The Power of Mentorship

July 23, 2018

When I was a child, my brother, sister, friends, and I would sometimes visit my father at work. Standing in his laboratory at Bell Labs, surrounded by test tubes and bottles of chemicals, he would amaze us and our friends with the wonders of chemistry. Using liquid nitrogen to turn soft rubber tubing into a hard pretzel twist was a favorite; smashing it into shards was even better. (Don’t worry—we wore safety goggles!) My father was a natural teacher, and he loved to share and explain his work to us. Years later, as a professor at the University of Southern California, he was able to mentor many young scientists, helping them pursue their own passions. 

Many students come to Yale with an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but they may not know how to navigate their major or build a career in their field. Mentorship can help, especially for people who are underrepresented in STEM fields, including women, first-generation college students, and members of certain minority groups. 

The Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) Program at Yale has been helping to close the gap in these important disciplines for many years. In 1995, Kurt Zilm, chair of the Department of Chemistry and professor of chemistry, and Kimberly Goff-Crews—now secretary and vice president for student life, then director of the Afro-American Cultural Center—worked with colleagues to create a tutoring program to support women and underrepresented minorities taking introductory STEM classes. Today, the STARS Program includes peer mentoring for first-years as well as intensive summer and academic-year research opportunities for upperclassmen.

Working in a Yale laboratory is a superb experience for undergraduates who want to pursue a career in STEM. Rising sophomores selected for the STARS summer program live on campus and work on projects as full-time research assistants in the laboratories of their Yale faculty advisors for nine weeks. They also take a scientific writing course and receive a WR credit for their work. This week, participants will hold their final symposiums and share the results of their research (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 25 and 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on July 26 at the auditorium in Kline Geology Laboratory).

Upperclassmen can take advantage of further research opportunities as well. STARS II provides funding for juniors and seniors to support up to ten hours per week of laboratory research under the supervision of a faculty mentor; students also can receive a stipend for full-time research during the summer between their junior and senior years. Graduates of last year’s STARS II program are continuing their scientific careers by conducting research or attending graduate and medical schools. 

Yale’s outstanding faculty members make our university an exciting place to pursue scientific research, and many are enthusiastic about sharing the wonders of science with young people. Last year I wrote about how Yale programs such as Science on Saturdays, sponsored and organized by Professor Zilm, and Pathways to Science help foster a love of STEM disciplines in the greater New Haven area. Another great program called Path to a Cure, led by Sandy Chang, associate dean for science education in Yale College and director of the STARS Program, introduces students to medical research. Path to a Cure allows selected Connecticut high school students to participate in a six-week research program at the Yale School of Medicine. Students undertake experiential research with a faculty mentor and attend weekly lectures by Yale faculty members. At the end of the program, they give a presentation and write a research paper on their project. So far, over twenty students have continued to do STEM research in college after graduating from the program, including two at Yale. 

Everyone deserves great mentorship, and everyone benefits when more talented students are able to pursue their intellectual dreams. I look forward to following the exciting work of our STARS students as they go out into the world—becoming the great scientists and mentors of tomorrow.