The Mentor's Role in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Sciences

Feb. 24, 2021

In 2018, ASM’s CEO, Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi, formed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Taskforce, in part to address concerns about chronic under-representation of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) as microbial scientists and in leadership positions within the Society. The taskforce examined ASM system-wide policies and unfavorable activities that perpetuate the lack of diversity in the microbial sciences, presenting their findings in the 2020 ASM DEI Taskforce Report. Published in December 2020, a key taskforce finding is the need for career mentorship, especially for early-career BIPOC microbial scientists. Career mentorship can result in widening professional networks so mentees can better access career-enhancing resources, are aware of career opportunities and have greater participation in ASM activities including meetings, journals, continuing education, local, national and international volunteer opportunities and society leadership.

If we are to work to ensure diverse representation within leadership positions throughout the microbial sciences community, we must be intentional and commit to mentoring BIPOC students. For over 30 years, I have dedicated myself to mentoring BIPOC undergraduate and early-career microbial scientists so that I may assist in ensuring they find and succeed in medical and microbial science careers. My experience as a pre-health advisor, Medical Educational Development (MED) Program faculty member, Director of University of North Carolina (UNC) Health’s CPEP program in Medical and Public Health Microbiology and core faculty member in our Pathology Residency Program has allowed me to mentor a wide array of BIPOC scientists, including DEI Taskforce member Dr. Karissa Culbreath.

Becoming a Mentor

If one person can change your worldview, for me, that person was a second-year medical student at Temple University. I was Harold’s microbiology lab instructor and we had an instant bond because we shared a passion (basketball) and a goal (his success in the microbiology course). Because of our shared passion, we spent many hours together, often talking about the barriers and challenges he faced as a medical student. A topic he came back to again and again was his academic performance, because he just didn’t feel he was doing well enough. I assured him that this anxiety was common in medical students and that he was doing fine.

When it was time for Harold’s pediatric rotation, we were both excited because he would interact with me professionally in my role as the Director of Microbiology Services at Temple’s pediatric teaching hospital. Little did I know that he was about to teach me an enduring life lesson. The first day of his rotation, we agreed to have lunch and I went to meet him. To get to the cafeteria, we needed to walk through the Emergency Room waiting area, something I did every work day in about 15 seconds. That day though, it took us approximately 15 minutes. Children were coming up and pulling on Harold’s white coat, parents lined up to ask him questions such as, “Are you going to take care of my child; when will my child be seen?” I have no memory that there were any Black physicians working at the hospital at that time. As I thought about it later, I realized that Harold was likely the first Black person they had seen in a white coat that day, even though the hospital served a population that was 60% Black and 20% Hispanic. The trust these patients and their parents placed in Harold told me that there was a real gap in the health care they were receiving—health care providers that looked like them and shared a common culture. That day set me on a path to serve young people who sought opportunity and access to careers in both medicine and the microbial sciences. I have come to understand over the past 4 decades that a bridge to success for early-career scientists facing barriers and challenges can be paved by mentorship.

Approximately 30 years ago, I became friends with 2 individuals and each, in their own way, taught me how to be a mentor. Terry Greenlund was a local teacher who identified middle school students of color, many from challenging circumstances, who showed academic promise and motivation. He mentored them through high school and college, helping them get scholarships and raising funds to cover other educational expenses. In the mid-1990s, he formalized this activity using the Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) program with the  goal of preparing overlooked students of promise to attend 4-year colleges and universities. He continues to this day to mentor and financially support the college education of a dozen BIPOC students each year. The life lesson he taught me was given the chance, even the most academically marginalized young people can be successful if someone believes in them, provides them with access to opportunities and needed resources for academic success and is a constant and consistent presence in their lives.

The other person who was essential for my development as a mentor was Larry Keith. Larry was the director of the UNC School of Medicine Medical Educational Development (MED) Program. This 9-week summer program has a goal of preparing BIPOC students for medical and dental school. It includes a rigorous 4-week microbiology-immunology course, which I team taught for 30 years. Since its inception in 1974, over 700 participants have gone on to graduate from UNC SOM, as well as over 600 from other medical and dental schools. Working with Larry helped me develop the cultural competency that I would need to be an effective mentor.

