My Deep Personal Ambivalence of the Power of Mentorship in STEM Fields

In the business of science, I would be willing to say that mentorship matters more than discovery, drive, ambition, good luck, funding or anything else. This type of power, is both a good and a bad thing. As with all types of power, when it is wielded thoughtfully and effectively it can make a career. But… wielded imprecisely, sloppily, or with indifference and a career can easily be broken.

I have spoken publicly before about how mentorship has had a powerful and positive role in my STEM career. It was a math teacher who changed the course of my life! You can read more about that here- in Science magazine no less!!! By the way, please share my Science Career story if you believe in the power of mentorship in STEM fields, it can be DRAINING for people to give their time and energy to young scientists, and my story may inspire someone to do so!

It is well known in the field that high powered, Nobel/Lasker-level male faculty train far fewer female graduate students and hire far fewer postdocs. Overall at the top US research institutions, male professors employ 11% fewer female graduate students and 22% fewer female postdoctoral researchers than do women professors. In one example, the labs of male scientists funded by (the very prestigious) Howard Hughes Medical Institute, only 31 percent of post doctoral researchers were women, compared with 48 percent in the labs of female Hughes-funded researchers.

What this means is that when women publish their scientific “pedigree” is typically not as competitive as their male counterparts, they leave their post docs less prepared to be granted tenure track positions, or get grant funding of their own.

The field is even stacked against women who do get coveted startup packages. One study demonstrates the stark gender gap at Boston’s big biomedical research institutions — where young male scientists receive more than twice (nearly three times) as much funding to support their work as their female colleagues.

In my own experience, while MANY people have encouraged me (which is great!) I have found, that encouragement does not necessarily translate into the type of “real” career results that one would think should come easily and incrementally from having rigorously trained in a Ph.D. and postdoc program. Prodigious publishing was something I had control over, and that’s why it happened, but that’s not enough, despite the “publish or perish” mentality. One must be from a great lab, have an amazing scientific pedigree, have a post-doc PI that encourages you to apply for your own funding, and is willing to give up a piece of their own research pie to you. All in all, a TALL order. And sometimes, it’s not even enough.

For example, there is the story of Ethan O. Perlstein, fellow indie science champion. Ethan ran a lab as a postdoc at Princeton where he got an independent research fellowship to work on validating a new evolutionary, yeast-based approach to studying how drugs work. When his fellowship ran out, he was “out on the street” as so many postdocs are today. Subsequently he applied unsuccessfully to over thirty universities for a faculty position.

Another famous tale of mentorship gone awry is that of Douglas Prasher, who famously cloned the gene for GFP then faded into obscurity to watch another man win the Nobel Prize for his discovery. Prasher’s journey from Woods Hole to Penney Toyota is a tale of individual and institutional failure.

Taken all together, I am, occasionally, personally, deeply ambivalent about science and encouraging girls to go into it. You can read more about some of the gender- specific incidents that have impacted me and what I did about it over at the wonderful blog, Catalyst.

There is some good news, the prevalence of “social media” seems to be helping a great deal in bringing these conversations to the fore. Wired Magazine says “A conversation about sexism in science broke open this year. Sharp organizing and social media are sparking real change. What was once whispered privately in laboratories and offices is being discussed publicly, loudly, and clearly.”

Usually I keep all these dark, dark thoughts to myself. I have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours “giving back” to the STEM education community and mentoring girls and women in STEM fields. Even when I don’t quite believe that I am doing any good, or that I will ever have the type of power to help these girls, and even when I think that “science” would be better off with them, they might be better off without “science”.

Shhhhh… Don’t tell anyone.

Founder | Scientist. Teacher. Author.

Founder | Scientist. Teacher. Author.