Research News

$10M grant backs development of mentoring network to diversify science fields

July 29, 2015
by Cliff White, Wisconsin Center for Education Research

Christine Pfund is using a decade’s worth of knowledge improving mentoring outcomes to serve a key role on a multidisciplinary, multi-institution team recently awarded a $10 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to develop a national research mentoring network.

Pfund, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research housed within UW-Madison's School of Education, and former associate director of the Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning, is working with partners from across UW-Madison and nationally to use mentoring to increase diversity among those who study and pursue careers in biomedical sciences. 

“Mentoring is a vitally important component of the larger effort to recruit diverse scholars to study and pursue academic careers in science,” Pfund says. “In our lifetimes, we will not reach parity of every underserved mentee matched with a mentor of a similar racial/ethnic background. The reality is that we’re going to have to prepare the white men who hold most of the faculty positions in the sciences to work with diverse scholars effectively, or we will never change the system.”

Pfund will be developing a training model and curriculum for culturally responsive mentoring to train academics nationwide. She was chosen, in part, due to her experience with Delta and its parent program, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL). These programs use mentoring to develop more effective practices for teaching undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds. 

Joining Pfund on the team are three UW-Madison colleagues: Janet Branchaw, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE);  Dr. Angela Byars-Winston, an associate professor of general internal medicine; and Christine Sorkness, associate executive director of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. 

“This is the kind of collaboration that is all too rare but necessary for the problem we’re trying to solve,” states Pfund. “By combining efforts, we were able to leverage NIH biomedical dollars but also bring in researchers and thinking from many more domains, including the field of education. I think it’s a model example of how to bridge disciplinary divides between departments and institutes.” 

Originally, the UW-Madison contingent was one of seven groups vying for the grant. However, the team decided to combine its application with those from Boston College, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and the universities of Minnesota, Maryland and North Texas. The NIH awarded this group a five-year, $10 million grant to build the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN).

The joint effort is led by David Burgess, a professor of biology at Boston College, who had already recruited more than 100 professional societies as partners before the grant was awarded. Other institutions brought expertise in creating and running intensive professional development initiatives for diverse scholars from the undergraduate to the faculty level. 

“My involvement in this project stems from my past work with experts on culturally responsive mentoring and building mentoring self-efficacy,” Pfund says. “This large team of experts from a variety of other fields is working to improve mentoring and, ultimately, the attraction and retention of more diverse groups to the biomedical workforce.” 

UW–Madison will be the hub for training for the project, as well as the testing ground for interventions focusing on the development of more effective mentor/mentee relationships. 

“For starters, we’re looking at self-efficacy, the development of a ‘science identity’ and cultural awareness, just to name a few,” Pfund states. 

Janet Branchaw noted they are using many program implementation lessons learned during the longstanding relationship between the WISCIENCE program she directs and Pfund’s Delta/CIRTL initiatives. For instance, after a few early strategy sessions, they decided to focus on improving mentorship of undergraduate students who still are deciding on their major and career path.

“Research says that one of the most pervasive reasons underserved groups don’t persist in science is a lack of quality mentoring,” Branchaw says. “We want our mentors to give tips to their mentees on how to be a successful scientist or researcher, form good habits, learn from mistakes. We also want our mentors, who are often teaching undergraduate courses, to teach in a way that is more effective for retaining the interest of students of diverse backgrounds.”

Branchaw says since NRMN’s launch, they’ve been inundated with requests for training from academics around the country. Balancing that demand with the expansion of NRMN is a major goal over the next few years.

“We’ve had some early success, and it feels good to be out of the gate to meet those early goals,” Branchaw states. “The next step will take more time and will involve diving into the literature and working with experts to develop additional modules that we will eventually add to our core training program.”

The group’s biggest challenge ahead is scaling up the project to the national level.  Because of that, Branchaw said she’s thankful to have Pfund, one of the few experts who has expanded a mentorship program nationally, as a co-collaborator. 
“Now NRMN is an organization with a big profile that can find or attract the attention of programs that have been piloted and proven effective, but need a bigger platform and the resources to grow,” Pfund says. 

“This grant gives UW-Madison recognition on the national landscape that many had nodded to for a while – that the university is a leader in knowledge on mentoring and its positive effects on scholarship, academic persistence and moving students from diverse backgrounds into careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.”

Most importantly, though, is maximizing the impact of such a generous grant to make the world of academic science more inclusive of those from diverse backgrounds.

“I want to help create a situation in which mentors want to be part of the program, and get excited about mentoring and the one-on-one relationships they form with their students. I want to see underserved mentees seek out NRMN mentors because they know they are effective,” Pfund states.  

Pfund believes that cultural change will come to academia – and specifically science – when effective mentoring is valued in determining promotions and tenure and when teaching and mentoring are regarded with the same gravitas as research. 

“I want the satisfaction of looking back 15 years from now and seeing that our work with NRMN has made a difference,” Pfund said. “To make that happen, we have to get the field to buy into training and supporting the next generation of research scholars. The value system has to change, or else we’re just going to have more of the same.”