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Be a Mentor

Twa, Michael D. OD, PhD, FAAO

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Optometry and Vision Science: January 2021 - Volume 98 - Issue 1 - p 1-2
doi: 10.1097/OPX.0000000000001634
  • Free

This past year was a tough time for science, and the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized that we have never relied more than we do now on science and scientific thinking. So how do we encourage participation in science? One of the best ways to encourage future development of our scientific workforce is through mentoring. Mentoring is essential for developing the next generation of scientists, clinician-scientists, and future members of the biomedical research workforce. Work by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine offered the following definition on mentorship: “Mentorship is a professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development, and success of the relational partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support.1

Mentoring is a valuable investment in our future that helps mentees integrate into scientific communities and develop scientific identities. Those who dedicate their time and share their passion through service as a mentor are literally changing lives and opening doors for future scientists. Mentoring, like other teaching and advising skills, can be learned and improved with intentional effort. Moreover, there are evidence-based resources available for leaders who are trying to develop more effective mentoring programs and for individual mentors and mentees to get the most out of their mentoring experiences.

There are several key support roles provided in effective mentoring relationships that can be roughly broken down into career support and psychosocial support. Career support usually includes skill development, career guidance, and advocacy. Psychosocial support may include role modeling in behavior, attitudes, and values, as well as encouragement; help with problem solving; and active listening. These mentoring functions may occur in formal mentoring relationships where mentors and mentees have specifically defined expectations and responsibilities, or they may exist in informal relationships where there is no formal evaluation or supervisory roles. Mentoring in either environment can be a powerful influence on someone's career direction and success.


The University of Wisconsin–Madison is part of a National Institutes of Health initiative, the National Research Mentoring Network, which was developed to help encourage diversity in the biomedical research workforce. One of the resources that has come from this initiative is the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research.2

This center for mentoring has made one of the most widely known mentor training programs available to others: Entering Mentoring.3 This mentoring program is structured as a series of hour-long facilitated discussion sections that focus on the core competencies listed previously. The training modules include sessions on Aligning Expectations, Assessing Understanding, Effective Communication, Equity and Inclusion, Fostering Independence, Promoting Professional Development, and more. Through the program portal, users have access to mentoring curricula for a number of different scientific disciplines and career stages. The goal of this mentor training program is to accelerate the process of becoming an effective mentor by brining evidence-based training materials and tested curricular materials to a wider audience.


The University of Wisconsin–Madison also supports training framework for students entering research mentee relationships: Entering Research.4 This program is targeted for research students (undergraduate and graduate students). This program is designed to address seven different areas:

  • Research Comprehension and Communication Skills
  • Practical Research Skills
  • Research Ethics
  • Researcher Identity
  • Researcher Confidence and Independence
  • Equity and Inclusion Awareness and Skills
  • Professional and Career Development Skills

The training activities for this structured curriculum along with assessments and other materials are available through the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research.


Science is better when scientists collaborate, and there is some evidence to suggest that research involving others from different ethnic backgrounds results in publications with greater scientific impact, for example, citations.5 Although there are several possible explanations for this finding, one is that different personal experiences and perspectives lead to different ways of seeing and thinking about the same problem. This kind of collaborative problem solving can bring creativity and innovation that is otherwise inconceivable. If we can encourage others to participate in science, then the resulting diversity of thought, problem-solving skills, creativity, and imaginative thinking will be stronger.


Mentorship programs will be more effective if they strive to adopt the following recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences Committee:

  1. Adopt a clear definition of mentorship.
  2. Use evidence-based training materials to develop and support mentors and mentees.
  3. Support an inclusive mentoring environment.
  4. Support multiple models of mentoring.
  5. Develop feedback and program evaluation mechanisms.
  6. Recognize and reward effective mentorship.
  7. Mitigate negative mentoring experiences.

To enhance the number of future clinician scientists, we should consider reflecting on what we can do to encourage a culture that values mentoring. We should also make intentional investments in training programs to better prepare our faculty mentors and student mentees to participate in research mentoring relationships that are rewarding and rewarded.

Michael D. Twa, OD, PhD, FAAO


1. The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEM. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Available at: Accessed December 5, 2020.
2. Mentor Curricula and Training: Entering Mentoring. Madison: Wisconsin Center for Education Research; School of Education; University of Wisconsin–Madison. Available at: Accessed December 5, 2020.
3. Pfund C. Entering Mentoring. 1st ed. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Co.; 2014.
4. Balster N, Pfund C, Rediske R, et al. Entering Research: A Course that Creates Community and Structure for Beginning Undergraduate Researchers in the STEM Disciplines. CBE Life Sci Educ 2010;9:108–18.
5. Freeman RB, Huang W. Collaborating with People like me: Ethnic Coauthorship within the United States. J Labor Econ 2015;33:S289–318.
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