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Interview with my STEM Mentor

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

By Meghna Badami

Someone who has walked on the same path before can give you valuable advice on how you can do it better. Whether it is discussing about Career paths, college choices or even conversing about the latest scientific advancements, STEM mentors can prove to be an invaluable asset for a young science enthusiast. Several Science professionals have recognized this need and are doing their bit to give back to the community by inspiring and aiding students to fulfill their STEM goals.

Photo By David Russel

My personal experience with having a mentor began around 10 months ago when I was paired with Christina Gangemi - a Research Assistant in the area of synthetic physiology in the Australian Regenerative Research Institute of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. She is currently a part of the 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program and the Member-to-Member mentoring program, both initiatives by the New York Academy of Sciences. In addition to her scientific training, she has strong experience in digital literacy and social media. She currently holds the position of Social Media Ambassador for her institute, where she works to promote the fascination and importance of regenerative medicine and stem cell science with the broader community. Her work focuses on Beta cell regeneration and cellular signalling pathways.

In an interview with the Scientific Teen, Christina answered some questions about her position as a Mentor:

Why do you think it is important for young STEM enthusiasts to have a mentor?

Christina: I think it is critically important to have mentors throughout your career. The earlier you can surround yourself with that support network, the better. No one can navigate his or her career alone. Having someone who can provide you with honest insight and help promote your future growth is invaluable.

How can we promote mentorship in schools?

Christina: It is all about ‘paying it forward’. We need to empower university students to not only be matched with mentors, but also become mentors themselves. I never thought that I could mentor someone, because I was still at such an early stage in my career. Nevertheless, by giving it a go, I realized that I have a lot to offer. I think we need to encourage young people to not be afraid to seek advice and support.

On a broader level, I feel greater interactions between universities and schools is required, or virtual platforms that enable new mentoring partnerships to be formed. For example, the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) offers a number of virtual mentoring programs that does just this! They pair students with STEM professionals from all parts of the world! Mentors and mentees interact through Skype, email and online platforms. Moreover, they provide a whole host of resources, including learning modules.

Tell us a bit about your experience being a Mentor.

Christina: I started mentoring about two years ago by joining the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). As there were no local mentoring programs in Australia that I had access to at my career stage, I decided to broaden my search and came across the Academy. At the time, they were running the Next Scholars Program and were looking for STEM professionals to mentor university students. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I made. Initially though, as a mentor, I felt very much like a fish out of water. However with time I found different ways that I could use my experiences and knowledge to help others. I also strengthened my mentorship skills by being paired with my own mentor through the Member-to-Member mentoring program (also run by the NYAS).

What inspired you to take up the responsibility of being a Mentor?

Christina: I decided to become a mentor because I did not have any mentors myself. There were no established programs at my career stage in Australia. The programs run by the NYAS were like nothing else I had been able to find. It stood out to me because they have well established programs that support STEM students and professionals at all career stages. I knew that if I joined such an inspiring environment, I could learn what it takes to be a good mentor, and I would have access to a global network of STEM professionals.

Do you think a mentor can affect a mentee's career choices?

Christina: Absolutely! I think it is extremely valuable to have someone who is at least a few steps ahead of you in terms of career progression. My mentors have played a crucial role in helping me plan and shape my next steps, as I am currently in the transition from research assistant to PhD candidate. The last twelve months has come with a number of challenges and setbacks for me professionally, but having mentors has helped me to shape my research interests, bounce back from challenges as well as find a suitable research group and supervisor. They have been critical soundboards, helping me to weigh up many factors and set new goals. I have learnt this year, that it is okay to not always take the road alone. I have often felt uncertain about my capacity to take on the next challenge, but mentors can provide a different perspective and map out a strategy that can help you take the leap.

Moreover, mentors can also help open you up to alternative career paths and opportunities that you may not have considered before. For one of my mentees, I have been helping her not only with her transition from high school to college, but also with taking on volunteer opportunities and set up her professional social media channels such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Mentors are a great opportunity to broaden your network and consider new opportunities which you may not have taken up without their guidance.

Is there anyway Teenagers can contribute to the Mentorship community?

Christina: Of course, and it is very simple. Reach out to those who are a few steps behind you. Anyone can be a mentor, and you can surprise yourself by how much you can offer. Reach out to local school or programs in your area. Moreover, it is amazing what you can find with a Google search! Even better, you do not even need to be a part of an established mentoring program to start. You could even set up a new program!

What are some of the ways a student can get paired with a suitable mentor?

Christina: I highly recommend looking at the range of programs that the NYAS has to offer. There is chance for anyone to either become a mentor or be matched with a STEM professional. I currently have two mentees, and an amazing postdoctoral research fellow from New York mentors me. What is great about the NYAS, is that it is a global community, with members from all over the world. It is a great chance to be paired with mentors from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds.

How much of an influence have your mentors had in your career as a scientist?

Christina: I am very fortunate this year to be surrounded by two incredible mentors. Both have taken different trajectories in their STEM careers. They inspire me each in different ways and each help with different aspects of my career progression. They have been incredibly supportive amongst setbacks and provided critical feedback when I needed it the most.

Interestingly, my mentees have had just as much of a profound impact on my career as a scientist as my mentors. Providing guidance to my mentees has really helped me reflect on the advice I give to myself. Amongst difficult times, I have often been very hard and critical on myself. However, when I think of my mentees, I consider what I would say to them if they were having a similar experience, and more often than not, I provide constructive and empowering advice.

Now when I do experience difficult challenges, I think more about what I would say to my mentees, rather than cause myself more harm than good by being unnecessarily critical. My mentees inspire and motivate me, and I have learnt that mentorship goes both ways. When done right, such a partnership can be of mutual benefit.

What have you learnt by being a mentor?

Christina: My mentoring experience has taught me that science is more than just experiments and publishing papers; it is about training the next generation, leading a team of people and effectively collaborating. All these aspects require being able to have good interactions and dialogue with people. Being a mentor, I have strengthened my ability to listen, provide feedback, link my mentees with my networks, and to communicate more effectively. These skills you do not learn at the lab bench, yet they are essential to being a great scientist. I see all too often new group leaders who have produced amazing science, yet they cannot lead a team of people. I think mentoring can provide a great opportunity to strengthen these skills before one gains a senior position in science.

Personally, finding a strong role model in Christina helped me grow as a person – to become more outgoing and seize new opportunities; and there are many more similar stories waiting to be told as the Science community embraces Mentorship with open arms.

You can follow Christina on both Twitter and Instagram: @christinagangem.


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