Mentoring || Mentoring

Image credit: Takashi Hososhima (flickr)

(In collaboration with Nika Seblova)

I was standing in front of a roomful of high school students, a screenshot of a certain popular bird-slinging game on my slide. I had five minutes to convey my research and entice them to the Dark Side make them interested in my work and work with me for two weeks. My main pitch was that the certain popular bird-slinging game makes use of the laws of physics to model their fury-fuelled fowl projectile. My group deals with modelling of molecules, which are several order of magnitudes lower in size but Newton’s law of motion applies all the same. Five minutes was up, and then the next mentor went up. Ugh, I missed saying something on that previous point. Maybe that fowl joke was foul? What if no students found the project interesting? We would only find out the result in a few days.

I quickly scanned the room and fear flashed through my body. A room full of teenagers. High school was not my favourite time. Seconds later, with fearful flash-backs, I was walking to the front of the room in order to present my PhD project. Cell phones, students passing notes, disengagement was what I imagined seeing. As a consequence, fear was greeted by it´s best friend: self-doubt. Why would these teenagers want to work with me? I use no cool machines, I sit by my computer, I work alone most days. But apparently, Tone and Venus, the two students who came for a two-week mentorship with me, did not see my invisible friend (imposter syndrome) sitting on my shoulder like a parrot. To my own surprise I was their first choice!

We went out of the lecture hall, a few other mentors and I, while the students, the coordinators and their teacher figured out the student allocation based on their interest. “Wasn’t that unnerving?” I said to Nika. “I was kind of hoping that they would let us stay so that the students can talk to us to clarify or ask more questions.” “I hope I didn’t scare the students too much.” “I can’t remember how motivated I was when I was their age.” Such chatter came up with the other people, mostly PhD students and postdocs, who volunteered to take a pair of students each for two weeks in our own research groups.

Walking out and chatting away with the other mentors I realized I was not the only mentor who was nervous. I had to chuckle to myself! This is how it is to care; we do these projects because we want to share what we do everyday and of course we want others to like it and think it is important. I guess I have never realized that when I was on the other side as a student. And receiving an opportunity to be on the other side, having a summer internship as a 18-year-old in a Transcriptional Regulation Laboratory at the Academy of Science in the Czech Republic was why I was now volunteering two weeks of my PhD time to take part in this project. Giving back, paying it forward. Waking up from my inner thoughts, I blabbered “Why are you mentoring?” maybe a bit rudely, shifting the discussion topic.

I thought back to the previous few months when the programme coordinator sought for volunteers to host the students. I certainly enjoyed imparting knowledge to other people. When I was an undergraduate, I tutored a number of students, mostly Maths or Chemistry (or even English, my third language, interestingly). This time around though, the nature of the relationship is not tutor-student, but mentor-protégé, which to my mind involves more back and forth exchange and something more profound? In any case, it was only two weeks, so even if I failed miserably at it, hopefully not much damage would be done. Nika would tell you that she loves the idea of giving back, given that she got interested in research from a programme like this. I didn’t have such selfless thought when I volunteered, but maybe I unconsciously did. I think back to summers of my undergraduate years where I did my research internships — actually that was my first encounter with molecular modelling. I like the idea that I am paying back for that summer internship, and I am paying forward to nurture budding scientists (maybe).

One thing I realized was that while I wanted Tone and Venus to enjoy their two weeks with me and to learn, I had no expectation of them going into my field. Or into science for that matter. If these two weeks helped them to decide that is not what they want it was worth it too. I just wanted to show honestly what I do and the way I think about the issues at hand, and my everyday work. But there were also formal requirements for them; to prepare a poster and do a mini-project. Planning how to fit that into a two-week span was no easy task. So I found myself every evening sitting at my desk, rewriting my original schedule, adjusting to what happened during the day.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri
Morning Introduction:

Group, project, schedule, poster

3D visualisation 3D visualisation Setting up simulation Attend PhD defense
Afternoon Computer Setup

PDB website

3D visualisation 3D visualisation Setting up simulation Attend PhD defense
  Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri
Morning Analysing simulation Analysing simulation   Prepare poster Group meeting
Afternoon Analysing simulation Analysing simulation Prepare poster

(Yossa leaves around 1530)

Prepare poster

(Yossa has meeting 14-1530)

(Dismissed early, departmental lunch)

Yossa’s planned schedule. It didn’t go exactly like this, as expected, but it was a good tentative schedule.

So in a particular dark November Monday morning, J and C came to my lab. The preceding few days, I had devised and revised their schedule over and over: They can attend a labmate’s PhD defense here, they should attend our group meeting here, they can go home early here, . . . . I knew I had to play it by ear and adjust things on the fly, so I included some flexibility in the schedule and the project plan. One notable adjustment is when I got them to be familiar with biomolecular structures. At first, I let them explore and choose a molecule of their own interest to look at the structure in more details, but by chance I serendipitously found a great lesson in insulin structure, so I switched them immediately to do that. This tutorial is so well-designed that I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning about biomolecular structure.

