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Want to help diversify the biomedical workforce? Start with mentoring

By Amanda Butz, PhD, Emily Utzerath, MS, Angela Byars-Winston, PhD, University of Wisconsin


In an opinion article for the New York Times published in August 2016, Drs. Daniel Colón Ramos and Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa expressed that trainees from racial/ethnic groups historically underrepresented (HU) in the biomedical sciences are exhausted, not from the research, but from the “constant bombardment of narratives and stereotypes that compromise their ability to focus on their training.” The question of how to reduce the prevalence of such deleterious narratives and stereotypes in order to support the persistence and success of HU trainees has been raised many times over in the past few decades. Yet, the philosophy of science as an objective endeavor can make it difficult for some mentors to understand how a trainee’s identity might have an impact on their research performance. Research shows that HU trainees are interested in talking about issues of race and ethnicity with their mentors, but these conversations are often avoided. How can we better prepare mentors to effectively talk about cultural diversity and sensitive topics with all scholars, especially those from HU groups?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has called for scientific, evidenced-based approaches to training that will broaden participation in the sciences. To answer this call, the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), a collaborative research effort funded by the NIH, was launched in 2014 to better prepare mentors, often white and more advanced in their careers, for effective research mentoring relationship with their mentees, who are coming from increasingly diverse racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

CAM Group PhotoNRMN’s Mentor Training Core has worked extensively for the past few years on implementing established as well as new mentor training interventions designed to improve research mentoring relationships. Within the Mentor Training Core, we formed the Culturally Aware Mentoring (CAM) subgroup, an interdisciplinary group of individuals from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds. Our charge was to develop an advanced mentor training intervention designed to equip mentors with the skills and knowledge necessary to support a diversifying scientific workforce. We developed the CAM training content predicated upon the assumption that everyone is a cultural being and that theoretically-informed training can facilitate mentors’ cultural awareness and capacity to effectively respond to diversity matters in their research mentoring relationships.

The past two years of work have culminated in a six-hour intensive training and an introductory online module that is completed prior to the training. The training is designed to be an advanced workshop for mentors who have already completed some form of mentor training. Training participants are invited to look inward and examine their own racial and ethnic identity; this awareness-raising helps participants to identify their personal assumptions, biases, and privileges that may operate in their research mentoring relationships. Through a combination of activities including group discussion, case studies, and role play, mentors have the opportunity to learn and practice culturally aware mentoring skills. At the conclusion of the workshop, mentors are encouraged to think of one thing that they can do in their mentoring relationships to be more culturally aware and respond better to cultural diversity matters in those relationships.

The training has been pilot tested at four separate sites with 82 mentors and 30 facilitators from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and career stages. Data from our workshop evaluation survey suggest that mentors experience significant gains in several skill areas, including their perceived ability to intentionally create opportunities for their mentees to talk about their lived experiences as they relate to research. Specifically, mentors who participated in our workshops have reported significant perceived skill gains in several areas relating to culturally aware mentoring:

  • intentionally creating opportunities for mentees to bring up issues of race/ethnicity;
  • thinking about how the research experience might differ for mentees from different racial and ethnic groups;
  • knowing when it is appropriate to raise the topic of race or ethnicity in mentoring relationships; and
  • having strategies to address racial and ethnic diversity in mentoring relationships.

Perceived Skill Gains from CAM Participants

In open-ended responses, mentors noted that “This topic is important and worth the time it takes in meeting (e.g., building in time in meeting for discussion)” and that “This type of training is doable! (I doubted it before).” Such responses convey that mentors perceive this training as a step beyond the typical diversity training, with the potential to have a lasting impact on mentors’ perceptions and actions with respect to mentoring relationships. The CAM training shows promise as a strategy for reducing the negative stereotypes and narratives that can challenge the research experiences of historically underrepresented trainees.

The CAM subgroup is led by Angela Byars-Winston (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and includes Amanda Butz (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Rick McGee (Northwestern University), Sandra Quinn (University of Maryland College Park), Carrie Saetermoe (University of California Northridge), Stephen Thomas (University of Maryland College Park), Emily Utzerath (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Veronica Womack (Northwestern University). Individuals interested in having the CAM workshop come to their institutions should contact the Mentor Training Core at mtc@nrmnet.net.

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