Guest post: Undergraduate mentorship in the time of COVID-19: What we’ve learned

This is a guest post by Jonathan Barros, Briana Martin-Villa, Lexi Golden, Jonathan Hernandez, & Callie Chappell.

I. Introduction

During this challenging time of COVID-19, our lives have been turned upside down. Jobs have been lost or radically altered, loved ones have fallen ill, and our daily routines have been upended. In light of these challenges, our research (especially if it is not COVID-related) may not seem that important. In this blog post, we would like to highlight why right now, undergraduate research experiences are especially important, and how good mentorship practices can help students through this challenging time. This post was written collaboratively by a team of undergraduate researchers at Stanford University and their mentor, a Ph.D. student. Based on our experiences working together over the summer, we would like to share some suggestions and best practices for mentors collaborating with undergraduate researchers working remotely. 

cartoon image of five early career scientists with the header Team Nectar Microbe

II. Why are remote research opportunities important? 

Because of financial pressures and the move to remote work, many undergraduate research opportunities have been canceled. For prospective mentors, we believe that offering remote research opportunities is crucial for undergraduates. 

First, remote research is a remaining opportunity for undergraduates’ professional development. Working online and social distancing, it is harder for undergraduates to engage in informal interactions important for their professional development, such as departmental seminars, club and group activities, or scientific conferences/meetings. Undergraduate research creates built-in structures that allow students to regularly interact with researchers through lab meetings and other academic or social events. 

Second, many undergraduates that hold campus jobs have recently lost a major source of income. Research opportunities can be more easily conducted remotely than other forms on on-campus work. Offering remote work may be a life-line for students who have recently lost their jobs. Especially now that many students are living at home or have changed living arrangements, some students are supporting family and other dependents with this income. We encourage researchers to hire FLI (first generation/low income) students, who may be more likely to be negatively affected by income loss or other financial inequality during COVID-19. Mentors who work with FLI students should educate themselves about the unique experiences and challenges FLI students may face in academic research environments. 

Third, research experiences create community during this isolating time. Being part of a lab –or a team of other undergraduates–can create a sense of community and camaraderie. We have integrated lab social events, personal check-ins, and other team-building activities (such as a socially -distanced gathering) into our routine. With many of us living in social isolation, lab groups can be an important source of community. 

III. Where do I start? 

For undergraduates interested in research, or researchers interested in mentoring undergraduates, there are a variety of ways to offer paid research opportunities. We believe that paying undergraduate students for research is extremely important. Many students cannot afford to volunteer their time. For students who need to hold jobs to pay for school or support their families/other dependents, volunteer labor is a luxury. By offering unpaid opportunities, socioeconomically advantaged students become more likely to have research on their resumés and CVs when they seek employment or apply for graduate study. Because research experience is an important qualification for advanced study in STEM, offering paid research experiences is an important way to improve equity in our field. We believe that mentors — especially PIs and professors–have an ethical obligation to offer paid research opportunities to undergraduates. 

There are many ways to pay undergraduates that require minimal to no financial investment from the lab. Many university departments offer summer research programs for students; for example, the Biology Summer Undergraduate Research Program (B-SURP) at Stanford University. There are also many programs at universities that work closely with federal agencies and other universities. These include REU programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), private funding for scholarships and grants (such as Amgen Scholars),  or state-funded programs such as the California Math, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program. 

A great option to hire students during the academic year, as well as over the summer, is the Federal Work Study program. This federally-funded program provides hourly pay for students with financial need, usually with partial to no (depending on the institution) financial support required from the lab. We suggest advertising work-study research positions on listservs and student groups that focus on FLI students. Again, when mentoring FLI students, we encourage mentors to educate themselves on the unique experiences FLI students face. 

If no funding is available, students can also pursue research for course credit. Many universities offer undergraduate independent study/research credit, which students may be interested in if such credits help them with their degree progress. 

Before offering a research position to interested students, we encourage you to meet with prospective mentees to see if the program, the culture, and the values of the lab are aligned with the student’s goals. Some topics we typically discuss are: 

  • What would you (the mentee) like to learn during this research experience?
  • What your some short- and long-term goals, and how can this experience help you achieve those? (mentor and mentees can brainstorm together) 
  • What other obligations do each of us have during the research experience that we should be aware of? 

