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NatPhil – A Memoir of Mentoring

As many of us know and may have experienced, good mentors can have a long-lasting, positive impact on a young researcher taking his or her first steps into academia and may even define the trajectory of a future career. Many academics and educational institutes have yet to recognize this. This article briefly illustrates my struggle of finding mentorship as well as my experience of mentoring – as an undergrad in a Pakistani university.

Among the many problems haunting university education in Pakistan, perhaps the one least mentioned is the absence of a mentorship culture. This is especially true of public sector universities which admit a large number of students and fail to offer career or education counselling, let alone mentorship and guidance. This has alarming consequences and produces a breed of graduates with misguided expectations and untapped talents. One may find success stories of students hailing from these universities, for instance, winners of decent graduate school placements. These turn out to be alarmingly scarce if one does number-crunching.

I myself entered university with the aim of getting trained for a career in academia. Knowing well the importance of undergraduate research and the central role of mentoring in it, I started looking for potential mentors at my university. Unfortunately, I was unable to find one among the faculty even though my university boasts of being the premier engineering institute in the country. Frustrated, I started visiting other universities in the city and, over a year, came across a couple of good professors who graciously let me work with them on some research projects and introduced me to science communication. On the other hand, I also found inspiration in certain seniors at my college who were able to make their mark despite all the hurdles posed by the failed education system. I worked with them as well and learnt the all-important skills of leadership, research, and initiative. Their spirit to mentor probably rubbed off on me and, a year-and-half ago, I decided to informally mentor a group of students junior to me. I wanted to propagate the experiences I gathered from my participation in different activities, academic or otherwise.

Considering it a personal experiment, I tried not to be very open about it until it concluded. The initiative did not go out exactly as I envisioned. However, I think some interesting results followed and here, hoping my memory does not betray me much, I would like to summarize the endeavour we styled ‘NatPhil’ (Natural Philosophers). In retrospection, I think it sounds like a peer mentoring circle.

Since I was to invest considerable time into the project, I had to be sure I was working with the right people: willing to learn beyond the classes, and to be hardworking and passionate. I advertised on social media and interviewed many students, asked for their detailed CVs, gave some test assignments and finally formed a group of seven students. Three were from electrical engineering, one from computer engineering, one from environmental engineering, one from mechanical engineering and one from materials engineering.

When summer break ended, we agreed to meet each week and discuss the individual and group projects we would work on. There was a certain set of skills I wanted every group member to have, which comprised science writing and documentation, leadership and ability to take initiative, science communication, and electronics and hardware prototyping. I believe these skills are very essential for present-day scientists and engineers. Secondly, the university does not provide good enough training in most of these skills. So, the first few of our meetings were focused on these topics. Readings were communicated online. Aside that, all the members were asked to explore and talk about what interested them. I wanted them to come up with their own ideas and mould NatPhil according to their interests.

In a month or two, the common expository meetings concluded and the members were ready to delve into their areas of choice. For the rest of the academic year, they worked on their chosen projects and science outreach. To illustrate, two of them explored the world of open source electronics and cumulatively read most of the relevant books on the topic published by then. Others chose to study linear algebra and quantum mechanics, did well in science writing, attempted science storytelling through art, explored simulation and computational tools, etc. The members were regularly reminded not to compromise on their academics while doing these projects.

The science outreach was done at a nearby school and was initiated midway in the year. The idea was to design inexpensive experiments to supplement local primary school science teaching. Some members of our team were asked to prepare weekly lesson plans. Particularly, the people who specialized in electronics were tasked with coming up with simple yet effective demonstration experiments for in-class presentations at the school. Similarly, another member was responsible for designing experiments pertaining to chemistry or biology. All the members participated in delivering the lectures and demonstrations to the class. The weekly sessions proved very exciting for the communicators and communicated to alike. The students’ interest in the science subject saw a great rise, as we found out through a survey. Later on, some members presented the work at a conference on science education. They were very excited since it was their first conference presentation.

Enjoying their newly found passion in communicating science to the public and kids, the team also participated in the second Lahore Science Mela as presenters of scientific models and artwork. Much adoration was gathered by the paintings depicting Newton’s work, gravitational waves, Ibn al-Haytham’s camera and Galileo’s free fall experiment. Moreover, some members helped the Khwarizmi Science Society conduct outreach sessions on different occasions. Others organized outreach sessions for patients at a cancer hospital.

Nowadays, the NatPhil meetings are no more conducted. The members are no more directly supervised by me as before, mainly because I got busy with my senior year project. Looking back, I feel nostalgic about the adventure. Maybe other members feel this way too. Nonetheless, the NatPhil people are still motivated to continue working on what excites them. They lead their own initiatives and write for popularizing science. They still design and present exciting experiments for school science. They work on their academic projects with diligence and aim at doing sound research as well. They also do a lot of things I do not know.

What has been my contribution then, if there is any at all? It was probably pointing a group of people towards some causes and opportunities I found interesting. Moreover, it was conveying to them that their passion and interests matter and that they should keep them dear. The NatPhil people are doing well and it is a pleasure to see them succeed. I hope they continue the good work.

The take-home message from NatPhil is that it is extremely fulfilling to work on the causes you care about, to take initiatives and to do things passionately; and that mentoring your juniors can bring you moments of delight and fulfilment.

 

Featured image: obtained from Pixabay under Pixabay license, i.e. free for commercial use and no attribution required

References

Gould, J. (2015). Mentoring: Before they were laureates. Naturejobs blog.

Horner-Devine, C. (2017). Peer Mentoring Circles: A strategy for thriving in science. Research in progress blog.

Khwarizmi Science Society. Hands-on Coding at Syedanwala Girls School.

Khwarizmi Science Society. KSS goes to the Summer Camp at Muslim Explorers Academy.

Khwarizmi Science Society. Lahore Science Mela.

Orzel, C. (2017). Why Research By Undergraduates Is Important For Science And Students. Forbes.

Sheikh, H.M. Haris Moazam Sheikh. Computational Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, UC Berkeley.

The Rhodes Trust. Muhammad Arslan Chaudhry. Rhodes Scholars Class of 2016.

Ticknor, C.S. (2017). Mentoring Undergraduates in Research and Creative Endeavors, PURM 6.1. Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring.

University of Education. (2018). 6th International Conference on Education.

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