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Frontiers in
Energy Research
November 2014

Mentoring: An Investment in the Future of Discovery

Training the next generation of creative researchers to address grand challenges

Michelle Personick

"Research is hard—really hard—and experiments often do not work or give clear results the first time, and it can be difficult to know why. This uncertainty can be very discouraging," said Liam Palmer of the Center for Bio-Inspired Energy Science. "Mentors can help provide encouragement and suggestions to help the students maintain their enthusiasm."

Unpacking freshly delivered glassware and installing new state-of-the-art instruments are just two of the tasks occupying and exciting scientists at Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) across the country. Enthusiastic young scientists are joining research groups and forging extensive collaborations within the centers and across the institutions that run them. Their continuing scientific and professional development and the success of their research projects will depend heavily on the strength of their mentoring relationships with more seasoned colleagues. Young scientists at the EFRCs have an opportunity that many other scientists don’t: they will be mentored by a group of people from diverse scientific disciplines. To enable young scientists and their mentors to take advantage of this benefit, it is important to identify the characteristics of an ideal and successful mentoring relationship in an EFRC.

"Mentoring is at the core of the way we do science," said Caroline Harwood, a member of the Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy). It is essential to distinguish between advising and mentoring. Advising is a component of mentoring, but mentorship goes beyond suggesting research directions or helping select a course of study. Mentoring involves taking an active interest in an individual's comprehensive development and providing guidance encompassing numerous areas of personal growth, including professional interaction, career advancement, and scientific reasoning.

Mentors can be older graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and senior scientists, as well as professors. The most successful mentoring partnerships are built on mutual trust and respect. Mentors lead by example in demonstrating creativity, professionalism, and integrity, and mentees are more inclined to emulate someone that they feel has their best interests in mind. "Great mentors need to be approachable, open, and caring—not intimidating or judgmental," explained Pin-Ching Maness, a BETCy member.

Setting the Example. A mentor models what it is to be an effective, ethical researcher. On a basic level, students learn from their mentors how to design experiments and carry them out safely, as well as how to evaluate potential career paths. However, Liam Palmer at the Center for Bio-Inspired Energy Science (CBES), and previously associated with the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center (ANSER), explained that this is not sufficient for becoming a successful scientist. "Contemporary academic research has additional demands that include keeping up with a huge output of new journal articles every week, working at the interface of diverse disciplines, and communicating effectively in person and in print. Mentors can push younger students to find effective ways to grow in all of these areas."

Teaching How to Reason. Scientific reasoning, in particular, is developed through interactions with mentors. This form of reasoning is one of the key transferable skills gained from doing research. Mentors can foster critical thinking and scientific reasoning by working through their thought process out loud when interacting with a mentee. This practice gives new scientists insight into how more experienced scientists approach complex problems and make decisions.

Mentors also develop scientific reasoning by putting ideas and results into perspective. Branko Zugic, a postdoctoral research associate at the Integrated Materials for Sustainable Catalysis Center (IMASC), elaborated on this idea. "Conversations should draw on the very focused understanding that a mentee typically has and be put into a broader context by the mentor." Contexts can be framed within a larger experimental set or overarching research challenge. "Learning how to think like a scientist comes from mentorship; learning to think like a creative and well-informed scientist comes from great mentorship," said Zugic.

The Importance of Encouragement. A theme that appears repeatedly in conversations about mentoring in the context of scientific research at EFRCs is the responsibility of a mentor to be both encouraging and challenging. "Research is hard—really hard—and experiments often do not work or give clear results the first time, and it can be difficult to know why. This uncertainty can be very discouraging," said Palmer. "Mentors can help provide encouragement and suggestions to help the students maintain their enthusiasm."

Harwood believes that motivation is internal, and the mentor’s role is to excite younger scientists to bring it out. To do that, she said, the mentor must have a true understanding of the other person’s personality and life situation, as well as knowledge of the person's strengths and weaknesses. This enables the mentor to guide their colleague to capitalize on his or her strengths, while working to strengthen or compensate for weaker areas. For example, she explained, "A mentee might have a tendency to make the interpretation of his data more complicated than it needs to be. While it is a strength to appreciate complexities, it is the mentor’s job to help the mentee see the forest through the trees."

Regular meetings establish that both parties are committed to the younger scientist’s development and can build understanding and respect on both sides. By offering constructive criticism and providing specific praise, mentors can demonstrate their support. It is necessary to be mindful of the level of scientific understanding that the mentee currently possesses, because the type of feedback provided will change as the person's understanding grows.

Taking Responsibility. Finding a balance between guiding a mentee on his or her project and ensuring that the individual has room to explore is often a challenge. Ownership of a project is necessary to a young researcher's development as a scientist, even if that sometimes leads to failure. This delegation of responsibility and freedom requires trust on the part of the mentor. "The mentor's job is to point the mentee in the appropriate direction—it is ultimately up to them to make discoveries. It's great when it's a two-way street and they come back with an observation or discovery," said Harwood.

For mentees to have a successful and beneficial mentorship experience, they must be honest with themselves and with the mentor regarding their own aptitudes and interests. Those new to the field must also be willing to consider the mentor's advice, and grow in response to constructive criticism. Maness explained. "The mentee’s responsibility is that he or she is willing to change, to break the mental barrier, overcome fear, and venture to the next step."

Why Be Mentored in an EFRC? The EFRCs provide a distinctive mentoring opportunity because they bring together many researchers and research groups from diverse scientific disciplines and organizational backgrounds. For example, the IMASC center includes chemists, physicists, chemical engineers, materials scientists, and others from two national laboratories and four academic institutions, including an international collaboration with computational chemists in Germany.

Having multiple mentors is beneficial because young researchers are guided by senior scientists with different professional styles and mentoring techniques. Individuals mentored in an EFRC receive training in how think in different ways and learn that there is more than one approach to being a successful scientist. "The EFRC provides an ideal platform for the mentee to observe and learn the dynamics of the team member and their interactions, as well as how the project is progressed, managed, and redirected, if needed, to ensure timely success," said Maness.

The interdisciplinary nature and large scale of the EFRCs also generate opportunities and challenges for mentors. They are able to observe mentoring in different disciplines and research environments and can supplement their own practices with successful strategies from other areas. However, coordination among multiple mentors is key to organizing research involving tasks that involve more than one group. This communication generates a cycle of feedback that keeps projects on track.

As a result, mentorship will continue to be important as the EFRCs advance and as mentees become mentors themselves. Overall, a continuous line of successful mentoring relationships enables the steady flow of creative ideas and groundbreaking results, which are needed to address grand challenges in energy and research as a whole.

About the author(s):

  • Michelle Personick is a postdoctoral research associate at Harvard University in Cynthia Friend’s research group. She is also a member of the Integrated Materials for Sustainable Catalysis Center (IMASC). Her research interests include the design, synthesis, and evaluation of nanoscale and nanoporous metal alloy materials for use as catalysts in energy-efficient chemical transformations.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.