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Association of American Medical Colleges Tomorrow's Doctors, Tomorrow's Cures®

Mentoring Programs Help Diverse Researchers Thrive

AAMC Reporter July 2013

—By Sarah Mann

For Mona Fouad, M.D., M.P.H., mentoring is not just a nice addition for postdoctoral students or junior faculty. For those who are launching their careers in biomedical research, mentoring is essential, according to Fouad.

“In any profession, people look at role models and try to learn from experiences of more seasoned and more experienced individuals ahead of them. I believe that mentoring is the most important thing in building good, sound future researchers,” said Fouad, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine (UAB) and director of UAB’s Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center. “Research is a thinking process. You need somebody to think with you and guide you [to help you determine] where the thinking needs to go.”

When Camille Quinn, M.A., began working on her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work, she discovered that she needed structured support. Quinn found a mentor with expertise in her area of focus through the Virtual Mentoring Network to Enhance Diversity of the Mental Health Research Workforce, or VMED, a program that links senior graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and junior faculty from diverse backgrounds with mentors in a virtual environment.

“VMED offered a structured opportunity that I didn’t have, but it also provided [the opportunity] to develop a network of support with peers and colleagues, senior scholars, and then an individual aside from my dissertation chair,” Quinn said.

The two-year program, scheduled to end in August, is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health as part of an effort to increase the diversity of researchers focused on suicide and mental illnesses through mentoring and career development resources.

Mentoring programs like VMED might become more common through a $500 million, 10-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative that will increase access to mentoring and other resources for minority scientists. Announced in late 2012, the initiative is part of a wider NIH effort to increase the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. The NIH began looking into ways to increase the number of minority scientists who pursue research careers after a 2011 Science article reported that black researchers were 10 percent less likely than their white counterparts to receive NIH funding.

While there are mentoring programs for researchers, they vary among institutions. In addition, data is sparse on what is effective when it comes to mentoring, especially for young researchers from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds. According to Vivian Lewis, M.D., vice provost for faculty development and diversity and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, the NIH will help determine what kinds of mentoring innovations will be effective in encouraging minority scientists to pursue research and helping them succeed.

“I think the NIH can help support the evolution of these kinds of interventions, both by supporting funding to compare best practices and to find what the best practices are,” Lewis said. “I think we’re really at a pivotal place. There are plenty of [mentoring] innovations in the making, but I think they need support if they’re going to take hold.”

The NIH initiative will establish a National Research Mentoring Network to connect students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty with experienced mentors; develop standards of good mentorship in biomedical research; and provide workshops and training opportunities. In addition, NIH will launch Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD), which will provide scholarships and research experiences for undergraduate students. BUILD will encourage students who normally would not have access to research opportunities pursue science by targeting students at institutions that receive less than $7.5 million per year in NIH funding and have a significant number of students on need-based federal aid.

“People from diverse backgrounds often tend to be in places that aren’t the top research institutions. It perpetuates the problem,” said Yeates Conwell, M.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and VMED co-principal investigator. “We’re going to have to reach out to the institutions where these diverse scholars are trying to build their careers and broaden the network of collaborators to include them.”

Structured support

When Conwell began working on VMED, he and his co-principal investigator, Joseph Perpich, M.D., Ph.D., principal and senior medical adviser at the consulting firm JBS International, set out to engage 10 scholars from diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds with mentors. The goal was to help the scholars begin a trajectory that would help them launch careers in suicide research. Conwell and Perpich chose suicide research in part because they thought the topic would draw scholars from diverse backgrounds.

“Suicide is a pretty compelling problem,” Conwell said. “In order to attract and engage these folks from diverse backgrounds, it’s often helpful to have something that speaks to the contributions that they can make coming from a unique perspective. It’s a win-win if that perspective contributes to an understanding of and development of innovative approaches to prevent suicide in diverse populations.”

Of the 10 mentees, one is a physician, six have doctoral degrees, and the remaining three are in the final stages of their doctoral programs. Conwell matched the 10 scholars with mentors who had experience in suicide research. Over the two-year period, the mentees also had access to Webinars on academic career development and topics related to suicide and suicide prevention. In addition, all scholars worked with their assigned mentors to develop a five-year academic plan centered on skill and knowledge development needs. For Quinn, the program was “awesome” as she worked through her doctoral studies.

According to Quinn, VMED offered a “unique opportunity to learn about the growth trajectory of academicians.”

At UAB’s Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC), Fouad has focused on mentoring students from diverse backgrounds since 2002. Like the new NIH plan, MHRC begins working with budding scientists early in their careers—as undergraduates, helping them prepare for graduate school. MHRC also offers mentoring and specialized programs for graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty. Regardless of where researchers are in their careers, mentoring is critical, according to Fouad.

“Mentoring is like transferring expertise from one generation to the next. It’s very important in research. It becomes a partnership, and your mentor can be an adviser to you for the rest of your life,” Fouad said.

Graduate students in MHRC’s program work one on one with a mentor on a research project and receive specialized experiences targeted toward their interests. Students interested in cancer research, for example, have didactic classes that address the continuum of cancer research—biology, epidemiology, community, and behavior. They also participate in a half-day workshop in bioethics at the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care. In addition, students spend a day at the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine, where they learn how to use large, national data sets to develop new research ideas.

MHRC focuses on helping junior faculty become independent researchers by working on a career road map. Mentors and mentees sign a contract that spells out the expectations for each party in terms of regular meetings and the role of both mentor and mentee in developing research projects and publishing. To help mentees learn to write successful grants, all MHRC mentors and mentees attend a retreat where they work on their grant proposal outlines and collect feedback from one another.

Challenges for mentors

While Fouad certainly is excited about the benefits of mentoring, it can be challenging to create and sustain a good mentor-mentee relationship.

For one, senior faculty already are stretched thin with their own research and often do not have time to mentor junior faculty. When a mentee comes from a different background and is unfamiliar with the resources, it can be hard to adjust to a new culture at a large research institution. It also can be difficult for a mentor to help mentees make that adjustment.

“Mentors need to be trained, especially when they start working with diverse junior faculty and graduate students who are not coming from their own institution,” Fouad said.

Another challenge is a lack of evidence-based research on successful mentoring programs, according to Lewis. At Rochester, Lewis is working on an NIH-funded study to evaluate different mentoring interventions that promote resiliency and longevity for graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty. In one group, mentors receive education on how to be a good mentor, in the second group mentees participate in a peer mentoring group, and the third group receives both interventions. A fourth group does not receive any intervention.

According to Lewis, mentoring is not necessarily one-size-fits-all. Support for mentoring varies across institutions and departments, and graduate students or new faculty who happen to be at an institution without a formal mentoring program are often left to figure things out on their own. But that is exactly what Lewis and other mentors hope to avoid by increasing access to resources and by determining what types of mentoring are effective.

“I think mentoring is a little bit like apple pie,” Lewis said. “Nobody is going to say that it’s bad. But say I think I’m a great mentor, and nobody has told me anything to the contrary. Or what if I think I’m not such a great mentor, so I’m not even going to try [mentoring]? Where is the support to help me get better?”

July 2013 Home


Brian Sims, M.D., Ph.D., and Deborah Craddock

Brian Sims, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and neonatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine, with mentee Deborah Craddock, a senior at UAB. Photo: UAB MHRC


“In any profession, people look at role models and try to learn from experience of more seasoned and more experienced individuals ahead of them. I believe that mentoring is the most important thing in building good, sound future researchers.”

—Mona Fouad, M.D.