Online mentoring fills a gap for young researchers

Study finds that virtual programmes offer a useful pathway for careers in science.

14 September 2021

Clare Watson

David Fields, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Manasi Desai (left, College of Wooster) and Charis Li (right, Colby College) collect water in the Gulf of Maine to analyse for bacteria, viruses, chlorophyll and eDNA as part of an undergraduate research experience hosted by the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, Maine.

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended research and forced lab groups online in 2020, summer research-internship opportunities evaporated for many US undergraduate students.

But according to a study undergoing peer review with Life Sciences Education, many internship administrators who switched to virtual programmes succeeded in providing quality mentorship and a sense of community for undergraduates who are conducting research remotely.

The authors concluded that with the right structure, technological support and inclusive mentorship, virtual research programmes could provide an effective pathway to research careers for students who might otherwise be marginalized in settings such as labs or fieldwork.

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Valerie Sloan

Student outcomes in 2020 were on par with previous years, despite pandemic disruptions, says Erin Dolan, a biochemist at the University of Georgia, who led the study. Biology students gained confidence in their ability to do research, and said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science and felt supported to do so.

“The students were super grateful for the virtual experience,” says Valerie Sloan, an education and outreach specialist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, who coordinates internships for geoscience students, but was not involved in the study.

Opportunity to develop new skillsets

Student internships in the US, similar to final-year research projects in other countries, are a gateway into graduate research careers. They are designed to equip students with skills needed in the workplace, and nurture their interest in science.

Programmes funded by the US National Science Foundation are paid internships that pair students with mentors at natural-history museums, field stations, universities and research labs for projects lasting eight to 10 weeks. Their goal is to increase the diversity of the research workforce, such as by engaging students from smaller colleges who have fewer research opportunities.

The Life Sciences Education study surveyed 243 students as part of its evaluation of 23 remote biology programmes funded by the NSF, and offered online in 2020.

Instead of lab work, some of the programmes that were offered to biology undergraduates included computational projects that were heavy on data analysis, while others focused on professional development and networking opportunities via informal sessions with faculty members and student alumni.

In the geosciences, mentors created virtual field experiences for Earth sciences students by having them use mapping tools, collect samples from their local area, and analyse satellite images and other observational datasets.

“We realised that it doesn’t always have to look the same,” says Rebecca Batchelor, an atmospheric scientist and educator at the University of Colorado Boulder.

alt As part of the 2019 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Oceanography programme at the University of Rhode Island, Kamal James, a student majoring in Earth sciences at Lehman College, deciphered tectonic profiles along fault systems in earthquake-prone Haiti. Credit: Lucie Maranda

Batchelor says online programming opens new doors for students who may have family obligations, work commitments or disabilities that typically preclude them from travelling to a research site or participating in fieldwork.

But Batchelor cautions that programme administrators need to be prepared for technological challenges. “Not everywhere has internet access with the same reliability and some student laptops may not handle intensive data analyses with huge data files,” she says.

Batchelor bought equipment to loan to students, such as laptops and internet hotspots, using funds originally allocated to travel. She also advises administrators to be deliberate in how they support students from marginalised backgrounds or regional areas – the very students that many of these programmes aim to reach.

Sloan adds that students working from home regardless of background might be compelled to maintain family responsibilities, such as part-time jobs or childcare, and programmes need to recognise that.

Social support networks

“There is a lot of potential in pursuing this as a programming option that allows students to participate in research who might not otherwise be able to,” says Dolan.

To make sure students are set up to succeed, Dolan says researchers could develop an onboarding process that asks them what equipment and support they will need to work at home, and walks through access to databases and software.

alt Participating in the IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) undergraduate internship programme, students Theresa Sawi (back left), Brittany Washington (back right) and Alexis Klimasewski (front) learn how to install a broadband seismometer at a site near Socorro, New Mexico, to better understand where the data they will work with comes from. Credit: Brady Flinchum

University of Pittsburgh computational-biology student, Rebekah Jenkins, says that, most of all, students who are new to research crave mentorship and regular contact with their peers. “Sometimes you’re in over your head,” and being able to ask a quick question makes all the difference, Jenkins says.

In some programmes, ‘drop-in’ video calls were set up to mimic open office hours, enabling students to seek clarification on research tasks as needed, Sloan says. Other programmes created informal workspaces in group-messaging platforms, which helped students to socialise and support each other while they worked.

Inclusive mentoring matters

According to the study, some students reported feeling disconnected, isolated or unsupported in their internships. Student experiences might depend more on the mentor than the programme itself, Dolan suggests.

Ana Kilgore, a Latina ecology student, says she felt supported in her remote internship programme, where most students and mentors identified as people of colour. “That was a first for me,” says Kilgore, who graduated in May from Colorado College and is continuing her research at the University of Puerto Rico. But she noted that such diversity is uncommon in the research workforce more generally.

Early data from the NSF programme coordinators indicates that while the combination of virtual, in-person and hybrid programmes is reaching more geoscience undergraduates, with participation in 2021 up 40 percent on last year, the proportion of students from minority groups has dropped.

Dolan says students need to be able to feel safe and thrive in programmes regardless of their personal identities or situations, but the burden for creating an inclusive research culture should not fall on people of colour or marginalised groups. She notes that these challenges are not unique to a remote environment.

Training for research supervisors on inclusive mentorship that includes strategies on how to mentor at a distance would also help, Dolan says.

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