How To Mentor Effectively

My experience mentoring Harold and working with Terry and Larry taught me that I had much to offer as a mentor.  My responsibility as a mentor is to create a “safe space” for mentees, especially those who are uncertain or distrustful, to share their experiences and needs so that I can ensure access to resources they need for success. I welcome all who ask.

What do aspiring scientists need from a career mentor?

  1. Give mentees time where you are completely present to them.
  2. Ensure mentees are heard. It is important to hear their stories. Allow the silences. Many people I mentor admit that they were scared to meet me.  The silences give them a chance to gather their thoughts.
  3. Find commonalities during these meetings to build trust.
  4. Show mentees respect. For example I find some names, especially those of West African and South Asian origins, difficult for me to pronounce. If I anticipate having difficulty, I ask them to teach me the correct pronunciation, and we practice. It tells the person that you respect cultural differences.
  5. Educate and reassure them. For too many students, their knowledge of career steps is based on the sea of misinformation on the internet. Tell them where to find reliable information. Many highly talented individuals are convinced that either they will fail or do not deserve their success. Reassure them that neither is true.
  6. Develop a realistic plan with options. The plan may be for what they need to do in the next week or over the next 4 years. Whenever a mentee asks about further help, I tell them all the same thing, “I walk this journey with you.” And they will learn, I mean it! Some of those journeys have been ongoing for decades.
  7. Give them support. Show that you are invested in their success. One of the most important parts of mentoring is helping mentees deal with failure. I freely share with them that I am a “failed” pre-med student, but not a failure in life. Help them develop a plan B. Supporting the disappointed and discouraged may be the most important thing that you can do. There is far too much work to be done in science to give up on people.
  8. Build a mentoring network. I have learned that “near peer” mentors are gold. Whether it be a medical student, graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, mentees find talking to and being reassured by people who are where they want to be invaluable. Additionally, find colleagues who can help you to address issues outside your expertise. Many of my expert colleagues were once mentees of mine.
  9. Be a champion for your mentees. Probably the most important thing that you can do is learn how to write useful letters of recommendation. For example, give a very brief explanation of your relationship with the mentee, what character traits, talents, skills and experiences that the mentees possess that makes them a strong choice for the position they are seeking, and how they compare to others you have mentored who have been successful in attaining similar positions.
  10. Follow mentees' careers and send notes of congratulations whenever it is appropriate. My former boss to this day sends me such notes. They are much appreciated. During the pandemic, which has been so trying emotionally for clinical microbiologists, I send notes of congratulations and/or encouragement to our former postdocs. Practically speaking, it helps maintain my professional network.

Using your experience and skill set, determine who you can effectively mentor.  Two examples come quickly to mind. Many middle and high schools have AVID-like programs. Contact the programs and ask how you can help. Since 2015, the Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Program, under the umbrella of the ASM’s Clinical and Public Health Microbiology Committee, has provided 10 travel grants annually to ASM meetings to early-career, non-Ph.D. clinical and public health microbiologists. The purpose of these grants is to provide career development and mentoring to early-career scientists with the aim of identifying individuals with the potential to be future leaders within the discipline and within ASM. Those interested in learning more about this program should contact Nicole Jackson.

Why Mentor

When I was preparing this piece, I thought long and hard about why I spent so much of my professional life mentoring people. Although the importance of providing career mentoring for BIPOC scientists was emphasized by the DEI taskforce, they also raise the very real paradox that mentoring is often not honored in academic promotion or by honorific professional groups, such as the American Academy of Microbiology. So why did I spend approximately 20% of my professional life and several hours a week in my retirement mentoring?

First, my mother, a deeply religious woman, quoted Luke to me on several occasions, “to whom much is given, much is required.” She wanted me to understand that I was privileged, and sharing the resources privilege granted me was important. My father was a role model of serving others, working 16 hour days as a country doctor. Service to others was embedded in my upbringing.

Second, Angela Duckworth in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance describes the value of mentors in an individual’s success. My success is based on the help and support of several mentors. I honor my mentors by mentoring others.

Finally, having the opportunity to help guide the journey of those who will contribute to solve future scientific problems we all face is my chance to touch a more just future.

Author: Peter Gilligan, Ph.D., D(ABMM), F(AAM)

Peter Gilligan, Ph.D., D(ABMM), F(AAM)
Peter Gilligan, Ph.D., D(ABMM), F(AAM) is the former Director of the Clinical Microbiology-Immunology Laboratories at the University of North Carolina Hospitals.