Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Lina's Story of Faculty Mentors

Science is empowering. Scientists are conduits of stories; researchers broadcast their messages by publishing their findings, use their creativity to design experiments, and depend heavily on collaboration. When scientists make a discovery, the newfound knowledge gained from their investigations is disseminated and consequently serves as a building block for and the discoveries of others. While the research environment can often feel competitive, this overarching structure and discipline assures that science is first and foremost a community effort to achieve the most advancement in this world.  

Principal investigators (PIs) who welcome students into their labs agree to take on the mammoth responsibility of providing formative experiences and teaching that are key in shaping undergraduates' perspectives on scientific careers and the value of research societally. While PIs seldom directly mentor undergraduate student researchers, they are responsible for assessing the interests, motivations, and existing skills of students upon an initial meeting and then matching them to an appropriate project and mentor. The involvement of the PI in their students' projects from there-on out differs based on labs and often correlates with the priorities of each faculty member and the size of their lab. As a part of my project, I wanted to understand whether the perspectives of faculty and student researchers aligned on several points including expectations, challenges, and takeaways. I believe that discrepancy in the viewpoints of students and their faculty mentors may be indicative of poor communication between the two parties and foundation for a potentially problematic relationship that is inherently intertwined with complex power dynamics.

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview ten PIs and one senior research fellow in fields spanning from Neuroscience to Engineering Sciences about their perspectives on undergraduate research as an opportunity and also through the lens of mentorship. The questions I asked them are listed below and I have included video snippets of my interviews with them highlighting the key takeaways from our conversations. 

1. How do you support the students in your lab and what mentorship practices do you encourage?

Dr. Vijay Sankaran - a physician-scientist at Boston Children's Hospital - speaks about the mentorship structures he has instituted in his lab:
Dr. Elena Rivas - senior research fellow in the MCB department - speaks about the importance of encouraging exploration, freedom, and flexibility:

2. What do you think students can do to better prepare for their lab placements? What are your expectations of them?

Dr. Amanda Whipple - a faculty member in the MCB department - provides details on the expectations she sets for her students researching in her lab:

(See below for Dr. Denic's video as well)

3. What are the biggest benefits of and motivations for a student to engage in a research experience?

Dr. Venkatesh Murthy - head of the MCB department - speaks about being accepting of the various motivations of student researchers and offers what he thinks are some of the biggest takeaways of a student research experience in a wet lab:
(See below for Dr. Denic's video as well)

4. What do you think are the biggest challenges students face in the lab setting? What are your biggest challenges as an undergraduate mentor?

Dr. Vlad Denic - a faculty member in the MCB department - discusses expectations for student interviewees, benefits of research, and the challenges:

Some PIs also mentioned the notion that mentor productivity declines with assignment of a mentee because time and resources are put into educated the undergrad. Time commitment and school-lab balance were universally identified by all candidates as the biggest challenges students face. 

6. Any suggestions for improvements in life sciences advising or mentorship practices for student researchers?

Trista North - a faculty member involved with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute - speaks on the benefits of a supportive lab community and discusses some strategy to increase community within the candidate pool itself:

(See above for Dr. Whipple's video as well)


This page has paths:

This page references: