Raising a Researcher: The Role of Mentorship in Laboratory Environments
By Lindsay Bischoff
When people hear the word “scientist,” they may immediately think of an intellectual figure in a white lab coat, holding beakers of mysterious chemicals. Although in some cases this image may be correct, scientists are more accurately described as any person engaging in activities to expand knowledge in a scientific field. Furthermore, the word “scientist” is increasingly synonymous with the word “researcher,” as it is research that contributes to the development of knowledge in any specific scientific field. It is therefore in the interest of science as a whole to investigate and comprehend the many practical, literary, and social characteristics that are present in research environments. This can be achieved by analyzing the various discourse communities that research encompasses, which can include broad categories such as all the researchers in a given field, to minute communities formed by individual laboratories. Although there is a broad body of ethnographic research that examines scientific practices relating to technical skill and communication in these groups (Kinsella 1999), as well as research concerning enculturation (Florence and Yore 2004), there has been less published on the role of mentorship in laboratory environments, especially in terms of student-to-student learning relationships. The following research verifies the presence of a discourse community formed by the members of an individual immunobiology research laboratory. It then uses this community as a lens to examine how mentor-student relationships can facilitate student enculturation into the scientific field of study, as well as the influence of student-to-student relationships.
The data for this research were collected in a variety of ways. Initial research was achieved by reading several ethnographies of similar scientific research discourse communities. This was used as the foundation for the development of several research questions and goals that would guide the collection of the data presented in this paper. This data was collected over a several week period at the Lewkowich Lab located at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. As an undergraduate student researcher at this lab, I was able to gather first-hand observations of its communication methods, employee interactions, and experience the process of enculturation into the group. Furthermore, I interviewed Dr. Jaclyn McAlees, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab and my mentor, to acquire an experienced viewpoint on mentorship and enculturation within the lab.
Firstly, it is important to have an awareness of the group being studied. The Lewkowich Lab, and scientific research labs in general, are interesting because they have the characteristics of several common communities. On one level, they are a workplace where employees may go every day to earn an income and perform their job. However, on a more complex level, they are scholarly communities where collaboration and scientific inquiry are essential to their functioning. The union of these features in research labs contributes to their overall discourse. I have found it appropriate to define the Lewkowich Lab as a discourse community. For the purpose of this paper, the six following characteristics of discourse communities defined by the linguist John Swales were used:
- Has an agreed upon set of common public goals
- Has methods of intercommunication among members
- Uses participatory mechanisms to provided information and feedback
- Utilize and possess one or more genres
- In addition to genres, has acquired some form of specific lexis
- Has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and expertise (Swales 24-27)
The Lewkowich Lab has public goals, which can be found on the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s website, of researching the mechanisms by which the immune system contributes to allergic asthma in patients. The lab also has more implicit goals of enculturating its students into the larger scientific community, which it likely shares with other laboratories and research groups. Its members utilize meetings, texting, email, and research protocols as methods of intercommunication. Members also provide each other with information and feedback about their work in the lab by participating in experiments with each other and through the previously mentioned methods of communication. The lab uses several genres of text, most specifically research protocols and publications, but also email and other informal genres. This community also has its own lexis, as members employ scientific terminology relating to biomedical research, but also its own specific terminology relating to immunobiology, asthma, and the particular experiments being performed. Finally, to be initiated into the group, members must demonstrate some level of scientific literacy, and there are definitive levels of expertise ranging from that of the student, to that of the postdoctoral researcher.
It is this final aspect of the laboratory discourse community that the present research examines. The great variety of expertise within the lab creates a necessity for methods of training. Undergraduate students may come into the lab with very little knowledge of the scientific aspects of the work, as it was in my case when I had very little knowledge about the different types of immune cells or the signaling molecules that they produce when I began my position at the Lewkowich Lab. These beginner students also have scarce experience in the technical processes of a lab as well as their social and cognitive methods. Interesting differences arise when undergraduate students are compared to graduate students. These more experienced students have far greater knowledge of the scientific concepts that the lab is researching but may need more guidance in literary or cognitive practices, such as designing experiments or writing their theses. As a result, the subject of each student’s training can differ based on the experience or level of schooling of the trainee.
Observation of this training in the Lewkowich Lab has revealed key aspects of the role mentors play in their students’ education. With undergraduate students, instruction tend to focus on the “big picture” concepts of the research as well as the technical methods used in experiments. In my own experience, I was first exposed to the practical aspects of the research, including cell culture, tissue harvesting, and the machines that measure gene expression. A large part of this process was learning to read protocols, which are essentially detailed lists of steps for completing certain portions of an experiment. As I gained procedural competence, I was further trained in the basic concepts behind these techniques and why they were necessary for the experiment. At times the information was overwhelming, a feeling also expressed by other undergraduate research students. However, this sentiment may be beneficial to the student. Dr. Kenny Campbell, a neurobiology researcher, believes that “…that’s the perfect time to be able to do [research] because you’re coming in at a point where most of your exposure is overview exposure… So you can come back and learn at each of those levels” (qtd. in Madzia 4). A key aspect of this beginner education is learning in pieces, or at different levels of the experiment, so as not to overwhelm the student.
Interestingly, it is not just the previous knowledge of the student that affects their education by their mentor. Their experience in the lab is also influenced by their attitude and perception going in. This factor can vary greatly between an undergraduate student and a graduate student and is often one of the initial factors that a mentor uses to judge and modify their methods of teaching. In our interview, Dr. McAlees mentions that, in her experience, this attitude is the most revealing difference between the two types of students. “The difference between an undergrad and a graduate student is more in their perspective going in. An undergrad is here to see if this is something that [they’re] going to like, is this something [they’re] going to do, whereas a grad student has had some exposure… so they have a lot more dedication and positive attitude going in.” This “perspective” ultimately contributes to how a mentor approaches teaching their students and subsequently how they undergo enculturation into both the laboratory discourse community, and the larger scientific community.
Dr. James Paul Gee, a linguistics professor and researcher, asserts that “Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction… but by enculturation (‘apprenticeship’) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse” (Gee 278-279). In this instance, “Discourse” refers to “ways of being in the world… which integrates words, acts, values…” (278). Laboratory mentorship is often the avenue by which students are enculturated into the literary, social, and cognitive methods that are characteristic of scientific research. In this way mentors are often faced with two related tasks: teaching their students the ways and methods of their particular lab and teaching their students more general skills that could be applicable across multiple laboratory communities or even across multiple fields of research.
In the case of the Lewkowich Lab, students are not only taught technical skills, but also mental skills that are integral for participating in any kind of research. Dr. McAlees emphasizes “the scientific process, critical thinking, understanding the protocol, all those skills you can take anywhere…. even taking [students] to lectures, seminars, where [they] can still learn things from other areas of science.” By interacting with their mentor and other experts in the field, or even just being exposed to them such as in a seminar, the student is gaining Gee’s “ways of being” and is furthering their enculturation into the field. This enculturation is critical to the students’ ability to interact with other members within their own field, and in related fields. This echoes the same conclusion that Dr. Ann Johns reached in her essay “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” After examining a group of musicians, she found that “all practicing musicians within the Western tradition share knowledge; there is a common core of language and values within this larger community…. As in other professions, these musicians have a base of expertise, values, and expectations that they use to facilitate communication” (Johns 324). In a similar manner, research students are enculturated by their mentors in ways of communicating and speaking, which gives them access to a central foundation of ideas that will link them to other researchers and scientists.
The previous information in this paper has focused on the benefits that the student receives from mentorship. However, my research and observations have also found numerous advantages to both the mentor and the lab. Practically, students are often cheap, or even free labor. In the competitive world of research funding, having students that work only for experience or that receive funding from other programs are beneficial because they can perform basic tasks, freeing up time for senior members, while not taking away from the lab’s own funding. Additionally, the process of mentorship can refine the communication skills of the mentor. Dr. McAlees, who has taken on many students over the course of several years, said that “as a mentor, I really have to work hard to make sure that what I am explaining is understandable. It also helps me examine my project over and over from different perspectives and to really get good at explaining what I am doing in a thorough and understanding manner.” She emphasized that as a researcher, she often finds it necessary to explain her work to a layperson, who has little understanding of science, especially in applying for grants. By mentoring students, especially undergraduate students with little experience, she refines those communication skills and is forced to review her own work, which can lead to new insights.
