Mentoring Women of Color in STEM: Your Dreams are Valid, and Mentors Should Help You Achieve Them
“She wants to be a reminder to students that their dreams are valid, and that no one, especially advisors, are allowed to invalidate those dreams.”
~ Melanie McReynolds, as told by Mallory Molina
By Mallory Molina
There is a saying that is passed around prospective and current graduate students: “Your relationship with your advisor is the most important part of the Ph.D. process.” While this seems somewhat obvious, there is much truth to it. The way a student is mentored greatly affects the success of the student, and this process is different from student to student. Melanie McReynolds has had experience in both mentoring and being mentored; this week, we’ll look at her experiences to find out why mentoring was so important to her success.
Making the dream work. Melanie McReynolds is a current Ph.D. student at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She will be graduating soon and has been given multiple job offers at St. Jude Children’s Research hospital after being selected to participate in the prestigious National Graduate Symposium that St. Jude holds annually. She has many impressive credentials and everything she has hoped for her career is beginning to come true. However, she would not have gotten here without the help of mentors along the way.
Her first interest in STEM began in high school, when she realized she was good at math and chemistry. Everyone in her family went to Alcorn State University (ASU), and she planned to continue that tradition. Before attending, she went through a coursebook from ASU, and realized that biochemistry really interested her.
When she attended ASU, she had the opportunity to do a summer research program at the University of Virginia (UVA). She was doing well in her classes and had a lot of confidence in her abilities. However, when she was thrown into the larger lab environment, she quickly got lost. She had to deal with many tough situations as she learned new protocol and adapted to the lab environment. It was in this lab that she received some of the most painful and important advice from her mentor: he told her that she was a good student, but would struggle in competing against students coming from larger institutions or Ivy League schools. This had nothing to do with her ability, but rather her exposure to the field.
Thriving in the tension. Melanie was initially upset, as most everyone else had been very supportive of her throughout the process, but she soon realized he was right. She needed more exposure to the lab environment if she wanted to be successful. When she came to this conclusion, her advisor gave her further advice to look for post-baccalaureate research experiences so she could become more competitive. This inspired Melanie to sign up for the ASU-PSU BRIDGES program, which meant she got her Master’s degree while transitioning from ASU to PSU. The program gave her the experience she needed to truly excel as a graduate student. While this mentoring experience may have been difficult to deal with at the time, it was the most important piece of advice she had ever received.
After she completed the ASU-PSU BRIDGES program, she began working with Dr. Wendy Hanna-Rose. She also continued working with Dr. Preston, the Senior Director of the Office of Graduate Educational Equity Programs at Penn State. Both of these women helped develop her in different ways. Dr. Preston mentored her professional development, while Dr. Hanna-Rose developed her as a scientist, and respected her personality and work style. These two women inspired her to work with younger students and help mentor them.
Paying it forward. Over her five years as a graduate student, she has mentored three PSU undergraduate students and two summer students. She swelled with pride as she mentioned that one of her students won the best thesis award. She loves seeing her students blossom and experience the excitement and passion for science grow as she works with them. One of the main goals in her life is to become a mentor for other students and give back what she received in her career. She wants to be a reminder to students that their dreams are valid, and that no one, especially advisors, are allowed to invalidate those dreams.
Mentoring is something that was not only important for Melanie McReynolds, but is important for all students. Students of color in particular can find trouble connecting with their advisor, or not getting the full support they need. One of the issues Melanie pointed out is that many advisors don’t see where the students are in their education, but instead expect a certain level of knowledge. This can leave students who haven’t received the necessary training to fall through the cracks. This isn’t something that should happen, and when it does, it can seem like an inescapable trap if your mentor does not give you the advice or support you need.
If you feel like your advisor does not support you, find someone else! Even if you are scared, remember that your working relationship with your advisor can completely change the direction of your career, so make it a positive one.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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