The Botany and Conservation Biology Newsletter interviews Mark Connolly, Curriculum & Graduate Program Coordinator, about the department’s mentor appreciation initiative:
Who are you?
For a little more than a year now, I’ve been the Curriculum and Graduate Program Coordinator for the Department of Botany. Before that, I was an NSF-funded researcher who studied STEM education and faculty development.
What Inspired You to Call Attention to Mentors?
Part of the reason I love my current job is that I wear a lot of hats: my main responsibility is supporting graduate students, but I also advise undergraduate Botany majors and schedule the department’s courses each semester. After focusing on students over the past year, I wondered what could be done to support Botany’s faculty and staff, who seemed not to get much thanks or recognition for their hard work. So I came up with the idea to organize the department’s first Mentor Appreciation Week in April.
Like teaching, mentoring students and trainees as researchers has always been part of higher education. But also like teaching, it was assumed that people just knew how to mentor others and didn’t need training. Over the past 20 years or so, however, research on mentoring has shown at least two things. First, having an effective mentor has an outsize impact on satisfaction and productivity of emerging researchers, especially those from historically underrepresented groups. And second, participating in a short course on research mentoring can make faculty, staff, and graduate students demonstrably better mentors, which in turn benefits students. This research was beautifully summarized in a National Academies report, “The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM.”
Because the National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation now are requiring grantees to be trained as research mentors, I organized in January a two-day workshop for just Botany faculty that not only fulfilled their training requirement but also was informative and useful, based on faculty feedback. To reinforce and celebrate good mentoring in the department, I came up with the idea for Mentor Appreciation Week.
To make it as easy as possible to show appreciation for mentoring, we created blank thank-you cards. I thought it would be fitting in Botany if the card said, “Thank you for helping me grow.” But then our multimedia designer Sarah Friedrich came up with an absolutely brilliant graphic that everyone just loved. To encourage informal conversations between mentors and mentees, we added $5 coffee cards. We packaged all of this (plus a bit of Botany-branded swag for the mentees to keep) as Botany Mentor Appreciation Kits that we handed out to students.
Did it work?
Since this was our pilot year, our expectations were modest. We made 50 kits and handed out 40. It was terrific that staff, faculty and graduate students received thank you cards, but more important, the week increased awareness throughout the whole department about the value of good mentoring all year long. I think it was a success because long after the Mentor Appreciation Week was over, faculty and still tell me “That was such a good thing – thank you.” And other departments and units are eager to borrow our idea. We’re already looking forward to a bigger and better Mentor Appreciation Week next year.