Our research team at Berkeley Lab: Laleh (mentor), Erica (intern), and Colette (mentor). Photo Credit: Marilyn Chung

Last summer I wrote about how I was preparing to make the leap from full-time work at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab) to doctoral studies at UC Berkeley. This summer I had the great pleasure of serving as a research mentor for the very first time.

As a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), I’m fortunate that my research efforts are funded for the first three years of my PhD studies. The beauty of receiving the NSF GRFP is the fact that you are expected to engage in research activities as soon as possible and to take active steps toward implementing your own novel NSF-funded project. Knowing that I would be committed to conducting research this summer inspired me to recruit an intern through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, administered at Berkeley Lab by program manager Colette Flood and at UC Berkeley by faculty members Anne Baranger and Elisa Stone and fourth-year graduate student Max Helix.

After interviewing potential interns, my first choice was Erica Dettmer-Radtke, a Statistics major at the Colorado School of Mines; she planned to spend a summer in the Bay Area and expressed interest in my research. Once we had selected the intern, we made sure she would have what she needed (e.g., computer, notepads, post-it notes). And then I realized that I didn’t have what I needed. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to fill up forty hours each week with tasks for an intern to do! But once she had purchased a plane ticket and found a place to live, it was inevitable that she was arriving regardless of whether or not I was prepared.

So, as I usually do when I’m not sure about my next step, I polled my friends. I reached out to my network to ask for their perspectives on mentoring. Here are the pieces of advice I most often received and how they influenced my work this summer.

    1. Goals. Most people mentioned the necessity of well-defined goals, for both the intern and the project. For Erica, I had certain tasks designed to push the project forward that I expected her to complete over the course of the summer. However, a research experience can serve as a powerful platform for an undergraduate to develop their skills in areas such as critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, ethical research practices, and technical writing. With these learning goals in mind, I attempted to give her some tasks with explicit instructions and some open-ended tasks that would require her to troubleshoot based on her prior knowledge and training.
    2. Laleh and Erica facilitating a meeting to discuss their summer research, field questions, and recruit study participants for this work. Photo Credit: Marilyn Chung.

      Ownership. My colleagues argued that students gain more from participating in research when they are given the opportunity to take initiative over some aspect of the project. Erica was tasked with interviewing members of the Berkeley Lab community in order to help collect some preliminary data to move our project from one stage to the next. I capitalized on her experience as editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper. She designed an interview protocol, we refined it together, and then she went out to conduct interviews on her own, during the very first week of her internship. She had complete control over the interviews, interpreting the data, and summarizing them for her written deliverables. Over the course of the summer, I made sure to present her with our current progress and then ask her, “What do you think we should do from here?

    3. Perspective. Certainly a research mentor should have clear goals for a project. However, the internship itself will be more valuable to the intern if, as mentors, we can consider what working on the project might be like from their perspective. One of the researchers who offered advice to me described how an intern undoubtedly sees your project through their eyes, and this inspired me to create a tool to uncover this perspective. I created a “Shared Research Journal” where both Erica and I reflected on our ideas, questions, and goals for our research project. She used the space provided to discuss challenges, triumphs, areas of confusion, experiences conducting field work, the mind-numbing process of analyzing large amounts of data, and the nuanced discussions she had with professionals about her career. Reviewing her entries allowed me to identify the gaps in her knowledge and to address these in the following week’s tasks.
    4. Communication. Everyone mentioned frequent communication in some way, although they had varied recommendations. Some recommended daily check-ins, others encouraged weekly meetings, and others described the benefits of letting the intern know that it’s okay to make mistakes (and be honest about them). Erica and I communicated daily. Sometimes we rode the Berkeley Lab shuttle together and discussed her progress. Sometimes we talked over lunch. And once or twice, we conducted our morning meeting over the phone while I was commuting. We didn’t always have a set agenda for our meetings, but the space created over the course of the summer was that of research colleagues. I may know more about the topic at hand as a graduate student, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t teach me something as an undergraduate.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of elements that make an intern-mentor relationship work, but it was a great place to begin. I came back to these concepts over the course of the summer to evaluate my mentoring practices.

It’s true that mentoring requires a large investment of time. However, the benefits are plentiful. Erica’s questions about this work forced me to explore ways of explaining the many nuanced aspects of our project. Like having a running partner, having an intern forced me to show up to work every day with clear tasks in mind, in order to make steady progress toward our shared goal.

For more information on graduate student mentoring, see the Graduate Professional Development website.

The author gives special thanks to Maurice Garcia-Sciveres, Azriel Goldschmidt, Tracy Mattox, and Stéphanie Swarbreck for lending expertise as research mentors, and to Colette Flood, Anne Baranger, Elisa Stone, and Max Helix for oversight and contributions.

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About Laleh Coté

Laleh Coté is a second-year doctoral student studying Science Education and Microbiology at UC Berkeley, and she works at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a part of Workforce Development & Education.