and the mentees to weigh in on the methods and results.
Here’s what they told us:
Why and how we did it
When I was a trainee, I found it difficult to initiate broad, career-planning conversations with more experienced scientists outside my formal mentoring network. As someone who still, to this day, struggles to guide small talk into deeper conversations when at large meetings, I thought pop-up mentoring seemed like a perfect solution: It could give me the structure I need to be more intentional in making professional connections and a chance to learn from someone whose perspective was different from my usual network.
The ASBMB one-on-one mentoring stations were inspired by a National Postdoctoral Association pop-up program at the NPA’s virtual meeting in 2021. I was invited to participate in what was described as a “one-time, no strings attached mentoring session” in which the topics were intentionally not discipline-specific so mentors and mentees could focus on other aspects of their careers and/or life.
I didn’t serve as a mentor at that meeting, but the general concept stayed with me. When it came time to build out the career program at Discover BMB, I wanted to make this happen.
I had a lot of help from members of the Education and Professional Development Committee as we bounced ideas off one another, particularly about what topics would be broad enough to support a range of career stages and interests. We also recruited a number of those committee members to serve as mentors so they could review how the program went from personal experiences and recommend changes for future iterations.
These committee members were not the only mentors. When investigators registered for Discover BMB, a question in their registration form asked if they’d be interested in being a mentor to early-career scientists at the meeting. By the early-bird registration deadline, more than 250 people had indicated an interest. We needed dozens of mentors from a wide variety of organizations and career types and, because this was our first attempt, we knew were going to need feedback.
We asked the mentors to commit to one or more two-hour time blocks and to be flexible about topics. Mentees could sign up for 30-minute sessions, so mentors would host up to four sessions during each block.
Most often, mentees booked appointments on the spot and went directly into a mentoring session (or the next available session, often 10–15 minutes later). In a few cases, particularly with our industry scientists, we booked a day in advance.
— Kirsten Block, ASBMB
A month or so after the meeting, we contacted mentors and mentees with a request for a brief testimonial. Here are the responses we received, ranging from personal experiences to specific career advice to tips on how to work the Discover BMB meeting.
During my one-on-one mentoring time slot, I talked to three scientists: a student from a primarily undergraduate institution, like my own, who wanted advice about applying to Ph.D. programs; a senior Ph.D. student planning to search for postdoctoral positions in the upcoming months who was concerned about their publication record and how to encourage their adviser to be more responsive about paper edits and planning; and a senior faculty member who was feeling a bit stuck and wanted a chance to discuss ideas about their career moving forward with someone not at their institution or close scientific circles. All three conversations were unique and engaging.
For the trainees, I was able to offer specific advice based on my own experiences, but with senior faculty members, I felt more like the mentee than the mentor. As someone who is potentially interested in administrative roles in the future, I had a lot of fun (for lack of a better description) discussing the pros and cons of moving into more administrative or education-focused roles. It was a unique and wonderful way to form relationships with other scientists in the larger ASBMB community.
— Jeanine Amacher, Western Washington University
Frustration and rewards
I was a mentor for about eight people at Discover BMB, ranging from a group of three high school students to those who had just completed their degrees (both undergraduate and graduate) to people who were considering midcareer changes.
One high school sophomore (who had presented a poster) worried that he would not be competitive with his peers when he applied to colleges. It was fun asking him how many of his peers had presented posters at national scientific conferences and seeing his eyes light up.
Some conversations were frustrating. One midcareer faculty member talked about career barriers in an academic department but resisted the idea that each of us must recognize that, if something is not working for us, we are the ones who must change. The conversation was not satisfying for either of us.
In another case, a postdoc was on the threshold of pursuing a career position but had just discovered a new and exciting aspect of his research. He needed just the slightest nudge to gain the courage to pursue this new line of research and left our one-on-one meeting with specific goals of people to meet, even while still at Discover BMB.
Perhaps most rewarding was my interaction with a student about to earn a BS in biology. We talked about what to do if you discover as you are completing your undergraduate degree that you really are not interested in the career you had been planning on since sixth grade — becoming a medical doctor. We talked about other career options, including research and science writing, but we also discussed what a good life looks like and how to get there from here. This led to life philosophy, books to read and how to balance perspectives with our friends and family, whether they are focused on their life paths or appear to be stuck in neutral. The two of us are reading some books together and plan to continue our discussions in the future. I’m not sure if this will be a long-term mentoring relationship, but that seems like a real possibility.
— Paul A. Craig, Rochester Institute of Technology
During Discover BMB 2023, I had four wonderful conversations with early-career scientists ranging from undergraduates to postdocs. Some of them had a clear idea of what they wanted to do next, while others were considering their options. It was exciting to hear that they were all taking ownership of their careers. I particularly loved that they were actively trying to meet and seek advice from more senior scientists (beyond the advising center).
