Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Accidental Mentoring

So, we all know the importance of mentoring, especially for underrepresented minorities. What we may not realize is that mentoring can take many forms. Sometimes, we "mentor" unknowingly...

Recently, I received email from a former undergraduate student (whom I will call Hypatia) who is now a graduate student elsewhere. While she was an undergraduate in our (physics) department, I interacted with her very little -- I didn't teach any of her courses, and she was interested in nanotechnology, not astronomy. However, she told me in this email that I had started her down the path she was now on, and she wanted to thank me! I was stunned, to say the least. I hadn't had any long talks with her about her future or given her any advice about much of anything. We'd pretty much just said "hello" to each other when we passed in the hallway. So what happened that she felt that she owed me a "huge debt of gratitude?"

Here's the history: Several years ago, I covered a lecture for one of my colleagues (the class was Intro Astronomy for non-majors) that this student was taking. One lecture. That was it. Unbeknownst to me, I made a strong impression on Hypatia because I was a "female scientist who was so enthusiastic about her work." (I might add that the male colleague I was covering for is one of the most enthusiastic scientists I know, by the way.) That one lecture led her to seek me out to talk about women in science, and ask for help on her "quest to find nanotechnology research" at our university. I remember this visit - a very confident, self-possessed young woman came into my office, said "I want to do nanotech research" and asked me for advice. She clearly knew what she wanted to do, she just didn't know how to get there. I introduced her to one of our physicists who does that kind of research, and the rest, as they say, is history. Hypatia started working in his lab, he recommended her for a summer internship at a major university, and that helped her get into the grad school of her choice where she is now happily pursuing her Ph. D.

I don't know about you, but sometimes hearing, yet again, that it's important that I make time to mentor just feels like one more extra thing I need to do because I'm a female scientist. Followed immediately by a sense of guilt that I can feel resentful about my duty to mentor. So it was nice to get a reminder that mentoring doesn't have to be a huge, onerous, time-consuming, emotionally draining (and yes, rewarding) task. Sometimes, it just requires that I be myself. Now that I can do.