Near-peer STEM Mentoring Offers Unexpected Benefits for Mentors from Traditionally Underrepresented Backgrounds, PURM 4.1

Gloriana Trujillo, San Francisco State University, US
Pauline G. Aguinaldo, San Francisco State University, US
Chelsie Anderson, San Francisco State University, US
Julian Bustamante, San Francisco State University, US
Diego R. Gelsinger, San Francisco State University, US
Maria J. Pastor, San Francisco State University, US
Jeanette Wright, San Francisco State University, US
Leticia Márquez-Magaña, San Francisco State University, US
Blake Riggs, San Francisco State University, US

The practice and perpetuation of scientific research requires that incumbent scientists train junior investigators. In this way, new investigators gain skills and competencies necessary to engage in scientific research. Moreover, the ability to win grants and publish papers improves with effective mentoring (Schapira et al.,1992; Palepu et al., 1996; Steiner et al., 2002; Wingard et al., 2004). Unfortunately, both faculty and student researchers from groups underrepresented in the sciences report a lack of effective mentoring that can limit their participation and success in research (Ginther et al., 2011; Beech et al., 2013). At the undergraduate level inadequate mentoring can result in poor research experiences and exit from science (Johnson, 2007). While inadequate research mentoring can cause undergraduates to leave science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, the primary cause of their exit is poor teaching, which is exacerbated for underrepresented minority (URM) students in science (Seymour et al., 1997). Populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM in the United States includes students from racial and ethnic minority groups such as Native American, Hispanic/Latin@, and Black/African-American. Both of these barriers to undergraduate retention in STEM can be overcome by a near-peer mentoring approach as documented in this dialogue. Near-peer relationships are characterized by the pairing of individuals who are slightly more advanced in learning and/or training with individuals who are less advanced. Our formal and informal near-peer mentoring approaches provided URM undergraduates enrolled in an introductory biology or upper division research skills course with practical information and psychosocial support to succeed in these activities.

Near-peer mentoring approaches are grounded by the understanding that mentoring is a collaborative process that requires engagement of both teacher and learner. Ideally, mentors/teachers and mentees/learners engage as partners through reciprocal activities to advance the career aspirations of both (Hunt and Michael, 1983). Consequently effective mentoring requires more than occasional meetings between a mentor and mentee, and requires that mentees are not passive recipients of a mentor’s guidance. It is a dynamic reciprocal relationship that changes over time and benefits both parties. This mutually beneficial relationship can occur in learning and/or training research environments where both the mentee and mentor are viewed as “learners and trainees.” In this context the mentee acquires research knowledge and skills needed for scientific productivity, as well as career-related knowledge essential to professional advancement. On the other hand, the mentor gains hands-on experience in effectively supporting the academic and professional growth of junior investigators, thereby honing their skills to effectively guide research projects to success. While these benefits are commonly accepted for senior research mentors, in this report we find unexpected benefits to mentors engaged in near-peer mentoring. These benefits are similar to those found for peer-led learning environments.

Studies find that peer-led instruction is effective in increasing student persistence, retention and student learning. Both leaders and students benefit from the enhanced learning experience (Lave and Winger, 1991; Cracolice and Deming, 2001; Quitadamo, et al., 2009; Brownell and Swaner, 2010). Peer leaders increase their understanding of the subject matter, develop an increased sense of responsibility and confidence, improve their oral communication skills, and develop an enjoyment of teaching and a greater enthusiasm for pursuing a degree in STEM (Cracolice and Deming, 2001; Hamid, 2001; Smith et al., 2009).

Research experiences improve academic performance and sustain interest in research careers for undergraduates in STEM (Fechheimer et al., 2011; Russell et al., 2007). However, the inability of most colleges and universities to provide research experiences to all undergraduates results in unequal access to this valuable activity (Lopatto, 2004; Eagan, et al. 2013). For students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM (TURS), mentors may play an essential role in supporting the advancement of their research careers. For example, studies have shown that inadequate mentoring can adversely affect performance in research opportunities and cause TURS students to leave careers in STEM fields (Johnson, 2007). Inadequate mentorship of TURS students engaged in undergraduate research limits the ability of this evidence-based approach to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce.

Effective research mentoring has been shown to enhance recruitment and retention of TURS students and increases persistence towards research careers (Hathaway, et al., 2002; Gregerman, et al., 1998). Underrepresented students who are mentored display higher retention rates (Alberta et al., 2001), with effective mentoring reported as a key factor in completing an advanced degree (Solarzano, 1993). In fact, several studies of minority and non-minority medical faculty find that the quality of mentoring is linked to increased publication rates, job satisfaction, and career advancement (Schapira et al.,1992; Palepu et al., 1996; Steiner, et al., 2002; Wingard et al., 2004). For underrepresented minority faculty with mentors, studies find that they are more confident, and feel better supported in their work and career advancement (Beech et al., 2013).

