Conference coverage: Mentoring session

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Ask, and you shall receive a mentor

By Emily Litvack

I settle into my seat in a lecture hall at MIT’s George Eastman Research Laboratories, take nervous sips from a styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee, and wonder what mentorship has to with gender inequity. As I scan the room, I see the faces of science writers whose careers I’ve admired and followed for years.Who am I to be spending a weekend with the likes of Maryn McKenna and Deborah Blum?

I’m a 20-something undergraduate in microbiology and journalism at Northern Arizona University. And while the Intro to Journalism class I took freshman year did feature an entire unit on Twitter usage, until this weekend, I mostly tweeted about the merits of brunch and bad ecology puns. I feel really, extraordinarily silly sitting in a room full of people who get paid to write about science and who effectively know how to use #SciWriSum14.

I turned to one of my new friends and said, “Being around all these people makes me feel pretty inadequate.”

With a laugh she replied, “Prepare to feel that way for the rest of your career.”

When panelist Apoorva Mandavilli, executive editor of SFARI, says “Anybody here who has any success has been helped,” it hits me.

This is why we’re talking about mentorship at the Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit. If I stand any real chance at success in science writing, I have to ask for mentorship, and then I have to receive it.

Panelists Mandavilli, Slate Science and Health Editor Laura Helmuth, and Science Writer Gwen “Bug Girl” Pearson convinced me that addressing gender inequity in this field is equal parts an individual and collective effort.

Each agreed that women often feel that by asking for mentoring, they are being a bother.

“You are not bothering anybody,” says Mandavilli, “You should not be afraid to ask.”

Shara Yurkiewicz, recent graduate of Harvard Medical School and writer at MedPage Today, says, “I feel as though I am already fairly aggressive in contacting people to ask questions. It was nice to hear all three of the panelists not only validate that this was okay, but encourage it.”

Alright, I thought. Easy enough. I’ll ask for help, but am I going to get it?

Helmuth, in arguably one of the most unforgettable moments of the Sci Wri Sum, referenced a study wherein researchers found that more than 6,500 professors at 259 American universities were less likely to mentor female and minority students. Mock email requests for mentorship were sent using female names, like Meredith Roberts, ethnic names like Deepak Patel, and a white guy name: Brad Anderson. Brad Anderson received the most responses.

“Everybody loves Brad Fucking Anderson,” says Helmuth. She adds, “The Brad Andersons of the world feel entitled to seek out mentors” and that women and minorities should, too. Brad Anderson wonderfully illustrates the duality of the problem. That is, we female and minority mentees need to feel entitled to ask, and our prospective mentors need to respond.

If the panelists’ first point of discussion was the ask-receive dynamic of mentorship, the second was probably that after receiving a mentor, I have to cultivate that relationship somehow, but they and attendees had a range of approaches to this.

Bug Girl and Helmuth agreed that good mentors are cognizant of the power differential. Bug Girl, reflecting on past mentors, says, “They always believed in me. They always told me ‘You can do this.’ They didn’t try to make me a mini-me; they gave me the space to make my own decisions.”

Helmuth warns against being “overbearing,” noting that mentors should listen and “shoot darts of praise” to mentees.

Hilda Bastian, scientist at the National Institutes of Health and Scientific American blogger, “[…]thought the panel was really good for somebody just starting out and learning the ropes, but there were a lot of blanket statements I don’t necessarily agree with.” She asks, “How do you really change the culture of a profession? This [mentoring] is what people are doing now, and it isn’t solving the problem; it only maintains the status quo.”

Bastian feels sending emails to and going for the occasional coffee with a “fairy godmother” listener-figure isn’t enough to bring women and minorities to the top of the field: “If someone is going to put in extra effort for you, your work has to really stand out,” she says, “And for people who are not Brad Anderson, people who face real obstacles, you need more than a person who just listens and encourages you. They have to be critical, and invested in you.”

By the end of the panel, I realized that there may not be a single, definitive answer to the question “How do I become editor-in-chief of Science by working on mentorships?” (Darn). But, I did send an email to a past environmental journalism professor of mine and asked him for advice on how to write about a mentoring panel. He replied. Ask, and you shall receive a mentor.