Written by: Vanessa Avila
The STEM field is very diverse with career opportunities that it can stir indecisiveness when it comes to picking the right STEM major that one can be solid about. It’s not unusual for students to wonder whether they are pursuing something they truly want if they don’t even have the slightest clue about the reality of their ideal careers. STEM undergraduates particularly have intense curriculums that bound them to their academic responsibilities, while other STEM students juggle their school life with part-time jobs. It makes it easier for these students to disconnect with their own school advisors or individuals who can help them know more about the working environment relevant to the majors they are pursuing.
Having someone who will shed light about the atmosphere of a specific career or major in STEM can help undergraduates know what to expect as they apply their knowledge and skills to the real world. In a time of doubt and uncertainty as to whether one is in the right track, a mentor who can speak from experience can come in handy! To have a good look at the scope of what one can reap from being mentored, a series of questions were asked to mentors and STEM students, thoroughly discussing the perks and the bouts of mentorship.
Preparing STEM Students for the Future Through Mentors
Typically, students identify their lack of interest for their majors through the courses they take, but there exists many students who enjoy their courses and complete them successfully. However some students feel dissatisfaction once they start working their careers. As mentioned, professional mentors working in the areas being studied by STEM undergraduates can help students have a true grasp of their potential roles in their ideal careers. Students can have an idea of what it will be like through the words of an experienced mentor, and it can help individual students assess whether their chosen majors are the right ones for them at an earlier time before completing a degree in a field they might regret working in.
Sayrah Muyco, a current undergraduate pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering in Xavier University (Philippines), has expressed how she was given the impression that her chosen career path was one of the challenging paths to take in the engineering world. Under the guidance of a mentor, she claims that he has helped her prepare for future situations she might encounter in her career by exposing her to relevant lessons and situations that can stand as potential challenges towards her journey of becoming successful. In addition to this, he also helped her identify her own strengths and weaknesses. She states, “I realized that I’m good at programming, yet bad at lab works,” when discussing what she was able to take out of the activities he provided for her to identify her strong and weak spots. STEM mentors who are capable of showing their students their strong and weak sides enable the knowledge of what the student can refine or improve. This in turn can mold strengths that will uniquely represent them apart from other contenders who have acquired similar skills necessary for a specific career.
STEM Undergraduates can also increase their networking pool for valuable connections with the help of a mentor. These connections can be a boost in having important opportunities in-hand and enable students to be noticed by working professionals while still studying in school. A great example is Jordan Oliver, an undergraduate student fulfilling her academic responsibilities as a mechanical engineer. “Networking crossed my mind before I met my mentor, but I didn’t practice very often since I rarely attended events where networking would be possible,” says Jordan. “But whenever we’re with people, my mentor encourages me to continue sharpening my networking skills, or sometimes, I watch her network and see the talking points and questions she chooses. ” Jordan has maintained a good relationship with her mentor for over two years and continues to find her as an inspiration.
Sharing A Different Perspective in Following Career Paths
Not only can mentors relay tasks and responsibilities inside the working environment to their protégés, they can also show how one can be creative with a specific major and follow a non-linear career path. This is evidently true for Vianne Greek who is a Cloud Services Administrator at Virginia Tech and a current mentor in a STEM mentorship program held at Virginia Western Community College. In regards to her experience, she explains, “the degree may or may not lead you to your true path. My career has taken a very circuitous route to lead me where I am, and I’m in a role for which my natural talents and abilities are a natural fit, but in a field in which i have no formal education. So, while it’s important to complete the degree, your chosen major may not dictate your life or career going forward.”
Vianne initially obtained a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and soon topped it off with a master’s degree in Business Administration. However, her current career involves information technology. Throughout her college study, she transitioned from marketing to databases, to financial, back to marketing, switching again to marketing a database-based platform, and finally to marketing and administering technological software. The skills she has obtained throughout her college and work experience have been generously exhibited through her various occupations, both in marketing and information technology, and it has shown her creativity in utilizing her foundational majors. She also has set another milestone for herself by being a strengths coach, venturing in another path that fuels her various interests.
Mentorship Encouraging the Close to the Gender Gap in STEM
It has definitely been stressed in today’s society that there is a scarcity of women joining the STEM field. Yong describes that women taking engineering courses is similar to “running a psychological gauntlet” with having to evade from sexism and the “implicit tendency to see engineering as a male discipline.” In addition to this, he highlights that it has been found that the U.S. only has 13 to 22 percent of women with engineering doctorates, not to mention the overall low percentage of women in the sciences as a whole (Yong, 2017). This reels in the roles of female mentors and how it is recognized as an important factor to bring more women in the STEM field and break the stigma of these known “male-dominant” professions.
“Engineering was very much considered ‘men’s work’ when I started in 1979, and the few bosses who served as mentors to me made up for the dozens of others who either subtly or blatantly indicated I didn’t belong,” answers Kimberley Homer when asked why she chose to be a mentor alongside her occupation as a Systems Engineer/Analyst. “Young people, or any person studying for a new career, hear mass marketed messages designed to sell the student loans, computers and apps, online courses, clothing, and cars that the sellers want to sell,” added Homer. “A mentor serves the protégée for the purpose of her well-being.”
