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Mentoring and Empowering Emerging Scientists Via Internships

Zahkura Eastman NCCU Undergraduate Student and RTI Intern
Michelle Lang RTI Senior Editor & Writer

The Power of Mentorship in Building a Stronger STEM Workforce

In recent years, emerging issues that affect human health and wellbeing have been brought to center stage. The COVID-19 pandemic, world hunger, climate change, global plastic pollution, and environmental contaminants like Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) are a threat to humans and the environments they live in. These issues often disproportionately affect minority communities that are also underrepresented in the scientific community, highlighting the growing need for a diverse and collaborative scientific workforce to address these complex and dynamic global problems.

RTI International is at the forefront of addressing emerging issues and STEM workforce development. RTI recognizes the need to hire and retain a diverse staff, who bring multiple perspectives and experiences. However, the current talent pool of STEM workers does not reflect the communities who are faced with the most challenges. For example, RTI headquarters is based in North Carolina where there is a Black population of 22.3%; however, the general Black STEM workforce is only 11%. There is also underrepresentation for women in North Carolina, where only 28% of STEM degrees were awarded to women.

Employers sometimes try to pin race- and gender-based hiring gaps on a lack of diverse applicants with relevant skills, but people interested in working in STEM have a different perspective. According to students and other prospective STEM workers, they steer away from the career field due to a lack of mentorship and experience. To address this, opportunities like internships with strong mentorship are critical. Mentorship can be defined as a relationship between two people where a mentor imparts their knowledge, experience, supervision, and support to a mentee. The definition for ‘good’ mentorship follows some general guidelines, and many people may contribute to the mentoring process, but ultimately the goals and the commitment to a mentoring relationship is defined by the mentee.

RTI International is working to increase the available pool of emerging scientists through partnering with North Carolina Central University (NCCU), an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) to mentor and train emerging scientists. The strategic partnership between RTI International and NCCU led to the creation of the NCCU-RTI Center for Applied Research in Environmental Sciences (CARES) program to support Environmental Justice concerns and research. One objective of the CARES program is to increase opportunities for students at NCCU to learn new laboratory techniques and engage in research at RTI.

Interview: Real Experiences of a Mentor and Mentee

Zahkura Eastman, a Biomedical Sciences undergraduate senior at NCCU, has been working at RTI since October 2022. She is being mentored by Dr. Imari Walker-Franklin, whose research focuses on understanding the impacts of microplastics to human health and the environment. Dr. Walker-Franklin joined RTI in January 2022 after finishing her PhD at Duke University and has previous experience mentoring students in research, including a role as an engineering mentor to Durham middle school kids. The following conversations between Imari and Zahkura highlight examples of what mentorship could look like and provide new ideas for building future mentorships.

What surprised you about working in a research environment?

Zahkura: This internship has changed how I view research in a very practical way. I can see just how much collaboration goes into a study and how this research can affect the present and the future. I understand that research starts as noticing a problem in some way, shape, or form and breaking it down to study it. The information that I have learned via scientific literature readings has allowed me to understand how to read graphs and results better and in a structured way. I also learned to pay attention to the structure of the literature papers and use that as an outline for the work, and future papers that I will contribute to. 

Imari and Zahkura in front of the computer (left photo) and in the laboratory prepping microplastic experiments (right photo). 

What have you learned about the mentoring relationship from this experience?

Zahkura: The mentorship I have received from Imari and others at RTI has been a very life-changing event. This internship made me feel as though I have found where I belong. Socially speaking, the people around me are very caring and open to all my questions. They always show understanding and support in the ideas that I have and take time out of their day to continue to support me. Since I’ve started my internship here, I’ve learned that to be a researcher you don’t have to know everything, and by just putting the information out there, it could spark a new study elsewhere. I’ve learned that making mistakes is a part of the process. I also learned that not understanding something isn’t a bad thing; it is worse not asking for help when you need it.

Imari: I have learned from mentoring Zahkura the importance of catering mentorship to the individual you work with. My ultimate goal in mentoring her is to coach Zahkura into finding her “why” in order to help her pursue those research interests. The process of working in a lab can be challenging in the need to do accurate and sometimes repetitive techniques that don’t always result in expected findings. But I have learned the value in teaching her perseverance, how to troubleshoot, and scientific integrity. This investment in her, and in any mentee, leads to the development of transferrable skills that can be applied to daily life and can inform their future work in STEM.

What are the broader impacts of mentorship in STEM?

Zahkura: This internship has showed me that I can do more with my degree than just go to medical school and that I don’t have to conform to a single career path. Being here has reignited my passion for learning and science once again, and in doing so, has pushed me towards getting my master’s and continuing the track of research. This internship has changed a lot on how I view research in a very practical way.

Imari: An internship in STEM provides hands on experience and knowledge and develops transferable skills for any current or future career, but it can also help develop confidence in a person’s skills. Mentoring Zahkura has been self-fulfilling in the fact that I never had a person that looked like me, a black woman, as a mentor or advisor during my STEM education. Thanks to the CARES programs providing internship opportunities, Zahkura has two women of color with PhDs teaching her analytical chemistry and toxicology skills as she participates in research to understand the impact of microplastics in the environment.  I believe that it has provided her an alternative view for her career in STEM. And at the end of the day, I hope she has a new sense of confidence in herself and her abilities to know that she is and has always been a scientist.

Zahkura (left), Imari (middle), and Leslimar Rios-Colon (right).

What can mentorship look like outside of a technical supervisor?

Imari: Commonly, mentors are understood to be advisors that supervise work being completed for a task. However, there are many versions of what a mentor can look like. One such example is the coach or trainer who teaches or improves a mentee’s skills in a particular area. An affirmer is a peer who provides emotional support and encouragement. Connection brokers help and teach a mentee to network with others inside or outside the organization. Benefactors are typically higher up the ladder organizationally and advocate for a mentee’s interests within the larger organization. The primary mentor coordinates or facilitates relationships to build this team of mentors.

What advice do you have for new mentees or mentors? 

Zahkura:  It’s okay if you feel like you don’t know everything to start with, the longer you work at it the easier it’ll be. Just be true to yourself.

Imari: Good personal relationships are important to mentorship and should be built as organically as possible. Communication rooted in empathy and understanding will always be the key to success in mentorship! And, while increasing the number of applicants or early career scientists in this field is important, it is also vital to continue mentorship throughout all career levels to retain and uplift a diverse workforce in STEM.

Zahkura analyzing lung cell viability on microscope.

RTI International’s headquarters in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, is located near several HBCUs, other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and community colleges. Many opportunities for these students can be fostered not only by the RTI CARES partnership but also through the formal RTI internship program. For more information on how to get involved in creating an internship opportunity or applying to be an intern, see here. 

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Imari Walker-Franklin (Research Chemist), Zahkura Eastman, and Michelle Lang to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.