IV. Best practices when working remotely 

We have found that setting clear expectations and creating team accountability are important for successful remote collaboration. In this section, we will provide specific examples of how we have achieved this.

A. Accountability: 

i. Individual accountability: 

When working with a new student, we create a mentorship contract that is co-written between the mentor and the mentee. This establishes clear expectations and creates an opportunity to discuss shared values and goals. Here are some topics we typically include in our mentorship contracts: 

  • When are each of our working hours? When should we communicate (and when should we leave the other person be)? 
  • What is the best way/technology to get a hold of each other? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect a response? Who should you contact if we cannot reach each other in an emergency? 
  • When will we plan to meet and what should we have prepared beforehand? Is an agenda needed? Does the undergraduate need to attend lab/group meetings? If so, how are these meetings conducted? 
  • What is the undergraduates’ role/responsibility with the research project? How can we support each other in meeting these responsibilities and hold ourselves accountable, yet flexible? 
  • What professional development opportunities would help the undergraduate accomplish their short- and long-term goals? (e.g. conferences, talks, poster presentations, outreach opportunities, connections with mentor’s professional network) 
  • What skills will the undergraduate learn/incorporate into the research experience to help them achieve their short and long term goals? 
  • What are our expectations for vacations, absences, and time off? How do you ask for time off? What should we do in case of a personal emergency? 

It is also useful for mentors to facilitate similar conversations between collaborating mentees. Undergraduates may not have experience working in groups or teams (especially in an intensive research capacity) and may need help working collaboratively. Mentors should encourage collaborating mentees to discuss their expectations of each other (especially related to division of labor, meeting times, and communication norms), and the mentor should provide guidance on how to have these conversations. The dynamic between mentees is often very different than between mentor and mentee, so mentors should pay close attention to the dynamics between their mentees and provide guidance as needed. 

At the beginning of each week, we suggest having one-on-one mentor/mentee meetings to discuss goals for the coming week, how the past week went, and any other relevant professional development topics. Just like weekly meetings between graduate students and advisors, weekly meetings with undergraduates are a great time to set short-and long-term goals, help mentees with problems they encounter, and provide professional development support. 

ii. Team accountability: 

Our team consists of many (2-6) undergraduates working with a single mentor and we have specific suggestions for mentors supporting teams of undergraduates. Even if you are working with a single undergraduate, these strategies may be broadly useful for working in teams. 

At the beginning of the research experience, we suggest co-writing a team mission, describing team values, ways to hold ourselves accountable, and how we will show each other respect. We keep this mission as a “living document” and we periodically revisit it to make amendments. This creates team accountability and an opportunity to reflect and grow. You can view our current team mission here: https://www.calliechappell.com/team-nectar-microbe. We created this document by (1) discussing how we can have productive and compassionate conversations on difficult topics, (2) deciding on a series of prompts to discuss, (3) taking quiet time to reflect on these prompts, (4) everyone sharing 1-2 thoughts for each prompt anonymously, and (4) discussing the points as a group. All together, this discussion took us about 2 hours. 

Over the summer, we met regularly as a team to discuss work progress and create community. Each day, we met to discuss various “themes” that ranged from professional development to sharing personal stories. We usually met in the morning to help structure the workday, although several team members were in different time zones. 

Here was our weekly meeting schedule: 

  • Mondays: 
    • 1 hour 1-1 mentor/mentee meetings
    • 1 hour team meeting where we checked in about our weekends and discussed our goals for the week 
  • Tuesdays: 30 minute morning team meeting. Tuesday’s theme was “show and tell” where we would turn on our cameras (all of our other meetings were camera-off) and show us something cool. Some of us showed our favorite plants, musical instruments, or food. 
  • Wednesdays: 30 minute morning meeting. Wednesday’s theme was “teach me something new” where we taught each other something we knew about (such as how to play an instrument, how to cook something, etc.). 
  • Thursdays:
    • 30 minute morning meeting where everyone updated each other on their service project (more on this later) and asked for help/feedback/support. 
    • 1 hour reading group where we either read and discussed a scientific paper (first 30 minutes mentees alone + 30 minutes with mentor) or we discussed a professional development topic (such as science social media, how to write a CV, etc.) 
  • Fridays: 
    • 30 minute morning check-in on what we accomplished during the week
    • 30 minute morning discussion with a guest (usually another lab member) where the mentor left and the mentees could chat casually with the guest. 