Insulin 3D model and paper model. Image taken from the Protein Data Bank website (

During the two weeks, I dragged Tone and Venus to seminars, a PhD defense, they got to talk to my colleagues, read scientific articles, analyzed data, made a poster, presented it to my colleagues and got a mini-skeptic exercise in summarizing scientific evidence. I also tried to incorporate podcasts and diverse materials to make it more accessible and fun. While impromptu, I think the schedule was diverse and got across what I wanted. I hope they learned a lot. I was definitely challenged by planning it but also by my own ambition to run the entire mentorship in Swedish.


Nika’ students giving presentation

It was such an opportune time that my labmate happened to have his PhD defense when J and C were around. When I told a colleague that I planned to have J and C attend the PhD defense, she expressed some concerns. True, even I, familiar with the field, would still find the defense something heavy; what about high school students? I decided to let them make a choice, conveying the weight of it all, five or so years of blood, sweat and tears, condensed into a few hundred pages, to a half-day examination. J was unfazed. She came and survived.

What do you do when you have students of wildly varying motivations? One day when J and C’s teacher came to check on them I told him that I have a set of things that they can do in increasing difficulties, the pinnacle of which is to run a molecular dynamics simulation. It is fine if they don’t reach this point. This is Sweden right? The land of lagom, which is quite diametrically opposed to where I was educated, Singapore, the land of kiasu (kiasu roughly means afraid-to-lose-out competitive—the word has apparently entered the English language). So I thought I would see how much self-motivation they have, because this is what one has to have in Swedish academia: self-motivation. Your supervisor generally won’t chase after you. Do you know the nameless protagonist in Jorge Cham’s PHD Comics and his supervisor Prof. Smith? The Swedish supervisor is unlike Prof. Smith at all. I’d like to claim that I am self-motivated, but no, I procrastinate more than I should, and am still adapting to this self-motivation thing.

So, C managed to get to the molecular visualisation task that we typically give to undergraduates — that is no small achievement. J, with some difficulties, managed to reach the task with the  highest difficulty, simulation, although by her admission she did not understand much of what she did. I assured her that my initial experience was like that, too. Life, is like that too; sometimes you don’t understand what you are doing, right?

Suddenly it was the second of December, the last day of the mentorship project. The time just flew by me! While running during the last lunch break I was  reviewing the schedule in my mind! I was so impressed by how much we managed during such a short time! I wanted to let the students know how well they did! I was so proud! So I took an extra loop to get little Toblerone chocolate for each of them. And then I walked into my office and to my surprise my desk looked like this:


They also ran to a store during a lunch break to get me something. Only two weeks and we were a synchronized team!

Finally the last day came. The poster has been done the previous day. I reviewed it and gave it an okay. They just had to attend the group meeting. Since we had julbord to go to right after, I dismissed J and C early, wishing them luck for their future. The next time our paths cross, I hope they will have done great. This came sooner than I expected. Only ten minutes later, they came back to return their temporary access cards. And so it ended.

In retrospect, I learned a lot from this experience: to convey things clearly and plainly, to manage time, to supervise and discipline, to encourage. I’d like to think that J and C learned something, too. J was definitely the more motivated one and she actually managed to run a simple molecular dynamics simulation in the end! (It took me maybe a month when I was an undergraduate). To manage students with differing levels of passion and to reward the passion, this too was a lesson for me.

Overall these two weeks were hard work for me. Staying in late or coming in early to prepare for the schedule and materials for the day, and trying to progress on my own tasks. But it reminded me how much I love teaching, how important it is for me communicate science, and share what I do, I also got to reflect on the way I want to share: honestly, openly, supportively. For two weeks, memories of all the opportunities and wonderful mentors who have helped me to become who I am now kept resurfacing and with every new image, I felt more and more gratitude. I am thankful that due to this mentoring project I got a bit of a chance to practise what sort of a mentor I want to be and pay it forward. December, the month of giving was off to a good start! And I would definitely not hesitate to take part in similar project in a future!

P.S. Dear reader, hopefully you already realised that this post is a parallel interweave of narratives of mine and Nika’s. You can certainly read each on its own but we thought it would be interesting to present them this way. If you have experience in mentoring young students in research, please share it with us!

One thought on “Mentoring || Mentoring

  1. Reblogged this on Orange analyst and commented:

    The longer I do PhD, or sometimes more like crawl through, the more aware I am of the incredible people, who pick me up every time I slip and shove me forward on my crawl. This autumn I had a chance to be on the other side and mentor two high-school students. Read more about that experience, communicating science and watch a video from the two week project in a blog originally published at the Karolinska Institutet Researchers Blog.

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