While benefits to mentees engaged in mentored research experiences are clear, benefits to mentors have not been well documented. For example, while it has been shown that increased productivity among undergraduate research mentees inevitably leads to increased productivity for mentors (Dolan and Johnson, 2009), other benefits are not well studied and are largely anecdotal. Additionally, effective mentors facilitate the recruitment of savvy and dedicated students to the mentor’s research program. These benefits can be accrued by senior mentors who lead research programs regardless of minority status, however in this report we examine benefits accrued by near-peer mentors from historically underrepresented groups in science at a university with minority-serving institution status. An minority-serving institution is defined as a college or university with >50% student population of traditionally under-represented students, based on United States federal designations (Li and Carroll, 2007).

Near-peer relationships are characterized by the pairing of individuals who are slightly more advanced in learning and/or training with individuals who are less advanced, and we find that this pairing accrued unexpected benefits to the mentors.


Approach: Informal and Formal Near-Peer Mentoring
There has been an increase in the numbers of URM students entering STEM degrees and involved in undergraduate research, however this has not translated into increased numbers of URM professionals in STEM careers. Several studies suggest that student involvement in undergraduate research can act as a pathway for careers in STEM (Lopatto 2007, Russell et al., 2007, Thiry et al., 2011). However, retention of URM students in STEM majors and access to research opportunities persist as major barriers towards completion of degree programs. Here we propose that near-peer mentoring strategies may increase retention rates in STEM majors and provide knowledge and access to research experiences. We employed both informal and formal near-peer mentoring strategies to increase exposure to scholarship and undergraduate research opportunities, reduce social isolation, build a support network, and increase self-efficacy.

Informal Near-Peer Mentoring Program: Biology Undergraduate Mentor Program (BUMP)
We implemented an informal near-peer mentoring strategy with lower-division students being mentored by upper division undergraduate students within the Biology department at San Francisco State University. Near-peer mentoring has been used by many universities and educational non-profit organizations and has recently been the focus of a national effort to increase U.S. graduation rates to the highest in the world by 2020 (Nekuda Malik 2014). In addition, near-peer mentoring has been shown to be extremely successful in the STEM research environment (Tenenbaum et al., 2014). Here, we created the Biology Undergraduate Mentor Program (BUMP), a pilot program that lasted for a year (Fall 2012-13) with four upper-division undergraduate mentors and 16 lower division undergraduate biology majors. This pilot program used an informal approach where mentor/mentee pairs would meet weekly outside of the classroom setting and discuss topics ranging from best study practices to available resources within the department and university. BUMP mentees were selected from the introductory Biology course sequence through an application process, which focused on their first exam score and attendance in the course. The introductory biology course is a large lecture style course with over 275 students enrolled and was selected for the BUMP program because this course has been identified by students who have left the biology major as one of the most difficult courses to navigate, which ultimately led to a change in career. Ideal mentee candidates for BUMP were students who did not perform well on the first exam, but had excellent attendance in the lecture and laboratory sections. BUMP mentors were recruited based on their performance in the introductory course and through recommendation from the instructor. Ideal mentors were not just students who received a top grade in the course, but also students who showed the greatest improvement (i.e. improvement of at least one grade from the midterm to the final) in assignments and exams over the course of the semester. In addition, there was no requirement for the mentors to be involved in any research programs or internships, however mentors received weekly training ranging from introduction of campus and department resources, communication and study skills, and issues surrounding equity and diversity. It is important to note that all mentors in BUMP identified as belonging to a TURS group.

Formal Classroom Approach: Research Skills Course
A near-peer mentoring approach was also implemented in a classroom setting in the fall semesters of 2012-2014. This approach was used to implement the learning objective of mentor young scientist in the practice of science in a paired “Research Skills” course for upper division undergraduate and masters level students. One of the learning objectives for the graduate students was to “gain skills to mentor young scientists in the practice of science.” Taken together, this objective was achieved via mentoring workshops for the graduate students, and hands-on experiences in mentoring the undergraduates. Undergraduates enrolled in the course were matched with master’s level graduate students (2-3 undergraduates per masters student), to engage in a series of workshops to demystify and provide skills for the practice of biological research. The workshops were systematically organized to align with the typical skills needed for engaging in a new research project. Specifically, the near-peer mentoring groups worked collaboratively to conduct a literature search, design an experiment, hone recordkeeping skills, deliver a journal club presentation, and write a research brief. The focus of these assignments was driven by the topic of the graduate student’s research. Thus, in the mentoring groups the graduate students were the more advanced incumbent scientists (mentors), and the undergraduates were the more junior investigators (mentees), thereby creating a near-peer mentoring relationship. To promote success of this relationship, the graduate students additionally participated in workshops on effective mentoring practices, and were encouraged to work together to find their own examples of effective mentors. Given the novelty of this classroom approach, it was important to assess its efficacy. Mentors and mentees were assigned journaling activities to gather evidence regarding the efficacy of the pedagogical approach. 