Finally, having addressed the impact of teaching on students and their mentors, the present research also examines the importance of student-to-student interactions in the lab. In my experience at the Lewkowich Lab, I observed and participated in many instances where less experienced students worked with and were taught by upper level students, ranging from upper-class undergraduate students, to graduate students working toward master’s or doctoral degrees. These experiences were obviously beneficial to the more junior students, who were often seen taking notes to supplement experimental protocols written by the faculty in the lab, or even the upper-level students themselves. The protocols, which are essential in the planning, execution, and reproducibility of experiments, are a critical genre in this discourse community while note-taking is a vital step in transferring the spoken communication to a printed form that can be retained and used in the future.
Interestingly, these student-to-student interactions seemed to reject the presumed idea that they distract and take time away from the more senior student. Instead, these interactions allowed them to review their own work, improve their communication skills, and gain a different perspective of the experiment. Dr. McAlees takes this a step further in saying:
The benefit is definitely more to the more senior student. They’re going through that process to thoroughly explain what they’re doing and making sure that they can have another person understand what the rationale and the explanation and the reasons for the experiments… If you can’t write it in a paper or explain it in a talk or even write it in a grant, you can’t get your point across. You can be the most brilliant person, but if you can’t explain your experiment, you’re never going to be successful.
This suggests that in these interactions, the senior student adopts a transient mentorial role. In these often temporary teaching situations, the students are gaining the same skills, and receiving the same benefits, that formal mentors do. They sharpen their communication skills, reflecting the same advantages in forming relevant and understandable explanations of their work that Dr. McAlees mentioned as a benefit in her mentoring experience. Senior students also gain a similar shift in perspective that was important to mentors in reviewing their projects.
In addition, to a new student in the lab, other students may be more relatable and can offer a viewpoint of the situation that is more similar to that of the newcomer. In my experience at the Lewkowich Lab, there were several instances where I would work with an upper-level undergraduate student. In these situations, I was more comfortable talking about feelings of apprehension or fears about making mistakes and being several years younger than most of the graduate students in the lab. The upper-level student could empathize with me, having been in a similar situation only one or two years earlier. They also provided helpful insights about balancing classes and lab work. In total, other students can provide an additional social resource, as well as teaching more practical skills.
The future of research, and science by extension, is dependent on the education and recruitment of current students. In order to maximize their contributions in their fields of study, it is important that they gain the skills and experience that will allow them to fully integrate into scientific communities and be productive members in their laboratories. These laboratories, including the Lewkowich Lab, are discourse communities that bear the responsibility of enculturating their students into the group, and into communities with other researchers. Mentorship is an important part of this process, allowing both students and their mentors to learn more about their work, ultimately facilitating communication within the discourse community. Students also accelerate each other’s learning, furthering their abilities and knowledge. Looking more closely at these characteristics of scientific research communities could help change the perception of scientists from daunting figures in white coats and holding beakers of chemicals to what scientists really are: collaborators, scholars, and teachers.
Florence, Marilyn K., and Larry D. Yore. “Learning to Write Like a Scientist: Coauthoring as an Enculturation Task.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 41, no. 6, 23 July 2004, 637–668.
Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 3rd ed. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017. 274-295.
Johns, Ann. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 3rd ed. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017. 319-341.
Kinsella, William J. “Discourse, Power, and Knowledge in the Management of ‘Big Science.’” Management Communication Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, 1 Nov. 1999, pp. 171–208.
Madzia, Juliana. “The Role of Scientific Literacy in the Discourse Community of Developmental Neurobiologists.” Queen City Writers, vol. 4, no. 1, 6 Nov. 2015.
McAlees, Jaclyn. Personal Interview. 5 Apr. 2018.
Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32. Print.
Lindsay Bischoff is a second-year student at the University of Cincinnati, currently working towards a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences and Chemistry. Her experience working in an Immunology research laboratory at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has inspired her to pursue a career in biomedical research, and she plans to work towards a doctoral degree after graduation. In the future, she looks forward not only to continuing her education in science but also learning more about the literary and social practices used in research.