Building a Toolkit for Becoming an Effective Mentor and Educator

This summer, 1,100 student interns will be living, studying, and working on the sprawling campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, just north of Washington, D.C. Among them will be five Amgen Scholar alumni who will serve as mentors to some of the high school student interns in a unique pilot program to teach scientists how to be educators.

The new Amgen-NIH Science Education Fellowship takes the large population of students who need mentoring and role models and pairs them with Amgen Scholars who are interested in education. It is a program that Sharon Milgram, the Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education at NIH, has been dreaming of doing for years. Herself a Ph.D. cell biologist who worked for many years in a lab before devoting her career to education, Milgram sees the pilot program as a new way of training scientists not only in outreach but more broadly in interpersonal skills.

We spoke with Milgram about the goals of the program, what’s in store for the new fellows, what the NIH campus is like in the summertime, and her advice for all Amgen Scholars.

What was the motivation for creating the new Amgen-NIH fellowship?

I believe that many scientists have a commitment to science education and outreach whether that be as their primary career goal or as adjunct to their research-oriented career goal. But we don’t provide very much training about how one would go about being successful to connect with students at various levels. We don’t teach pedagogy or mentoring as a discipline. We just say: “go to the classroom and teach or sit with this student and share your experience – be a mentor for them.” I wanted to explore how one would teach scientists to be educators.

What will the new fellows be doing?

The fellows will largely teach our HiSTEP students, who are rising 12th graders or who just graduated high school. They will also participate in a set of workshops and hands-on learning experiences to prepare them for pursuing education and outreach. There’s a three-part class on mentoring teens, to learn how to interact with teens most effectively. They are going to have a weekly meeting focused on curriculum development, educational research, and building learning communities using storytelling as a teaching tool. Finally, they are each going to do an independent project in some way related to education.

Being here is a chance for them to grow their own careers. We have a lot of support for summer interns, a lot of workshops, and a lot of ability for informational interviews with people both in the scientific realm at NIH and in the policy realm.

Will the new fellows interact with the 2017 NIH Amgen Scholars who’ll also be on the campus for the summer?

Yes, they will be living with them and doing several workshops together. For example, Rebecca Lewis from the Amgen Biotech Experience, another program from the Amgen Foundation which brings biotechnology to high school classrooms, is coming mid-summer to meet with the teaching fellows, and we’re going to do a joint program when she’s here. In general, they will do quite a bit together because they’re going to do orientation together; the two groups are going to get to know each other pretty well.

What can these fellows expect from the on-campus NIH experience?

The NIH campus in the summer is very focused on welcoming summer interns and integrating them into the NIH community. There are workshops and seminars and social events and all kinds of networking opportunities. Lots of scientists are available to sit and talk with summer interns. They get an opportunity to really see both the research side, but also the science policy side and the health communication aspect. On campus is also the NIH Clinical Center, which is the only hospital in the United States dedicated exclusively to biomedical research, so students can learn about the clinical research infrastructure.

And D.C. for the summer is also lovely, except that it’s humid! For example, the Amgen-NIH Science Education Scholars are doing three days in the community, where they are going out and using the museums for experiential learning and for self-reflection. It’s a pretty exciting place to spend the summer. I think it’s both a rich social and personal experience but also a rich professional experience

Can you tell me more about your personal interest in science education?

I am a scientist trained like a scientist, who never sat in a classroom and learned about young adult identity formation or how people learn or how we evaluate learning. And then I found myself with this real interest in career development and STEM pipeline issues – supporting people through high school to college, college to graduate school or medical school, into careers, etc. I mentor a lot of people who want to explore careers like this, and we provide no training.

I think our good intentions and our scientific mindset takes us part of way but we need a grounding in theory, feedback, and assistance in developing our teaching and mentoring toolkit. We often teach and mentor students whose life experiences are different from ours and we need a reminder of how that impacts our interactions.

What is your advice to Amgen Scholars generally, and then specific to those interested in education and outreach?

My advice to them would be to spend much more time on developing the interpersonal skills, the emotional intelligence, and the resilience needed to be successful in research careers. We focus too much on technical skills and the very obvious research skills like how to give a talk or how to write a paper, and we don’t focus enough on how to do team science, how to work effectively with people who see things differently than us. We’re lacking greatly on the interpersonal skill development side. That’s across the board.

For people who want to do teaching, I would say that they really need to learn some educational psychology and some ability to understand both adolescent development and adult learning, as well as learning communities and experiential learning. We have to expand our horizons in looking at how somebody really decides to learn something, so that we can change our style for the situation.

Anything else you’d like to add?

This is our first round of having the Amgen-NIH Science Education Fellowship and I am really grateful for the opportunity, especially to the Amgen Foundation for being willing to pilot this initiative. I think this has great potential to expand the competencies of people who really want to make a difference in their communities.

The new Amgen-NIH Science Education Fellows

Alex Alvarez (ASP 2013, University of Washington, Seattle) is pursuing both medical school and a biomedical engineering Ph.D. at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Leeran Dublin  (ASP 2012, Washington University in St. Louis) will be continuing Ph.D. training in Developmental, Regenerative, and Stem Cell Biology at Washington University of St. Louis in the lab of Dr. Heather True.

Andrew Koch (ASP 2016, NIH) will be starting a master's degree in secondary education in the fall at the University of South Dakota.

Rachel Sabol (ASP 2016, UCLA) just graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in biology and will be starting this fall in the Biomedical Sciences Training Program at Case Western Reserve University.

Danielle Spitzer (ASP 2016, Columbia) will be starting graduate school in the Molecular and Cell Biology Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley.