Mentoring undergraduates – parenting, herding cats or just let them go?

By Joseph Provost

Students from five different research labs and universities celebrating a great meeting with fun times and great food.

For the past 20 years, I have been blessed to partner with Mark Wallert, Ph.D., in bringing a group of undergraduates to the ASBMB annual meeting. Sometimes it has been two or three, but other times it’s been eight or 10 students. My philosophy has always been to shepherd them through, acting half as a mentor and half as a parent/coach. While it is important for them to have fun, the meeting can be overwhelming to students, causing them to sometimes become tourists instead of attendants. I think it is important to remember these are newly-minted adults being immersed in an intense but welcoming pool of scientists. I also want to help the students get the most out of the meeting, as this is the first chance they get to see world-class scientists and cutting-edge research.

Well before the trip, we meet with the students going to the annual meeting. At this pre-trip meeting, we talk about logistics such as airport travel and parking, reimbursement and other things such as saving receipts. This is an expensive meeting, so we discuss how to find financial support, including through ASBMB travel awards and university travel grants and support. We even explain how to budget for food and fun. For example, in San Diego, there is a grocery store (Ralphs) three blocks from the convention center with a great deli that saves the students a ton of money.

I also go over the general flow of the meeting, including the difference between talks and poster sessions, the cool specialty workshops and career-development opportunities. We discuss the expectations for the undergraduate poster competition and share the rubric the judges will use when they visit them at the poster. We also remind the students that they will present a second time in the main meeting with graduate students, postdocs and faculty members. We encourage them to practice their poster presentations BEFORE leaving campus! Because there are so few undergraduates at the meeting, we go over how to introduce themselves.  “Hello, I am an undergraduate junior at (name of school).” I have had many students receive postdoc offers before the interested faculty members find out the person isn’t a graduate student. I communicate my expectation that students remain engaged by spending each day visiting posters and talks about topics of which they’ve never heard. We also talk about vendors, including what is appropriate to do as they fill up their bags of fun stuff. In addition, we usually plan to take half a day off and tour the town. Bonding time! My 2010 ASBMB Today article addresses how to get the most out of an annual meeting.

Preparing for the meeting.

We try to arrive the day before the Undergraduate Poster Competition to allow students time to explore. That night, we all meet in one of the hotel rooms and practice poster presentations several times. It is fun but a little stressful; however, the students appreciate the attention and help preparing for the next day’s presentations.

During the meeting, we meet with students first thing to go over talks and posters of interest that day. I usually recommend visiting two or three talks as well as a couple of posters. The students are usually glad they have already planned their day’s activities. I also remind them to learn at least one new thing about science each day. They can go to any talk, ASBMB-sponsored or not.

Provost and Wallert research groups ready for action at the 2015 ASBMB Annual Meeting.

 

We also meet before lunch, if there isn’t a competing talk or presentation, to discuss lunch options and set a time to meet at the hotel at the end of the day. Sometimes, we all have supper together, and if possible, we invite other scientists and laboratory alumni to visit with our students. One last thing that I try to emphasize with our students each year is drinking. In addition to reminding them of the law, I tell them that while they may be a long way from home, they can still get into trouble that will haunt them for years. I give them my cell number and tell them to call before they get in trouble.

By the end of the trip, we are all tired and a little burned out. While ready to get back to school and tackle finals, we have one last review of the meeting, talk about the good and the not-so-good.  We remind students there is a hard deadline to receive reimbursement and tell them again how to fill out the paperwork.

The big presentation.

It takes more energy to do this kind of “mentoring” of the students, but it is worth it. We sometimes find a student resists. They don’t want to be at the meeting; this science isn’t their cup of tea. I’ve come to recognize that is okay and let it go. Setting expectations ahead of time helps this, but more importantly, focusing on all of the really amazing experiences we all get is worth the energy spent.

 

 

 

 

Joseph Provost is a professor and an associate chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of San Diego.

 

 

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