I serve on the ASBMB Membership Committee; connecting members and helping early-career scientists to build relationships with more senior scientists is a high priority for us. Personally, I especially enjoyed my meetings with undergrads — their excitement was inspiring. I sincerely hope the ASBMB will continue this valuable opportunity next year.
— Erica Gobrogge, Van Andel Institute
‘The most difficult question’
I served as a one-on-one mentor at Discover BMB for an hour on Sunday and again on Monday, and I was busy talking to students and young professionals the whole time. It was exciting to hear their different stories and their optimism for the future.
The discussions all pertained to that most difficult question — what’s next in my career/education journey? Though I was happy to give them my thoughts and advice, my sense is that many of these young scientists already knew the answers to their questions but benefitted from the reassurance of talking through things with somebody else. While some may have outstanding mentorship at their home institutions, there is value in hearing different opinions, particularly from someone who doesn’t know you and is starting with a blank slate about your situation.
I found this to be an enjoyable experience. I mean … come on … one of the joys of getting older is feeling like you can tell younger people what they should do! I look forward to participating again, and I’d like to see an expansion, including sessions that target young faculty.
— Chris Heinen, University of Connecticut School of Medicine
A chance to reflect
Serving as an ASBMB career mentor was a positive and enriching experience. The organizers did a fantastic job of pairing mentees and mentors. I had the opportunity to interact with a diverse range of students.
During the mentoring sessions, I talked with enthusiastic high school and graduate students, shared my experiences and pointed out failures I learned the hard way. The mutually beneficial experience allowed me to reflect on my academic journey while guiding aspiring scientists and educators in a nonprescriptive informal setting.
— Aswathy Rai, Mississippi State University
A range of topics
I participated in the mentoring sessions after being a grad school exhibitor during the undergraduate poster session. At that event, students could speak with representatives from several schools, but the venue did not allow for in-depth conversations where students could ask for advice or get more detailed information. Several people I talked to in the mentoring session had either spoken with me the day before or a friend suggested talking with me.
Advice on graduate school is widely available online or in other forums, but speaking with someone one-on-one who has experience and is knowledgeable about the topic can be very helpful. Topics in the mentoring conversations ranged from the pros and cons of taking time off before entering grad school (what I call an opportunity year) to what to expect during a typical qualifying exam.
I applaud the ASBMB student members for seeking advice and meeting new people in their network.
— Stuart Ravnik, University of Texas Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
Questions and suggestions
Students in molecular biosciences are looking for advice as they ponder the next steps in their career path. Common questions posed during the one-on-one sessions:
- Should I do a Ph.D.?
- Do I need to do a postdoc if I’m not interested in a faculty position?
- How do I transition from academia to industry?
Some of my suggestions:
- What skills are employers looking for?
- Complete the Science Careers Individual Development Plan.
- Create a schedule of informational interviews to find out more about different careers.
- Consider your values, interests, strengths and personality.
- Write draft versions of a cover letter and a one-page résumé using challenge/action/results statements for a position of interest.
- Practice your three-minute elevator pitch; start with a compelling grabber statement that people will remember.
Don’t just stand by your poster and hang out with friends at a meeting. Attend workshops and sessions, and then reach out to the presenters to build your professional network.
— Reinhart Reithmeier, University of Toronto
‘Important, exciting and fun’
I would describe the mentoring conversations at Discover BMB as important, exciting and fun. I met with several undergraduate students who were interested in going to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. They had questions about what graduate school is like and what they need to do to be competitive for Ph.D. programs. These conversations are important as students consider their academic and professional careers. The decision to earn a Ph.D. will shape the rest of their lives. The conversations were exciting because these students are the next generation of the BMB workforce; they are our field’s future researchers, educators and leaders.
And these conversations were fun both for the students and for me, I believe. It’s fun to meet students from around the country and to hear about their journey into science. It’s fun to help them think about their next academic steps and envision what they can do with their education and training. It’s fun for students to dream about their future and for me to dream with them.
Mentoring allows me to help students achieve their goals. I enjoy encouraging them and opening their minds to opportunities and possibilities. Mentoring at Discover BMB is a great opportunity to have such an impact on students beyond my university.
— Nathan Vanderford, University of Kentucky
Sharing a nonlinear path
I signed up to advise students seeking industry careers and opportunities during the one-on-one mentoring sessions at Discover BMB. In my appointed two hours, I talked with three or four graduate students, both master’s and Ph.D., who mostly were interested in understanding how industry careers differed from academic careers, finding the right industry employer and position, and whether industry would be a good fit for their futures after graduate school.
I enjoyed sharing my industry experience along with my transition to entrepreneurship during these one-on-one mentoring sessions. My career path to industry as a biochemist working in exercise science and sports physiology research was not part of my original plan, nor did I know it was possible with my skills in immunology. During the mentoring sessions, I chose to highlight the importance of having transferrable skills that can be used across STEM fields.
