March 31, 2022
Students receive mentoring support during a past Native American Summer Institute on the UW campus. Bethann Garramon Merkle, Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Zoology and Physiology at UW, was co-author of a recent article in Nature Communications that focuses on the importance of mentoring relationships for women and underrepresented minority scientists in academia. (UW photo)
A University of Wyoming professor is among 20 international scholars who recently published a paper on the importance of mentoring relationships for women and underrepresented minority scholars in academia.
Bethann Garramon Merkle, Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Zoology and Physiology at UW, was a second author of the paper. She and her colleagues say that mentoring relationships are critical to the retention, success, and well-being of women and underrepresented minority scholars. In particular, a network of diverse mentors can support long-term career goals and advancement, and retaining mentors and mentees enhances diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
“For decades we’ve heard calls to fix the ‘leaky pipeline’ in science and higher education,” says Garramon Merkle. “But a single mentor-mentee relationship can only do so much. The broader problems don’t go away just because someone is coached on how to write grant applications, write papers, or get a job. And to do that, coaching or mentoring, is a tremendous commitment – time, energy, relationship building.”
The international team’s paper entitled “Community Voices: The Importance of Diverse Networks in Academic Supervision”, was published on March 25 in nature communication. Organizations representing the authors include institutions in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Ecuador, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States
Garramon Merkle notes that these results tie closely to UW and Wyoming’s economic and educational goals. In Wyoming, she says, many college students are first-generation or otherwise in need of significant support. She says that UW faculty, staff, instructors and teaching assistants care “tremendously” about the success and learning of these students. However, she stresses that they also face many limitations.
“First of all, good mentoring is time-consuming and it is difficult to quantify the impact of mentoring compared to more published work or grants awarded,” adds Garramon Merkle.
Scanning 27 programs around the world, the paper’s authors found that an ideal setting is for people to have multiple mentors. A mentoring network divides the work and offers a broader range of advice and access to more professional contacts. The researchers describe their vision that two things accompany such networks: training for mentors on how to effectively mentor different mentees, and large investment support from universities and funders.
The authors envision that such investments would pay for and reward good mentoring and hold universities and academics accountable for better mentoring. Training and accountability are important, the authors say, because effective mentorship goes beyond mere supervision.
“A boss or consultant is not automatically a mentor,” Garramon Merkle clarifies. “Rather, mentors are people who are committed to the professional development of their mentee, regardless of whether it benefits the mentor.”
The authors note that this mindset can be challenging, as mentors may not have the same life experiences, goals, or professional needs as their mentees. For example, most UW students do not become academics or even teachers.
“We have a great responsibility: Counselors and educators should be able to educate and advise students on the careers and civic life they want,” says Garramon Merkle. “We can do it if we help each other.”
The authors also call for this expanded model because traditional supervisory models fail to address key barriers that women and underrepresented minorities face during their education. In particular, these demographic characteristics are less represented in later stages of academic careers.
A lack of diverse mentors at higher career levels means fewer such mentors are available to shoulder the burden of mentoring an increasingly diverse population of undergraduate and early career researchers. The authors suggest that institutions should approach diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts differently, adding mentoring strategies to increase DEI and encouraging multi-mentor programs.
As an example, Garramon Merkle highlights UW’s Science Initiative Learning Actively Mentoring Program (LAMP). LAMP connects a cohort of faculty and graduate students from UW and Community College with a team of mentors for a full year. The resulting long-term relationships are more achievable as the mentoring is shared across the team. This in turn leads to a diverse group of people who are more effectively trained to teach.
Research scientists say that a mentoring network can also help overcome the problem of fewer women and underrepresented minority groups in leadership positions and increase collective performance by increasing resources. For example, multiple mentors can share the time to review an application or grant application, help a mentee practice for an interview, or even jointly fund conference and training travel.
“As we look forward to a new strategic plan for UW, the four pillars of the university are closely related to these recommendations,” says Garramon Merkle. “Indeed, UW strives to be ever more inclusive, interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial.”
As the paper’s authors note: “A diverse environment improves the working and learning experiences for the people involved; brings new perspectives to research; encourages more people to work in STEM and academia; and improves the chances for everyone involved. This nurturing environment can also have a positive impact on the productivity and retention of mentees and their mentors.”
The authors recognize that hard work is required to achieve this idealistic vision, says Garramon Merkle.
“Ultimately, it pays to improve mentoring,” she adds. “These results are important to the state of Wyoming as we work to diversify our economy and retain the next generation.”