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Mentoring Undergraduates: How to Be a Guide for Genuine Research Experiences

Tessa Shates and students at field site

Tessa Shates (left), a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at the University of California, Riverside, mentors several undergraduate students with the goal of providing them genuine research experiences early in their academic paths. Here, students (left to right) Jaimie Kenney, Anjo Armendi, and Amani Helo, join Shates in conduciting sampling at a field site at the Shipley Skinner Reserve in Riverside County, California. (Photo by Tessa Shates)

By Tessa Shates

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

As a graduate student (or postdoc or professor), there are many ways to be a mentor. We may be mentoring our peers or scientists earlier in their careers. However, we can take steps to be better than just a “good” mentor. Here, I offer advice on how to mentor (mostly undergraduate) students to have a positive, genuine research experience.

Learning by Doing

Tessa Shates

Tessa Shates

A genuine research experience can positively impact an undergraduate student so that they can be more prepared to pursue their own goals as scientists, through graduate school or other post-university schooling (for example, medical school). You may not always be able to design a full experiment for our students, but that is not required for the experience to be genuine. Personally, my undergraduate mentees work with me on parts of my dissertation work. We collect data together, and I train them on all the techniques I learned, as well. I make sure that, when I present work that they helped me with, they are authors on the talks and posters. Before they graduate, I ask that they write an informal (or formal) write-up on the work and results from our project. In the future, when I publish those works, I will include those students as co-authors.

In short, student mentees should participate in genuine research experiences where they actively contribute to the project, understand the techniques they are using, and should be given proper acknowledgement.

From Lab to Field

Not only have I mentored my students on laboratory techniques; I have also taken them with me to my field sites that are local to my institution. All of the students I have taken with me to field work had never done field research before. It is important to remember that field work— whether in entomology, ecology, or the geosciences—can be a “make or break” moment for your student. Depending on your own upbringing and appearance, you and your student will have different takes on the same experiences; field work can be especially daunting for students from underrepresented minorities. Being a good mentor means that you are aware of these challenges and that you take steps to address them.

In other words, be aware to bring more inclusive opportunities to your mentorship. This takes learning and reflection, but as scientists we should always choose to improve ourselves and learn new methods. As mentors, we are choosing to be guides, not gatekeepers, into the sciences.

field site

At the Tessa Shates’ field site at the Shipley Skinner Reserve in Riverside County, California, several of Shates’ undergraduate student mentees have conducted essential work in helping collect samples. (Photo by Tessa Shates)

Find Funding

As graduate students (or postdocs or professors), we often spend our full time working on our research. Our mentees, however, are students first, researchers second. The new generation of students also often work full time or have other non-student commitments that can take away from time gaining research experience. As graduate students, we may feel limited in what we can do to help, but there are steps we can take!

Find funding sources for your mentees to fund independent projects and their labor. Having open discussions with your primary advisor about funding undergraduate labor is an important topic to approach. If that conversation doesn’t work, you can help your student apply to on-campus funding sources that are often available (many institutions have funds for students to apply for doing funded research). Or, even beyond your institution, many societies and organizations will fund undergraduate students. In your own grant applications, you can often request funds for staff (like an undergraduate researcher!), which will make your project more accessible to students. Meanwhile, for presenting research, ESA has student travel awards for which you can encourage your students to apply.

Be Flexible

Create schedules and materials to facilitate learning and project completion. Before the pandemic, it was easier to keep on track with my students and our shared projects. However, once I switched to virtual mentoring, I really worked on this part of my mentorship. At first, I gave all the instructions for a project at once and expected completion by the end of the quarter. I found out that this was not manageable for a full-time student, and I expected time-management skills that I likely didn’t even have myself. Since then, I’ve created weekly worksheets and assignments, with the ultimate goal of a student research publication. Each week I assigned discrete steps and reading, with write-ups after each step. For the publication, a lot of the write-ups could be used as first-draft material. On the other hand, some students want more flexibility! Have a conversation with your mentee and change your plans based on what works best. For example, weekly meetings could be replaced by meetings twice a month, with check-ins in between meetings.

Mentoring students in a research laboratory is valuable for both the mentor and mentee. These small teaching moments can make an undergraduate student feel welcome in the world of research and create new opportunities for them. You will learn how to communicate better and manage projects beyond your own. As mentors, we must remember that we can make a huge difference in creating an inclusive environment. And, because of that, we need to take steps to make sure working with us is accessible—by providing funding opportunities, designing flexible but guided projects (depending on student needs), and being aware of challenges our students face.

Tessa Shates is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at the University of California, Riverside, and the Pacific Branch Representative to the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email: tessa.shates@email.ucr.edu.

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