When I was in graduate school, I never considered entrepreneurship or starting a nonprofit organization focused on STEM education and self-awareness for young girls. Hence, I’m always willing to share my nonlinear experience, lessons learned, and valuable insights with students who are considering industry careers and trying something different.
Kudos to ASBMB for providing this much-needed opportunity for students and members seeking to transition and learn more about industry careers.
— Shyretha Brown, Building Bridges Inc.
Insightful industry questions
I’ve spent my entire career in industry. At Discover BMB in Seattle, I had the opportunity to speak for 20 minutes to a group about my 30-plus–year career path, from my undergraduate days to my current role in big pharma. In a Q&A after this session, and then in a two-hour one-on-one mentoring session, I was kept busy answering thoughtful questions on how to prepare for a job in an industry setting. From these conversations, it’s clear that many young scientists hunger to learn more about career opportunities across industry, whether in small or large companies, and they appreciate perspectives from scientists who have industry knowledge and experiences.
The four students I spoke with during the mentoring were well prepared and had insightful questions. They asked me about application and interviewing process as well as what qualities and experiences would make them standout candidates for industry. I emphasized that, in addition to excellent technical skills and research experience, strong communication, critical thinking and people skills — especially being collaborative — are essential qualities we focus on when hiring.
This time was mutually beneficial — as I shared my perspectives on internships, interviewing and networking, the students shared their enthusiasm and energy with me. These sessions are an excellent opportunity for industry professionals to participate in Discover BMB and make meaningful connections with the next generation of scientists. As a member of the ASBMB Membership Committee, I can see the value of these interactions between our members — students and professionals.
I have many years of experience, but members with only a few years in industry can provide valuable insights to students and postdocs, all the more so because they were in the trainee’s shoes only a few years earlier.
— Mark R. Witmer, Bristol Myers Squibb
‘We keep in touch’
I decided to sign up for a one-on-one mentoring session because I was unsure about my career direction and wanted to gain some insight from an accomplished scientist. My mentor was incredibly helpful and recommended two amazing books for me to read, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport and “You Majored in What?” by Katherine Brooks.
In addition, I was very interested in learning Python and had signed up to take a Python course. Coincidentally, my mentor was leading a crash course in Python scripting for biochemistry and molecular biology that I was able to attend.
We now keep in touch via email and still have occasional Zoom meetings to discuss the books and future career directions. I highly recommend doing a one-on-one mentoring session.
— Caitlin Haren
A weight lifted
The mentoring I received in Seattle was more helpful than I expected. I had not planned on participating and was just hanging around the mentoring area, looking at posters before my next event. Then I thought, “Why not at least get some information about this, because isn’t the whole point of being here to make the most out of every opportunity?”
I walked over to the desk and asked about the mentoring and how it worked and was told it was by appointment. My schedule had an open slot later on, and so it began. I came back later that day, and when I met with my person in those little pop-up tent rooms, it went from awkward to not awkward very quickly.
My mentor was from Wellesley College, which was perfect for me as I am in a small, private liberal arts college as well, though not nearly as renowned. We talked for a long time about my big-picture aspirations, as well as my experience and goals. Ultimately, I received very useful actionable steps for my resume and postbac transition into grad school. This has been a stressful concern for all the usual reasons, so to say I am grateful for the guidance I received that day is an understatement.
My short, ad hoc mentoring was the most direct, pointed, and deliberate advice I have received. I could feel the weight of uncertainty lift from my shoulders, finally. This may sound hyperbolic, but that is not my intent. For everyone who is weighing these decisions and has weighed them, I trust you will understand.
I am grateful to my mentor for a moment and to the ASBMB for making this possible.
— Phinn Markson
As a faculty member, I have never experienced a mentor–mentee discussion at my institution, so I took advantage of one-on-one mentoring sessions in Seattle. I met with three different faculty–administrator mentors; we exchanged information and worked together toward achieving my professional goals. This provided me with a platform to discuss my career issues, the challenges that I had to deal with in my profession and how to navigate through them.
I was comfortable talking to each mentor about career issues, something we generally don’t do in a professional setting, thinking that we will be judged. One mentor was very straightforward, told me the hard truth about academics and suggested some approaches to consider. He also asked me to read some books, which will guide me through this process. I learned about undergraduate research institutions and some funding opportunities I had never heard of.
Though I had only 30 minutes with each mentor, I learned a lot within that short time. The mentors advised, shared knowledge, talked about their own experiences and helped me produce a plan for moving forward.
— Jayshree Mishra, Texas A&M University
Overall, the one-on-one mentoring seemed to be a very positive experience for everyone involved.
The ASBMB will offer one-on-one mentoring again at Discover BMB in San Antonio, and the Education and Professional Development Committee is already planning some enhancements based on their experiences and the feedback of others.
If you are interested in being a mentor, please be sure to identify this interest on your meeting registration.
If you are interested in speaking with a mentor at the meeting, make sure to stop by our career center in San Antonio and sign up for a session or two.
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