Evaluating the Approach: Collecting and Analyzing Student Voices
To track changes that occurred over the course of the research skills course and the mentoring program, a variety of qualitative assessments were collected. In addition to data from BUMP mentees collected during the semester they participated in the program, BUMP mentors were asked to complete a reflection at the end of the semester in response to a prompt (Question: In what ways has BUMP impacted your professional life thus far?). Mentors of the research skills course (see Appendix A for mentor demographics) were asked to complete reflective journals throughout the course of the semester to periodically assess progress and group dynamics.

In both informal and formal mentoring programs, reflections (including reflective journals) were read at least once before initial analysis. With second or subsequent readings, quotes were highlighted and labeled for particular themes. Reflections were read again without highlighted text to ensure that additional themes or quotes were not omitted. Themes were then clustered into similar groups, depending on relevance. Individual quotes representative of themes were then read for completeness and to ensure context was conveyed correctly. If an individual quote on its own did not appear to convey the theme correctly, the quote was selected from its original context and additional sentences that represented the theme were included. Quotes not used in the text are included in supplemental material (Appendix B).

In particular, we found that near-peer mentors from underrepresented groups voiced changes in attitudes and perceptions linked to increased persistence in science. The themes discussed by our mentors included bolstering science identity, building self-efficacy, and boosting sense of belonging. Thus our near-peer mentoring approach appears to not only benefits mentees by overcoming some of the limitations imposed by the lack of universally accessible and sometimes poor research experiences, it also benefit mentors. In this way our near-peer mentoring approaches amplify efforts to increase diversity and retention in STEM.

Boosting Sense of Belonging
Negative perceptions of a STEM environment as a place where particular students “do not belong” can lead to poor academic performance and exit from science (Good, et al., 2012; Purdie-Vaughns, et al., 2008; Schmader, et. al., 2008). This is the environment typically faced by students who are historically underrepresented and enrolled in science classes, and it can diminish their perception of the value of STEM (Aronson, et al. 2002; Osborne, 1995; Steele, 1997). In addition, a lack of role models can be a defining factor in generating an imposter syndrome phenomenon in students directly affecting their sense of belonging within STEM majors (Clance and Imes, 1978; Jackson and Heath, 2014). These outcomes are a result of environmental cues, such as classroom environment facilitated by an instructor, that fail to signal safety and valuation of diversity (Murphy, et al., 2007; Walton and Cohen, 2011). The exit of URM students from STEM comes at the expense of the student’s well-being, as well as that of diversity of thought and practice of research within the scientific field. It is common to believe that these factors affect only mentees within the programs, however our findings suggest that many mentors also experience a lack of belonging within their majors and scientific community. Our near-peer mentoring approaches addressed these environmental cues and boosted a sense of belonging not only of our mentees in the programs but the mentors as well, as demonstrated by the voices of the mentors. One mentor in particular stated, “Being one of the first mentors, I think I am helping to shape the program and determine its future goals. That in itself has impacted me greatly, as I feel that I am a part of a community at San Francisco State University.”

Bolstering Science Identity
Identity can be viewed in two ways, either as a social construct (i.e. group affiliation), or as a personal view of self (Fearon, 1999). When we explore our identity in STEM, we look to our community for affirmation as a scientist and our own personal perception of what defines a scientist. This concept of ones “scientific identity” can be a critical factor in persistence and successful outcomes in research and training towards STEM careers (Carlone and Johnson, 2007). A recent study provides the framework to characterize science identity into three components: recognition, competence, and performance (Trujillo and Tanner, 2014). In reflection essays of the mentors involved in BUMP and the Research Skills course, we found that through mentoring, the mentors showed strong improvement in each of theses categories. Reflection from a mentor in the research skills course showed an increase in competence, “In fact, when I realized on the first day of class that I would be a mentor I was scared and apprehensive; I had little confidence in my ability to present information about the scientific research field in a constructive and helpful manner. However, I came to realize over the course of the class that I have actually had more experience in the research field than I have cared to give myself credit for. Even if I feel like an inexperienced and sometimes overwhelmed researcher, I still have a lot offer as a mentor to aspiring scientists like the undergraduates in this class. For instance, many of the undergraduates have not been a part of a lab and the fact that I have actually been a part of a lab and conducted both successful and unsuccessful experiments means that I can give them an introduction to what the day-to-day experience of conducting research is like. I also realized that having been to graduate school interviews and going through the application process to get into the master’s program at SFSU are more unique experiences than I had initially considered them to be. There is a lot I am able to help others with in terms of informing them of what to expect and what can make them more successful in preparing for taking the next steps after obtaining an undergraduate degree.”