When we weren’t meeting, we stayed connected and accountable asynchronously using a variety of online tools: 

  • Slack is a messaging application that allows for multiple channels, direct messaging, and group messaging. Our lab has a Slack workspace and we made a private team channel within that workspace where we shared news, updates, and fun photos/memes/links. We also used Slack direct messages to answer quick questions and coordinate one-on-one. 
  • We used a shared Google calendar to keep track of team meetings, one-on-one meetings, and other important events and deadlines.
  • We used Trello to manage projects and create to-do lists. Everyone on the team had access to the team’s Trello board and added their daily and weekly checklists there. Since everyone sees all checklists, we have a system of open accountability and support. For example, if someone is behind on their checklist, another team member could reach out to offer support of help. Multiple students working on the same project could collaborate on a joint checklist. 
  • We worked collaboratively from a shared Google drive where we could view and provide feedback on everyone’s work. We also used Google Slides, Sheets, and Docs for all our projects. 
  • We used Gitlab (integrated into RStudio) for collaborating on joint coding projects. 

More on using online tools for collaboration here: https://asngrads.com/2018/11/27/work-smarter-not-harder-resources-for-time-management-in-graduate-school/  

Our team emphasized supporting each other by providing feedback. We found that one of the most beneficial aspects of having a team is our different perspectives. By creating space for feedback, we enhanced each others’ learning. We emphasized feedback by (1) discussing the importance of feedback in our team values statement, (2) making regular space for giving and receiving feedback during our daily/weekly meetings, and (3) working in collaborative spaces such as Slack, Google Drive, and Gitlab. Mentors can also receive valuable feedback by surveying students. Many graduate students have access to teaching consultations and can take advantage of these resources to get help creating pre- and post-surveys to evaluate mentee learning and receive anonymous feedback. Sometimes, these consultants (such as Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning) can read the survey responses for a mentor and provide a mentor summarized feedback, so that the mentees’ responses are completely anonymous from the mentor. 

B. Well-being during COVID-19: 

It is important to recognize that COVID-19 has created new pressures and challenges for both mentors and mentees. Many students are in challenging living environments and working remotely can be especially stressful when students are balancing other responsibilities. This may include family commitments, health concerns, unstable work environments, moving unexpectedly and more. Creating a supportive work environment is essential to create a team dynamic where everyone feels comfortable being open about the challenges they may be facing. 

Before discussing ways to promote well-being during COVID, we would like to share personal anecdotes from our team that highlight some of the challenges we have faced this summer (in italics): 

Mentee perspective: Living at home was difficult. I saw going to college as an escape from the problems that arose from home. The beginning of summer was a very challenging and stressful time in my life. Apart from starting my first research project, I was helping my mother escape from a toxic relationship in which she had been in for the past 10 years. Being my mother’s support system was like a full-time job. Although I made it seem like I was doing good, mentally I was drowning and clueless on how to support both my mother and myself. I wanted to produce quality work for my research project, but I was not in a clear state of mind to do so. One thing I learned while navigating through this situation was that seeking help can bring significant relief. 

My mentor was extremely supportive and understood how strenuous my living environment was for me. She accommodated as I needed, allowing me to take a week off when moving locations with my mom and was very flexible in terms of my schedule and workload. The welcoming and supportive environment that our team built allowed me to feel comfortable confiding in them my situation. Although it may seem scary to talk about your worries and at-home pressures, it can be really rewarding. This form of openness and flexibility was highly appreciated as a mentee, allowing me to prioritize my mental health and wellbeing above anything else. 

