From in person to online, mentorship is more important than ever

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Because much of scientific research is being conducted remotely, professional guidance and support is now being done in virtual spaces.

You’ve just arrived in a foreign country to start a research job, and your new city goes under a safer-at-home order. You’re suddenly balancing your old role as a researcher with your new role as your children’s at-home teacher. You’re used to running laboratory experiments all day, and abruptly you’re at home trying to find different, meaningful work to fill your days.

Where do you turn for help managing these and so many other aspects of the transition to working from home? For the researchers, staff and trainees in St. Jude laboratories, the answer is the head of their lab, their mentor. Providing professional and personal guidance and support through mentorship used to happen mostly in face-to-face interactions. Now, as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, mentoring is increasingly taking place in virtual spaces.     

Making use of digital platforms

Group meetings are a cornerstone of the productivity and camaraderie in St. Jude labs. These meetings are an opportunity to review projects, tackle challenges and plan for future work. They are also a chance for everyone in the lab to see one another other and check in. Whether by WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or another digital space, lab meetings now start with the ping of computers and phones logging on so people can see and hear one another despite being physically distant.

“One of the things that we realized is that it is reassuring for people to get regular communication from their group leader,” says Wilson Clements, PhD, of Hematology. “Especially early on, I was trying to send emails to the group no further than two days apart. I made sure when writing those emails to include positive information that would help people feel reassured.”

In addition to full lab meetings, one-on-one check-ins and small group meetings now happen virtually. Digital platforms facilitate taking old ways of connecting, like journal clubs and seminars, into the virtual realm.

“Our lab meetings and one-on-one meetings are now all virtual," says Shannon McKinney-Freeman, PhD, of Hematology. "We have started up a weekly ‘Quaranteam Journal Club’ to discuss papers and I’m making sure folks are aware of virtual seminars both on campus and external to St. Jude that they can take advantage of to keep engaged with science.” 

Helping people adapt to new situations

Virtual spaces can also give lab members a way to connect personally through social hours and coffee breaks. Many teams are maintaining a sense of togetherness by transitioning the type of quick, casual conversations that happen in an office to instant messaging platforms like Slack, or group texts.

“Slack is helping with mentoring through quick conversations that help answer questions and keep people on track," says Jiyang Yu, PhD, of Computational Biology. "But we still miss having a whiteboard for face-to-face conversations that help spark creativity and new ideas.” 

Scientists are unable to access their St. Jude laboratories still have work to do. But it's easier for some than others to find meaningful tasks that can be done at home.

“We’ve had to become creative in order to make sure everyone feels fulfilled with their work for the extended duration of leave from campus. Staff and trainees need direction and guidance, irrespective of how we connect,” says Paul Northcott, PhD, of Developmental Neurobiology. “This aspect hasn’t changed dramatically under the circumstances, but this direction from me has become more important during the pandemic since my trainees can’t do their normal lab tasks.”

If trainees are unable to complete experiments, they can still make progress in other ways. St. Jude mentors are encouraging their trainees and staff to continue to follow their interests.

“When we transitioned to working from home, everyone in the group picked something that they wanted to learn to expand their research toolbox,” says Mark Hatley, MD, PhD, of Oncology. “We've taken lemons and tried to make as much lemonade as possible. If we can take this opportunity to capitalize on the knowledge we gain and a new perspective I think we could come out of this stronger than we went in.”

About the Author

Erin Podolak

Erin Podolak is a science writer in the Department of Strategic Communication, Education and Outreach.