Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Online Mentorship

An article in The Scientist takes a look at the not-for-profit online mentoring service MentorNet. Unlike some of the other online mentoring sites that focus on teenagers interested in science, MentorNet that targets women and underrepresented minorities in engineering and science.

The MentorNet web site says the following about who can join and use the Forums and other resources:

  • Women and men with educational or professional backgrounds in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
  • Women community college, undergraduate and graduate students considering or pursuing a degree or certificate in engineering, *science, technology, or math, but not pursuing pre-medicine, pre-dental, pre-nursing or pre-veterinary studies.
  • Women postdocs in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
  • Female and male professionals with backgrounds in engineering, *science, technology, or math, interested in mentoring others.
  • Women science and engineering professionals and students looking for mentoring and support regarding their chosen field or career.
  • Women interested in exploring careers in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
  • Anyone interested in women's issues and advancement in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
*Science includes physical, biological, earth, atmospheric, and ocean science, computer science, and other related science fields.

One-on-one mentoring has more restrictions on who can join, the biggest being that the protégé must be enrolled or employed at one of the 118 partnering colleges and universities or be associated with a partnered professional society. Since its founding in 1998, MentorNet has matched 14,000 engineers and scientists with mentors. 70% of the protégés are in engineering and only 13% were in the life sciences, so engineers are more likely to find a compatible mentor.

Because most of the mentors are white, minority protégés are often not matched with mentors of the same race or ethnicity.
Michelle Foster, a postdoc in neuroendocrinology at UCSF, sought out MentorNet not only because she is a woman in a male-dominated career path, but also because she wanted perspective from another African American woman in neuroscience. Although her mentor isn't African American, Foster says she could relate to her mentor just as well. "It was definitely a good match. We clicked. We definitely related on a lot of different issues," says Foster, who would talk to her mentor about competition in the workplace and balancing career and family.

"The challenges for women are universal," says Carmen Carter, president of the Multicultural Women's Council, a nonprofit networking organization for woman of different races and ethnicities. E-mentoring allows busy women to connect with people with whom they may not necessarily have access, she adds. The format of e-mail also removes some of the ingrained biases that hinder equanimity. "My PI is really smart so sometimes she can be intimidating - not that she means to be, but I don't want to ask the wrong questions," Foster says. "Whereas on e-mail it's easier to approach someone from behind a screen than it is to approach someone live."
If you do chose to try MentorNet, The Scientist has some suggestions for making the most of the protégé-mentor relationship.

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