CIMER to Provide Mentoring Expertise in National STEM Diversity Campaign

January 18, 2019   |   By Karen Rivedal

CIMER Director Christine Pfund explains key principles in research-based mentoring to training conference participants in July.

CIMER Director Christine Pfund explains key principles in research-based mentoring to training conference participants in July.

When the National Science Foundation awarded $57 million to five NSF INCLUDES Alliances—broad initiatives designed to instill inclusive teaching practices in STEM higher education across the country – and to a coordinating group for the effort in September, it was a major success for UW−Madison researchers at WCER’s Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) to be selected by the NSF to co-lead one of the winning awards.

But it was only half of the good news.

Another Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) project, known as CIMER, the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research, will provide expertise in research mentoring to the CIRTL co-led ASPIRE Alliance, awarded $10 million, and to a second $10 million NSF INCLUDES Alliance, known as IGEN, the Inclusive Graduate Education Network, which is spearheaded by five leading scientific societies.

By participating in both projects, CIMER is contributing to 40 percent of the NSF INCLUDES Alliances and their winning campaigns to scale up successful regional efforts to help diversify the STEM workforce nationally.

CIMER, formed in 2015, is dedicated to improving research-focused mentoring relationships at all career stages in higher education. Research has shown that mentoring improves a mentee’s career satisfaction, productivity and career progression. Improving mentoring relationships is especially important because it works as a tool to broaden STEM participation, experts say.

“The NSF INCLUDES Alliances are designed to bring people together who have been advancing this work regionally to find synergies and efficiencies and be able to move things at a national level,” CIMER Director Christine Pfund says. “The Alliances are taking many approaches and looking at many factors that influence student persistence in STEM education, of which mentoring is one.”

It’s not surprising that more effective mentoring – organized around evidence-based best practices rather than just the usual trial and error or peer observation – is a critical component of this diversity work.

“The whole scientific training enterprise is largely based on an apprenticeship model,” notes Pfund, who holds a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology and current joint appointments with WCER, which is part of the School of Education, and UW−Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health. “A huge body of literature validates the importance of mentoring and mentored research experiences, and a growing body of literature demonstrates that access to quality mentoring is not equal across demographic groups.”

The realization that mentoring is both imperative and inequitable also has been growing across government and academia, Pfund says, noting January is National Mentoring Month. Pfund believes the best proof of mentoring’s increased visibility and importance in STEM is that the National Academy of Sciences in April launched a consensus study on the science of effective mentorship, through a national ad hoc committee led by CIMER investigator and professor of medicine Angela Byars-Winston. Pfund also is a committee member.

“The interest from the National Academy of Sciences, more than anything, highlights the interest in mentoring,” Pfund says, “and the acknowledgement of its importance and the need to know more about what works for whom.”

Urgency about quality mentoring received a scholarly boost in 2011, when a University of Kansas economics professor, Donna Ginther, completed a study showing that even with all other factors held constant, African-American researchers with doctorates were 10 times less likely to get prestigious grants from the National Institutes of Health than their white counterparts.

“If you really want to diversify the scientific workforce, and you know that mentoring is critical to persistence and that there’s a disparity in access and quality, then it becomes a very important point for intervention,” Pfund says. “That’s really the nature of the work.”

In training sessions for both NSF INCLUDES Alliance projects, CIMER facilitators will cover key points known to enhance research mentoring relationships including aligning expectations, fostering independence of mentees and addressing equity and inclusion. For the CIRTL co-led project, CIMER also will use common assessment tools for mentoring relationships featured in a newly built CIMER assessment platform.

Training will be built around a signature mentoring curriculum called Entering Mentoring, first developed in 2005 by Pfund and UW-Madison scientist Jo Handelsman, now director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, to help graduate and postdoctoral mentors work with undergraduate researchers in biology. Since then it’s been adapted to all STEM disciplines

The curricula – available for free online – already have been disseminated nationally, with some 700 people from more than 150 institutions empowered to implement the training locally. “We’ve had it out in the field for a long time,” Pfund says. “We’ve studied it at length, we’ve done a randomized controlled trial.”

Similarly, CIMER facilitators will lead interactive ‘Train the Trainer’ workshops for small groups of project members to enable them to increase capacity of their own institutions and organizations to implement evidence-based mentor training. The first workshop will be held at the University of Georgia in the spring. The success of this approach is detailed in a January 2017 paper published in Cell Biology Education- Life Sciences Education.

For IGEN, CIMER will develop, test and deliver a new adaptation of the curriculum for mentors of post-doctoral scholars. Many graduate students in the physical sciences do their post-doc training in a national lab, but the context poses some unique challenges because the mentoring relationship in these labs differs from that of academia. Melissa McDaniels, a CIMER investigator and senior advisor to the dean for research mentoring for the Graduate School & Postdoctoral Office at Michigan State University, will lead that part of the work.

“We’re going to apply it in a whole different context,” Pfund says. “It’s a different culture.”

She would like to see the mentoring curriculum more widely used here at UW-Madison, too.

“We, the folks who are advancing the practice and science of mentoring at Wisconsin, really look forward to continued opportunities to bring those lessons to campus,” Pfund says. “I think that we have not, as a campus, completely capitalized on what we’re doing nationally. Part of this is due to limited resources. UW-Madison programs such as WISCIENCE, the Delta Program and the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research are leading mentor and mentee training on campus and there are wonderful opportunities to advance these efforts.”