Another mentor reflection displayed increased recognition of science identity through mentorship for success at the next level of their education goals, “Now that I am applying to PhD programs this fall, I feel l have an edge over other applicants because of the skills I have learned from the BUMP program. My mentorship abilities have tightened and reinforced how I present myself professionally, and in addition I know I have real world experience that applies directly to academia. I know that typically when you choose the academia route as a primary investigator you are thrown into an environment where you do not have a lot of mentorship experience. Now that I do, I believe I will be a more effective PI in the future.”

Building Self-Efficacy
In reflections from mentors in the research skills course and the mentoring program, they reported having an increase in confidence in scientific research skills or leadership skills. The phenomenon in which an individual has confidence in their ability to do something has been termed self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). That self-efficacy would be a theme in both informal and formal mentoring environments was expected, as many other cases have reported self-efficacy increases in other contexts (reviewed in Trujillo and Tanner, 2014).

The self-efficacy theme in the reflections referred to a variety of skills or competencies. In certain cases, the expression of increased self-efficacy was explicit, such as with the following mentor in the research skills course, “However, I am sure that either this class or being mentor increased my confidence in talking in class.” One mentor in BUMP applied the skills learned as a mentor to being a mentee in another context: “I’ve very much been mentored here just as much as my mentees have, and by mentoring others I’ve figured out how to get my own mentoring as well.” Another mentor in BUMP clearly illustrated the growth in self-efficacy through mentoring in this quote, “I thought I signed up for a simple tutoring job – which would have been very easy since I had all my papers and materials from that class; when Blake emphasized how this was specifically not supposed to be a tutoring job, I sort of panicked because I suddenly felt unqualified to be somebody’s mentor. I had this nagging fear that my mentees wouldn’t respect me and I would be completely out of my depth; this was my first ever job and I’ve always been a follower rather than a leader. But with experience I think I’ve learned many good and many bad ideas about mentoring, and I am far more confident about my future than I have ever been. In short, BUMP has been full of challenges and many learning experiences that have allowed me to grow and has greatly helped my chances of having a successful professional career.”

In general, it is likely that mentors developed confidence in areas not mentioned in the reflections. Possible reasons these were not stated more explicitly could be the mentors perceived importance of these areas, or perhaps the questions addressed within reflection statements were not specific enough.

In this report we find that near-peer mentors report benefits that include increased sense of belonging and science identity, as well as improved self-efficacy. These factors are important for increasing persistence of URM students in STEM (Trujillo and Tanner, 2014). Another persistence factor that was identified in a study conducted at SF State and that is also captured in our near-peer mentoring approach is the ability to “give back.” When 22 women of color enrolled in the Cell and Molecular Biology masters program were asked about their ability to persist in science 73% (16/22) reported that they persisted because they had opportunities to use their science skills to “give back” to their personal ethnic and gender specific communities (Umanzor, 2011). In fact, this communal goal was voiced by several of the mentors in our study, and is an emerging persistence factor for URM students in the sciences (Thomson et al., 2014). Our near-peer mentoring holds significant promise for amplifying participation of underrepresented students in science by positively affecting both mentees and mentors and serving as a vehicle for giving back.

We would like to thank Caezar Nave and Julio C Ramirez for their help with the organization and collection of data from the near-peer mentoring programs not used in this manuscript. We would also like to thank Miquella (Kelly) Chavez for critical reading of the manuscript. Biology Undergraduate Mentor Program (BUMP) was supported by a 2012 Linkage Fellowship Award from the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) and American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). Collection and analysis of student reflections for BUMP was generously supported by Kimberly Tanner and the Biology FEST HHMI Undergraduate Science Education Award #52007556. In preparation of this manuscript, Gloriana Trujillo and Leticia Márquez-Magaña were supported by NIH BUILD grant 1U54MD009523-01.

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Appendix A. Mentor and Mentee Profiles for BUMP and the Research Skills Course

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