5 Powerful Lessons From SCEC’s Exceptional Research Mentors

Network map of SCEC SOURCES 2020 mentors and mentees. Meet the 2020 mentors at www.scec.org/mentors/sources.

As the 2021 internship season gets underway, we can tap into powerful lessons learned from the 2020 program. Despite their own personal and professional challenges, mentors of the SCEC SOURCES internship program consistently supported undergraduate student researchers, most choosing to extend their mentoring throughout the entire 2020-2021 academic year. Some mentors reshaped projects to fit a remote mentoring model, while others invested in equipment so interns could work at home. SCEC mentors demonstrated our community’s commitment to supporting and training our next generation of researchers when they needed it most.

The impacts from the loss of research opportunities due to the pandemic will be felt for a very long time. This means that as a community of scientists, we have a responsibility to continue to provide opportunities and support for our students and early career researchers. The following are lessons learned and recommendations by our exceptional SCEC SOURCES mentors during the last year.

1. Be open to mentoring beyond summer. 

Virtual internships allow the extension of the research experience into the academic year. In year-long programs, mentors can build on their training and interns build deeper relationships with their cohort, develop on their project further, and participate in more professional conferences. This approach was a clear success for our 2020 mentors and mentees. As interns transitioned their research to the academic year, mentors saw their mentee's confidence and scientist identity grow, which in turn energized their mentoring efforts. This type of development and growth would not be possible in a traditional, summer-only program. While academic year internships are not always possible (due to the nature of the research, funding, or other variables), one-term programs should explore expanding to additional terms if possible. 

2. Mentoring is a growth opportunity for early-career researchers.

"I was able to make human connections while still doing science and participate in community during an unimaginable time, and that to me was a very valuable experience."
Patricia Persaud – SOURCES Mentor

Through mentoring students, early-career researchers (ECRs) develop professional skills and grow their network of co-advisors and potential future collaborators from among the interns’ home institutions. ECRs learn to work with and manage students in a lab, to identify and assess students' skills, and to navigate administrative hurdles at their institution. The process of searching out opportunities and competing for financial support for students is one of the most useful skills to acquire as a new advisor and researcher.

3. Professional development is essential in research mentoring.

Research mentoring should include professional development for mentees that is sustained, student-centered, and intentionally designed for interns’ exploration of STEM career pathways. Successful programs integrate career development, science communication, technical training, and cohort building to make experiential learning more effective. The SOURCES internship includes webinars on professional development training (e.g. how to write an abstract, make a poster, write an elevator pitch, and apply to graduate school), opportunities to present their research at professional conference(s), career pathway presentations from academic and industry professionals, discussions with former interns now in graduate school, and cohort-building activities. SCEC mentors saw clear benefits and growth in their mentees from the professional development components of the program.

4. Mentees make tangible contributions.

Well-trained interns make tangible contributions to research. Interns are a great asset when exploring new data as they offer fresh, unbiased, and often more concise perspectives and tend to be direct with their observations. Mentors are inspired by their mentee’s adaptability and persistence which infuses them with renewed energy. Even in the most technical environments, mentors can identify projects for different levels of experience, including in education and outreach which are critical to the broader impacts of the research. While internships are teaching experiences that require a mentor’s time and commitment, mentors find it a worthwhile investment.

5. Embrace a mentoring culture.

Mentoring is not often considered in faculty advancement evaluations, even though many institutions and funding agencies recognize the value of recruiting and training the next generation of researchers. This can create a culture that potentially alienates exceptional mentors, who use these experiences to build a portfolio of projects, to develop and extend collaborations, and to discover talented new student researchers. For these reasons, our 2020 SCEC mentors have made it a goal—and even see it as their responsibility—to continue mentoring future students.

Want to learn more about becoming a SCEC mentor? Email SCEC’s Manager of Experiential Learning and Career Advancement, Dr. Gaby Noriega at gnoriega@usc.edu.


About the Author

Gabriela Noriega is the Manager of Experiential Learning and Career Advancement, a focus area within SCEC's Communication, Education, and Outreach program at SCEC, where she leads STEM education and career development initiatives to provide early-career scientists and students with resources and mentoring across key career transitions. Dr. Noriega manages SCEC’s Internships and Transitions Programs, and supports the coordination of public-private partnerships that work together to improve earthquake preparedness, mitigation, and resilience.


Thank you to Dr. Patricia Persaud (Louisiana State University) and Dr. Christos Kyriakopoulos (University of Memphis) for their substantial contributions to inform this article, as well as to all of the 2020 SOURCES mentors for their dedication to outstanding student mentoring. 

Support for SCEC's Office of Experiential Learning and Career Advancement is provided by NSF Cooperative Agreement EAR-1600087 and USGS Cooperative Agreement G17AC00047, with additional support from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.