Mentor perspective: While mentoring undergraduates remotely this spring/summer, I had to move cross-country and another time due to a severe personal emergency. Because of experiencing personal trauma, there were times when I felt overwhelmed and not able to provide the quality of mentorship I would normally like to. Because our team had discussed our values and emphasized the importance of self-care at the start, I felt comfortable sharing with my mentees that I was struggling and asking to re-evaluate our timeline and expectations. I asked for some time off, followed by less-frequent meetings as I got back on my feet. As a mentor, it was hard for me to feel valid in taking time away from my mentees to take care of myself — especially with them relying on me for support, both intellectually and emotionally. Having conversations upfront about the importance of self-care helped me feel empowered to ask for time and space when I needed to heal. Ultimately, because I was able to take time to heal myself (and show my own vulnerability), I was able to be a better mentor for my students. 

Mentee perspective: Growing up, I have always been organized and meticulous. For example, the way I fold my clothes with precision and track my calorie-intake are reflections of my detail-oriented personality. I recently found that what compliments my attention to detail and particular thoughtfulness is practicing yoga. I have noticeably enhanced my mind and body connection, and my bodily awareness, since beginning yoga. And so implementing mindfulness can help me maintain balance both in work and in life.

Mentee perspective: Upon waking up and attempting to start my morning, I could feel myself becoming overwhelmed in my mental space. These types of starts, when left unattended, usually feed into unproductivity, drain me, and ultimately impact the upcoming days. I was aware that I needed to communicate with my mentor that I needed the day off to take care of myself. 

“Hi [mentor’s name], I am not feeling well today. To be completely transparent, I’ve been on some new medication and am feeling some of the side effects. I wanted to let you know that I don’t think I’ll be able to attend my meetings today. However, if I feel able to, I will let you know if I can asap! I hope you can understand.” 

What I didn’t tell my mentor and what I will be sharing with those who read this, in case it may help someone out there, is that I was trying out my third antidepressant medication. After having to move four times since campus closed, living on my own with friends, and not having access to campus resources, a toll on my mental health was expected to be in place. Now in that moment or even afterward, I didn’t have to over-explain my situation, no one should. Mental health may be a difficult topic to discuss with others as it relays personal information that one may feel uncomfortable sharing with a work colleague, mentor, or especially a boss. However, I was only able to do this, comfortably, because as a team we actively put in the energy to create this sort of space. Even then, I didn’t feel comfortable detailing what condition or medication I was experiencing, but I felt at ease to communicate the current mental space I was struggling with. 

Mentors’ response: “Thanks for letting me know and being open about this. I always trust that your absence is for a good reason without further explanation, unless you choose to share. 🙂 Please focus on your personal wellness and take care of yourself.”

I mean just by reading the response, you can literally feel the support while still offering space to open the discussion if needed. A quick breakdown for effective yet non-invasive and supportive communication: 

  1. The first sentence: ‘Thank you for communicating and following through with our agreed expectations.’ This means a lot especially to someone who might not have had enough energy to even get up from bed, let alone send a message to a mentor. 
  2.  “I always trust that your absence is for a good reason without further explanation, unless you choose to share.” Allowing the mentee the same respect you give yourself, affirming their decision, while still creating room for elaboration if desired, this sentence alone does so much. 
  3. A smiley face doesn’t hurt (:
  4. Acknowledging pre-established expectations and driving home the idea of self-care and wellbeing

Communication does not have to consist of long explanations via Slack or email, instead work towards trusting one another to respect established expectations and making room for short yet effective messages.

On our team, we created a culture that supports self-care by emphasizing the importance of work-life balance, physical and mental well-being, and valuing each other as whole people. Many students struggled adapting to a 9-5 work-from-home schedule, especially while balancing other commitments and managing working on a disruptive or chaotic environment. Here are some strategies we used to support each other: 

First, we created a community where we shared advice. During our daily check-ins, some of us would ask advice on how to better our daily lives outside of work. These conversations ranged from “Does anyone have advice on groceries, food budgeting, and meal prepping?” to “Every morning I try running in order to start my day on a good track.” Everyone suggested ways to help teammates in need and supported those who were struggling (or succeeding!). 

