By Mason Braasch
Community is an important aspect of any Department, especially in an age of virtual interactions. Recently, the Department of Chemistry took strides to strengthen mentorship relationships, engage in conversations, and initiate peer learning with a new mentor training program.
Using a model by the Center for Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER), members of the UW–Madison chemistry community constructed a program in which core faculty members of the Department engaged in case studies, breakout group discussions, and even homework that explored peer learning and mentor training.
Dr. Cheri Barta, one of the facilitators, explained that the ultimate goal of the program was to “generate awareness about mentoring, to talk about the best practices that could be implemented, and to create a support network for mentoring so faculty could rely on each other.”
The program aims to develop deeper and more meaningful mentorship relationships and to teach ways to utilize these relationships in order to benefit the Department and mentees.
“I hoped we would normalize our discussions among faculty, staff and students about how to be better mentors and integrate that into how to be better scientists and engineers” said Prof. AJ Boydston, the co-chair for Climate, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion steering committee who helped to facilitate the new program.
Department alumna, Dr. Ann M. Caviani Pease, who donated funds to develop the program, said she was inspired by conversations about scientific, evidence-based approaches to improve the Department and by preparation done by former Department Chair Judith N. Burstyn to ensure the program’s effectiveness.
“I was certain Judith had really accessed and spoken with enough individuals, whose focus was diversity, equity, inclusion and improving circumstances, and they were skilled in what needed to be done,” Pease said, “I had full faith that Judith would put the money to good use.”
The first session took place in October 2020 as a virtual event. Facilitators and faculty who participated were satisfied with the session and excited for the im- pact it will have on the Department.
“I was really happy to see that many of the participants said that there were actionable items coming out of the workshop, whether that was changing existing policies in the group or creating value statements,” Boydston said. “Having more discussions with faculty and collaborators about mentoring students and postdocs equips them with the ability to take action almost immediately.”
The sessions helped faculty creatively approach peer relationships, and have opened the door to opportunities to develop deeper and more meaningful connections. In Organic Path meetings, for example, attendees have a “mentoring moment” at the beginning of meetings, in which they discuss a mentoring or science issue.
“It’s been really great to see that those conversations have been initiated, where we weren’t seeing conversations about mentoring before the program,” Barta said. “It has been nice to see the faculty come together, share their experiences and think more deeply about mentorship.”
Going forward, facilitators say that they hope that the sessions will continue to foster meaningful conversations, as well as dive into other topics of interest. Dr. Cara Jenkins, who worked alongside Boydston and Barta on the program, says that she hopes to include members from other departments in the future. Additionally, Barta said that including more conversations about diversity and inclusion are on the list of additions for upcoming sessions.
In order to sustain the conversations and impacts of the program, Boydston, Barta and Jenkins, along with Dr. An- drew Greenburg, another facilitator of the program, have been holding office hours where faculty can drop in with questions or challenges.
“We want to find the healthiest, most supportive way to help everybody im- prove,” Boydston said.
As the sessions continue to evolve, the focus on connections, mentorship, and peer learning will continue.
“I just think it’s a really great program, and I think that it has the potential to really make a difference in the quality of mentorship at the University as a whole,” Jenkins said. “I hope that all the faculty members in all the Departments take the opportunity to do this training.”