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Finding Mentorship As an Underrepresented Scientist

Having to conduct three rotations across various labs for the first year of my human genetics Ph.D. experience has been both an exhilarating and arduous experience. While engaging with a large breadth of science, I have experienced the constant uncertainty of whether I can make a space for myself in this new environment.

As a member of a marginalized group, answering the question of, “What constitutes having space for myself?” will look different for me than other individuals, even those who belong to other underrepresented groups. For me, it means receiving mentorship and support in a way that is reflective of my own needs and areas of development. I expect to have a background level of support that empowers me through inevitable failures, ensures that the existence of implicit bias does not affect how others perceive my personality and skills, and validates my lived experiences. Balancing these mentorship needs with my scientific curiosity amid the expansive field of human genetics has been a challenge.

Human genetics is a broad field, with many variations and subfields to navigate as an early career professional. For example, one may: be computationally inclined, experimentally inclined or both; work with different model organisms; study simple Mendelian or complex genetics; process different modalities of data (varying from transcriptomics, genomics, epigenomics to just general -omics … yes, they are actually called -omics); or even work directly with patient-derived samples or preestablished cell lines. There is still so much more.

Learning about this breadth of research is an objective that much of my classwork addresses. Yet, I have wondered how I can better understand these different domains of work through my lab rotations. Should I aim for a lab that follows approaches I have experience with and want to further develop? Or should I join a lab that would expose me to completely novel approaches for the sake of exploration? With all the endless experiential possibilities, it’s no wonder that I began considering four rotations rather than the recommended three.

Yet, the consciousness of my identity as a member of an underrepresented group began to surface through conversations with faculty members. In discussing the possibility of a fourth rotation, I noticed variation in the responses I received, particularly when it came to the professors’ patience and validation of my current professional stage. In some of the best conversations I had, I felt supported and even empowered. In others, I walked away feeling like I was a gently waving red flag, with concern that my desire for an additional rotation signaled disorganization and incompetence.

During one conversation, I was scheduled to speak with a professor for one hour (a generous amount of time to allot a possible graduate student). Yet, the discussion ended after a 10-minute conversation, filled with reticence over possible projects I could participate in. General query about thesis committee involvement and opportunity to engage in further dialogue regarding how one may incorporate their mathematical approaches were rather quickly shot down under the instruction to focus on, “finding a rotation lab for now.” Such strained conversations made me question if there was something I could do differently, or whether this interaction may have been the result of something covert, like how my current needs and personality interacted with my identity?

There are many possible explanations to why some of my conversations were less successful. The faculty adviser could have been completely overwhelmed with work, in the process of writing a grant, experiencing some personal difficulties, battling sleep-deprivation, etc. But couldn’t there too be the possible manifestation of implicit bias at work?

Recently, I read an article on the way implicit bias may appear in workplace relationships. The article described how peers and/or superiors may be increasingly scrutinous of individuals who belong to a minority/marginalized group, particularly in the occurrence of a workplace mistake. Although this was not directly my current predicament, it made me reflect on another psychological concept known as the fundamental attribution error: We are more likely to view people’s situations as the result of their own personalities, as opposed to acknowledging how their environment also played a role. Members of minority groups are more likely to experience negative attribution bias, in which they may be blamed for their predicaments.

In applying this to my experience as a first-year graduate student, then, I thought: Is it not rather normal for me to find myself at the fork of navigating different subspecialties in human genetics, especially as a rather explorative person? Then I wondered, how possible is it that my curious nature is misattributed to disorganization, simply because I am a visible Arab, hijabi-wearing woman?

Recognizing how these psychological phenomena may manifest, I’ve shifted my focus in my lab search from wondering, “How am I treated in this lab overall, particularly when I’m doing well?” to, “How am I treated when I am not performing at my best? And how trusted am I to perform well?”

I want to acknowledge that in answering this question, it is important to recognize that people’s treatment of us is often viewed in light of our own interpretations of ourselves. In other words, our internal dialogue and self-image will interact with people’s behaviors toward us. For example, several studies have shown how internal perception can shape how committed individuals are to their intended career path. One study showed that females, individuals of underrepresented groups and those from lower socioeconomic groups displayed high-grade sensitivity and were more likely to drop out of STEM, even if they performed at the same level as their counterparts. This may be due to factors such as decreased confidence in their ability to succeed and the cognitive strain of coping with negative stereotypes, particularly in situations where students are being evaluated.

In recognizing this, it is important for mentors to appreciate how their efforts toward holistic mentorship and interpersonal connection go a long way. While several studies have shown that mentors from the same racial or gender category as mentees provide effective and successful mentorship, it was shown that this is not completely necessary so long as a mentor also engages in holistic mentorship (i.e., seeking to establish an interpersonal connection that provides students with greater support). The reason this may be helpful is that mentors may better recognize areas of support that students may benefit from, particularly as they cope with internalized negative stereotypes and navigating external ones as well.

In summary, the beginning stages of career development, with all its navigation difficulties and inevitable mistakes, is one such place where implicit bias can manifest. Potential advisers can improve their mentorship quality by acknowledging the way that implicit bias may affect their perceptions of students, particularly in situations where students can benefit from a suspension of judgment and overall extra support. Indeed, doing so, and making an active effort toward holistic mentorship, can improve the retention of students from a diverse workforce, and shifts the narrative from increased recruitment of underrepresented scientists to their retention.

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