Second, we emphasized work/life balance and created structures to enforce it. Mentors set the tone with work-life balance. On our team, the mentor emphasized that students should strictly work the number of hours in their work contract, explained that ALL work related to the project was considered working (some students did not know that meeting times were considered work), and required all students keep timecards to track their time working. Most college students are used to studying or preparing for classes over the weekends and may have never held a full-time job before. Working from home, undergraduates may struggle separating their work and life. Therefore, the mentor should model good work/life boundaries to help mentees develop their own. Both mentors and mentees can create work/life balance by: 

  • Limiting the number of working hours per week (tracked using a timecard or an app like toggl). 
  • Setting expectations on when you will be working (such as 9 AM – 5 PM on weekdays only) 
  • Limiting work communications to particular times (by turning off Slack notifications or email alerts during non-working time) 
  • Creating a designated workspace or “work zone” (even if it’s mental, not physical) 
  • Sharing self-care practices such as exercise, cooking, or seeking counseling/therapy. 

Third, we had daily or weekly personal check-ins between mentors and mentees. Personal check-ins allow for a range of conversations to develop that might not have happened if only talking about research-related topics. When mentees are having a hard time, mentors may be the first people that they discuss their challenges with. Because mentors often play an important role as supporters, it is important that mentors think carefully and are intentional about the support they provide. Practicing active listening, being knowledgeable about resources the school or university offers (such as counseling and psychological services, physical health services, and/or emergency legal/financial aid), and bringing a compassionate perspective to the challenges mentees are facing can help. However, mentors are not trained appropriately to handle all types of situations. Mentors, do not hesitate to reach out for help and support as needed if your mentees require support that is beyond your capacity. Remember, you will be the best mentor when you are fully supported and emotionally available. 

Fourth, we built in flexibility with work schedules and deadlines. Sometimes, unexpected circumstances led to team members needing to reschedule meetings, miss deadlines, or reset expectations. We encourage everyone to be especially patient and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Clear communication and trust between the team can help keep things flexible while staying on-track. 

V. Benefits of remote research: 

Although remote research can be challenging, there are some benefits to working remotely. We would like to highlight some of these: 

First, mentees can be based anywhere –not just at your home institution. We encourage mentors to broaden their perspective when hiring undergraduate researchers that will work remotely. During a virtual REU program we participated in, mentees were scattered across the United States and US Territories. In our group, we had one researcher from a local community college. 

Second, working remotely can be a “creative constraint” on research projects. This summer, we pursued projects where students (1) analyzed existing datasets, (2) programmed simulations, (3) developed bioinformatics pipelines, and (4) developed a science outreach program. These projects were much more diverse than if all of the students had been working in the lab. Working remotely can be a great opportunity for students to pursue more independent, self-directed research than they may be able to when working in-person. 

Finally, because students may be in different locations, working remotely is a great opportunity to collaborate with local communities. On our team, service (specifically, promoting equity in access to STEM) was an important shared value highlighted in our values statement. We found that each student completing a service project in addition to their research project was a great way to “live” this shared value. Students found that these service projects were an opportunity to connect their local community to their research, bridging the gap between scientific research and society. As a team, we completed a shared service project, which was writing this blog post! 

Service projects our team pursued this summer included:

  • Created a DIY TED-Ed video to explain research to a broader audience.
  • Work closely with regional TRIO/Upward Bound offices  to develop a webinar for underrepresented communities.
  • Make a TikTok page to share fun and relatable experiences of research and science.
  • Create a summer bioengineering camp for high-school students to encourage future participation in STEM.
  • Illustrate diverse researchers in Ecology and Evolution for a recent paper about at-risk identities doing fieldwork.

VI. Conclusion: 

In this post, we have shared why we believe that undergraduate research is important during COVID-19 and, based on our experiences, suggested best practices when mentoring students remotely. We welcome your thoughts and would love to hear your experiences mentoring or being mentored remotely during this challenging time. Please feel free to comment below or contact Callie Chappell (on behalf of the entire team) directly at calliech[at]stanford[dot]edu.

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