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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tom Barrera

Unintentional Mentoring in STEM

This last July, I received an unexpected phone call from a close friend who was a former fellow graduate student in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UCLA. For a few remarkable years in the early 1990’s, we shared the uncommon experience of long hours in the research laboratory, tireless moments in recitation sections, and unforgettable conversations with our dissertation advisor Ken Nobe. After so many years, it was bittersweet to hear his energetic voice as he delivered the unexpected sad news.

Ken Nobe, founder of the UCLA Department of Chemical Engineering and professor for over 50 years, MS/PhD advisor to over 120 graduate students, reluctant WWII US Army hero, dedicated husband and father had peacefully passed away. Professor Nobe was 93 years old. Soon afterwards, I was honored to be an invited speaker at the 2019 UCLA Founders Lecture in Chemical Engineering honoring the life and legacy of Ken Nobe. My talk titled, “Saturdays with Ken Nobe: Lessons in Electrochemical Engineering, Learning, and Life”, was a montage of historical remembrances mixed with subtle mentoring guidance for the predominantly graduate student audience.

I met Dr. Nobe in late 1989 as I was planning to transfer from Princeton University to continue my PhD research at a university closer to my LA-based family. Ken was enthusiastic about pursuing mutual R&D interests in electrochemical energy storage and conversion devices, sharing common university life experiences, and reminiscing about the glory days of John Wooden and UCLA basketball. Unbeknownst to me, Ken was already shaping my future by sharing his own challenges as a graduate student and university professor. Along with his signature course on principles of electrochemistry, Ken took great pride in teaching and mentoring in various settings.

Over the past 20 years, the renewed emphasis on mentoring styles for today’s entry-level professionals pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) is taking a fresh look at traditional approaches to developing the mentor-mentee relationship. Not to be confused with teaching, mentoring is traditionally understood to be a less formal means for the mentor to share and convey professional and personal experiences relevant to the needs of the mentee. A 2019 National Academy of Sciences report titled, “The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM”, discusses the differences and synergies between formal and informal mentoring relationships. The report characterizes formal mentorship as “a relationship in which a designated mentor and mentee are assigned to one another as part of an organizationally supported program”, while informal mentorship “develops spontaneously based on mutual interest and interpersonal comfort”.

Informal mentoring can emanate from many different sources. Colleagues with mutual interests often times serve as convenient mentors, however seeking out professionals outside of your own work group or with different career objectives may be advantageous to diversifying one’s professional and personal development. Here are some more ideas to ponder when considering a mentor-mentee relationship:

More is Better – A single mentor might not have the entire set of knowledge, skills, abilities, connections, or experiences needed by the mentee. Seek out multiple mentors who can fill gaps that may arise during your mentoring experience. More importantly, be prepared to change mentors once they have outlasted their value.

Virtual Mentoring – Consider engaging in qualified social network mentoring resources when mentors within your profession are unavailable in your local geographical area. Although qualified E-mentoring resources are becoming more available, avoid substituting on-line mentoring for more effective face-to-face in-person mentoring relationships.

Tough Love Revisited – High expectations should not be misinterpreted. It’s not uncommon for blunt conversations, along with a few tough questions, to be of great value when building a mentor-mentee relationship. Remember that mentors are for guidance, not validation. Seek out mentors who can objectively provide needed coaching and advice without any conflicts of interest.

Elevator Mentoring – Some of the most valuable (and memorable) mentoring experiences are unexpected and brief. Be open to the occasional brief mentoring encounters during a staff meeting, a conference coffee break, or even during an elevator ride. These mentoring opportunities tend to be more honest and succinct relative to the more traditional long-term mentoring relationships.

From time to time, I am reminded of all my unintentional mentors and the impact they had on my career. Unintentional or not, Dr. Nobe’s mentoring helped me through a number of significant decision points in my professional career and personal life. Thank you, Dr. Nobe.

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