Why Early Career Scientists Should Care about Mentoring Undergraduate Students

Let’s be honest: the mentoring of undergraduate students is sometimes the lowest on the list of priorities for a busy postdoctoral research fellow. Amidst experiments, research progress meetings, reviewing of literature, manuscript writing, grant applications, and convincing your PI to let you attend that conference in Hawaii, your undergraduate charges may be just mere afterthoughts. Not having spent any length of time in a research laboratory, inexperienced undergraduates seem to require an extraordinary amount of handholding before they can be trusted not to destroy anything. As if you don’t already have enough on your plate (or laboratory bench)!

If you have ever been tempted to let your protégés be raised by the laboratory manager, here are some reasons why research fellows should take an interest in mentoring undergraduates.

1.    They Can Help You with Your Career

Undergraduate mentorship is a valuable opportunity for early career scientists to hone communication, leadership, and mentorship skills, especially if you hope to helm your own research group someday. In the university where I am based, undergraduates undertake research projects as part of their degree requirements. These projects are often their first forays into scientific research. Hence, take an active interest in their project and explain the objectives of their research clearly so that they understand what they are doing – an excellent exercise in communication. Regardless of how packed my schedule is, I set aside a couple of hours each week to discuss research with my undergraduate students. They update me about their research progress and I plan experiments with them. It is especially important for mentors to be in the loop about the progress of their undergraduate charges so that obstacles encountered can be rectified quickly within the often limited duration of a project. Any available time you have is fine, even if you can only spare the minutes from incubation periods to listen to their experiment plans! To avoid confusion, break the project down into manageable steps and guide them through it – this will help them see how research is the systematic investigation of hypotheses. Encourage autonomy, curiosity, and project ownership by not providing all the answers. After all, it wouldn’t be research if we knew the answers to every question! By teaching the scientific method from the beginning, you will have an enthusiastic scientist who is ready to make his/her way through science by the time he/she completes the project!

2.    They Can Help You with Your Own Research

Undergraduates are extra pairs of hands in the laboratory for research fellows who are often tasked with multiple responsibilities. Need some culture media plates supplemented with antibiotics for bacterial transformation but you are busy running a PCR? Ask the senior undergraduate to prepare them! Need to take out some bacteria cultures from the incubator while you are at a meeting? Ask the junior undergraduate to help! For someone who is starting out in research, these tasks provide opportunities to learn laboratory techniques as well as independence. Always wanted to explore an interesting biological mechanism but never got around to investigating it? Assign an undergraduate student to it! If their project is closely related to yours, any interesting findings they discover may provide novel insights to your research. That’s why it is important to train them to be competent in basic laboratory techniques! As with any skill, the best ways to learn are through hands-on practice and demonstrations. My students assist in experiments at the laboratory until they are confident enough to perform their own experiments under my supervision. Just keep an eye on them from time to time to avoid mishaps, mix-ups, and mistakes!

3.    They Can Offer New Research Ideas and Questions

Undergraduates from various disciplines and backgrounds contribute to the research diversity of the laboratory. Don’t hesitate to discuss your ideas and troubleshoot experiments with students, even if they may not fully understand your research. Undergraduates, with their innocent questions and curiosity, can rekindle your passion for research and spur you on. Senior undergraduates often know enough about the field to offer fresh insights which may not have occurred to you. If your undergraduate mentees come from a different background to yours, you may also learn new ideas and perspectives, which provide fresh spins to your research. For example, as a microbiologist whose skills in mathematical manipulation leave much to be desired, I first developed an appreciation for mathematical modelling after mentoring several undergraduates from engineering backgrounds. My newly acquired modelling skills have allowed me to analyse and describe biological data more quantitatively. Hence, mentorship works both ways. The mentor also learns from the mentee!

4.    They Give You the Chance to Inspire the Next Generation of Scientists

Lastly, but most importantly, mentoring undergraduates is an opportunity to mould the next generation of scientists. Through your patient guidance and demonstration of good research practices, some may even be inspired to join the laboratory as graduate students in the future – a testament to effective mentoring! Research can sometimes feel like an isolating experience with no end in sight and many scientists may wonder about the impact of their work. If you would like to make a direct impact on someone, mentorship is a way to do that. There is something satisfying about guiding your charges on their journeys through Science and watching them grow as scientists. As Isaac Newton once said, if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Indeed, knowledge is built on the shoulders of inspiring teachers and mentors. Many scientists credit their teachers and mentors as fervent supporters who encouraged (and still encourage) their scientific journeys. I’m sure you have them too! Hence, mentoring is a wonderful way to pay it forward in the scientific community!

Mentorship is a rewarding experience and I wish all who embark on it, whether by choice or circumstance, a fruitful journey ahead!

Image Credit: Amanda Schutz

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