My heart was pounding out of my chest when I was ready to press the send button to proceed to the initial…
I spent my adolescent years immersed in a suburban hometown teeming with engineers. They were all working tirelessly on designing omnipresent mobile apps to better connect people worldwide or developing cutting-edge medical devices to assist patients suffering from debilitating diseases. This enthusiasm and energy around me played an integral role behind my motivation to pursue biomedical engineering in undergraduate.
Following in the footsteps of my neighbors
Now in graduate school where I am deepening my study of biomedical engineering, I realized I have the immense privilege of following in the footsteps of my neighbors. I too can be like the many engineers from my hometown working on essential and life-changing projects that aim to make life better. I thank those distant role models for the wonderful inspiration and the innovative environment in which I witnessed.
As amazing as those STEM leaders were, I never personally met them. As a peppy and wide-eyed student who went off to college hoping to follow in their footsteps, I was challenged as I navigated my undergraduate college education with minimal guidance and mentorship. This included determining—mostly by myself with the exception of my wonderful research mentors—time management, prioritization of work, research/internships, and a healthy work life balance.
Navigating a new educational path
In spite of the struggles, I was grateful for the privilege to pursue my passion and made sure to take advantage of available opportunities. I made it through, but it wasn’t easy. Now that I am pursuing a PhD, I am again navigating an educational path scattered with another round of challenges that are new and also mirror (but magnify) those in undergraduate. It’s another “boss battle” in the game of science (and life), if you will.
Although daunting, this current “boss battle” has in ways become more manageable given the extensive and generous mentorship I have received from my advisors, mentors, and faculty members. Their welcoming attitudes and guidance in my experiments, grant and manuscript writing, and professional development encourage timely progress and success as well as make my journey more enjoyable.
Paying it forward
In graduate school, I committed to STEM mentorship as a way of paying it forward. In my research, I use my experiments as training opportunities for my mentees—I am always thrilled to see them tangibly experience class concepts through lab. In between running experiments, analyzing data, and writing manuscripts, I also assist them in finding and submitting applications to summer internships and research presentation opportunities.
Recently, one of my undergraduates wanted to submit a poster to our on-campus undergraduate research symposium but was on the fence about it. It was 10:30 am on a Saturday morning and there were only two days before the abstract submission deadline. I realized I hadn’t been active in motivating her, so I decided to text her and ask if we could call to discuss the prospect of her presenting a poster. In our 30-minute call, I encouraged her to submit an abstract and reminded her of all the data she collected in the past several months. She agreed and after many edits spanning two weeks, she joined 200+ other undergraduates in presentation.
After the symposium ended—to our surprise—she received an award for her presentation. Never did we think a spur of the moment decision would lead to this amazing feat! More importantly, she learned valuable skills in data analysis, poster creation, and effective technical/scientific communication (all of which I wish I could have practiced when I was an undergraduate researcher). After this, I was convinced that a mentor’s guidance along with a mentee’s hard work can and will lead to their success.
The lessons learned
As a mentor, I am also continually encouraged to explain science to a general audience and to hone my critical thinking skills. From teaching undergraduates how to perform sterile cell culture technique or mechanical testing to helping them create a poster, I am constantly reminded of the fundamentals and am compelled to explain the motivation or reason why things are the way they are in a digestible format.
Moreover, questions from mentees have caused me to think about my research in different ways; this is like how an “outsider” may have different perspectives that I may not have considered initially. In some instances, I improved my experimental design or workflow thanks to an undergraduate’s or “outsider’s” feedback. Therefore, serving as a mentor has bolstered my science communication skills and fostered intellectual creativity, which are crucial to the advancement of science and the promotion of high-quality research.
However, having first handedly experienced the countless benefits of mentorship from both sides, I found that its true value lies in empowering mentees to achieve their fullest potential. For students, I encourage all to seek a mentor that will help tap into their treasure trove of talent, knowledge, and skills that lie within. I, like many other mentors, am privileged to gift the “me” (my experiences) in mentorship to help foster the success of our future STEM leaders.
I would like to thank my advisor, Dr. Zhijie Wang, for her mentorship and Courtney Doherty for her comments on the piece.
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