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PULLMAN – If any of them needed a way to boost their research careers, they’ve found it. And now expectations are running high as four WSU faculty in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) prepare to collaborate with newly approved mentors as part of the ADVANCE at WSU External Mentor Program.
For Erica Crespi, finding a mentor proved to be one of her first tasks at WSU – though she hadn’t planned it that way. After arriving in January to begin work as assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences, she found that the first person knocking on her office door was Rebecca Craft, who has coordinated the program since last summer.
“She thought the External Mentor Program would appeal to me particularly because it could be used to jump-start my research at WSU,” said Crespi, who specializes in studying how environmental stressors affect early development of vertebrates.
After that introduction, Crespi soon had an ideal mentor in mind: Louise Rollins-Smith of the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, who studies the immune systems of amphibians. She would provide perspective for Crespi’s studies into how disease affects developmental processes.
“I see the External Mentor Program as the catalyst that I desperately needed to seek out this collaboration and start this exciting new area of research in my laboratory,” Crespi said. “I will be traveling to Vanderbilt in May and hopefully by next year we’ll have some preliminary findings that would support a collaborative grant proposal.”
Beyond these hopeful beginnings, Crespi intends to promote collaboration between researchers at WSU and the University of Idaho and is hoping to see research scientists and students from both universities converge when Rollins-Smith visits WSU Pullman in the fall to lead a seminar.
“I’m planning a dinner for faculty, post-docs, graduate students and undergraduates interested in disease-related amphibian decline to get together and start talking about ways our research expertise could synergize to advance our research in new ways,” she said. “As a new faculty member here, I was excited about the opportunity to make connections.”
She’s not the only one. Jennifer Adam, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, is looking forward to joining her mentor at an Ecological Society of America conference this summer in Texas. The trip is funded by her ADVANCE at WSU External Mentor Program grant and will provide a way for her to build personal contacts with others in her field.
“This will allow me to attend a conference related to a new area of research with somebody already versed in the research area,” she said. “We are submitting a co-authored abstract together.”
All of the four new program participants at WSU share an enthusiasm for wanting to work with an external mentor. Nehal Abu-Lail, assistant professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, sought out a full professor in her chosen field (chemical engineering), preferably a woman and someone familiar with her specific research areas. She also was looking for a mentor who could offer an outside view.
For Catherine Cooper, assistant professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, the initial criterion for her mentor was a good track record of producing quality students and research.
Cooper also wanted a mentor “still early enough in their career to remember the struggles of the beginnings, yet tenured and established.”
And like Abu-Lail, Cooper was looking for a mentor with a unique perspective – “someone with whom I feel comfortable enough sharing my worries, concerns and panics, without the fear of judgment. I don’t easily ask for help and wanted to make sure that my mentor would be someone who could encourage me to do so.”
With this many high expectations, what are the prospects for success? Considering the experience of several others who have been through or are active in the program, these educators have every reason to be optimistic.
“I have been coordinating this program only since August 2010,” explained Craft, professor and director of experimental training in the Department of Psychology. “But I am very impressed with the positive impact of the external mentor/WSU faculty member experiences thus far.
“Our grantees report highly productive and satisfying collegial exchanges and research collaborations with their external mentors, which will likely enhance their research productivity, career development and job satisfaction for many years to come,” she said.
ADVANCE at WSU is part of a comprehensive nationwide effort by the National Science Foundation to identify barriers to recruitment, retention and advancement of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. It provides career development opportunities for faculty of all ranks to work with a noted expert in their discipline.
For more information about the External Mentor Program, including how to apply for a grant, contact Rebecca Craft at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-335-5040.