Homer had the opportunity to mentor a young lady named Aziza Longi who she describes as an insightful and empathic person that has walked a life completely different from her own. Aziza is currently following an engineering curriculum but realized that it is not the path she feels strongly in continuing. Meeting Kimberley Homer taught her that in order to succeed, one needed to fail and experience rejection for it is essential to one’s growth. “She breaks the stereotype of engineers being anti-social and stubborn by learning from people through all walks of life, spending her time traveling and joining various social events.” says Aziza. She has been the ultimate role model for me and I’m so glad that I have met her.”
Alexie Jean Jacques, a female undergraduate pursuing Civil Engineering, was mentored–and continues to be connected to Sarah Glenn, a fellow structural engineer and project manager for AECOM. When Alexie was asked how Sarah helped shape her perspective about the working environment in STEM, she explains, “Sarah taught me that it is more than possible to be a female engineer. So often when we hear the word ‘engineer’ we think ‘male dominated field.’ Women play a vital role in the engineering field performing just as well as men do. The engineering world, believe it or not, has women, mothers, wives, breast cancer survivors… The list goes on.” Alexie admitted that through her study as a civil engineering student in Virginia Western Community College, she has had moments of feeling discouraged when she did not automatically understand a concept taught in class. Sarah’s words and encouragement have been sources of motivation for Alexie to power through her courses.
A recent study showed that female engineering undergraduate students with female mentors have “higher retention in engineering and more intentions to pursue advanced engineering degrees,” compared to the ones who were assisted by male mentors or no mentors at all. Although the study reflected that male mentors and female mentors were “equally conscientious”, it was evident that female students found more comfort and similarities with female mentors and the resulting effect from some male mentors fell along the same line as having no mentors at all (Dennehy and Dasgupta, 2017).
A consultant for TFR Services, LLC, Kim Long mentions that through her work as a consultant in the company, she often encountered young women who felt “overworked or underpaid” despite being recent graduates. Her efforts as a mentor involved her teaching her own mentee about how she was able to work around an environment filled with males. “I never let it be an excuse, I didn’t complain or go to HR or anything like that,” says Kim. “I wasn’t a ‘whiner’, for lack of a better way to say it. I ‘sucked it up buttercup’ and worked both harder and smarter. I carried the book ‘Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office’ for a long time earlier in my career. It wasn’t until later that I learned I could be nice and get the corner office… In the end, I told her I can honestly say [that] I have achieved every single career goal I’ve ever set for myself.”
Is The Idea of Mentorship Not as Dispersed?
When asking STEM students about who they consider have guided and taught them about the actuality of their majors, the usual response was the incapability to pinpoint a specific person who has fulfilled that role. When mentors were asked if mentoring is extended commonly to society, many seemed to agree that while it exists and plenty of individuals get the chance to be guided by knowledgeable peers, there are still a good number of individuals who do not have this guidance for various reasons. A mentor herself, Diane Stokes, believes that there is no “deficit” when it comes to mentors and mentorship, rather there is a need to reach people who do not have access to such a resource.
Dr. Victoria Cox, a mentor and a Nurse Recruiter for the Department of Veterans Affairs, mentions how connectivity in a mentor-protégé relationship also plays a role in the blossoming of a mentor-filled community. “It is being encouraged more in today’s society yet the formalities are met without the connecting relationships. The mentoring experience is more than a checkbox or time to complete, it is about establishing lifelong connections from which both parties involved can grow!” says Dr. Cox. “Mentorship is important to educate and inspire youth to the principles and morals that are the foundation of this nation’s existence. In this time our world is faced with such challenges that lifting one another up, if only by one relationship at a time, is essential to the continual being of mankind. The mentorship connection is necessary to grow the people.”
Last day of the orientation was relaxing in the early morning. David, Phuc, and I went to have breakfast at The Friendly Toast in Kendall Square. It was delicious! We then headed back to the conference room to work on the Shark Tank presentation. We had about 3 hours to prepare for the Shark Tank. I personally think my team did a great job. The group that won got $31,500 because the grant donor gave them $19,000, while we got $30,500. Plus, we definitely earned more profit than the other two teams because we made pretty good deal with the donors. I think the activity was a bit off from what I “specialize” in, but it was a great exercise. At first I did not have a clear clue on what to expect from the three donors, but after negotiating with the private donor, who wanted to get 70% of profit from what we made, my team was more experienced. When we had to make deal with the business donor, who offered us $10k for 50% of profit, we decided to take the deal, in return, they can only get 30% profit, and the deal was made! Even though my team did not win and I did not win a single gift card from all the activities we have done here, I feel like what I have earned are more than that. I got to spend some wonderful time with the team exploring Boston, used all the material I have learned to solve the problems for the second scavenger hunt, and practiced public speaking as well as raising funds for a project. I think that is great and there is nothing else I could ask for, especially the provided food, they are always delicious and more than enough for us. Every day is a journal and with i-Trek, my journals have been so colorful and adventurous.
After today’s session, I have learned that to work with business and individual companies, we need to focus more on the profits and revenues while with the grant donors, they care more about how our products will contribute to the community, as it seemed like they were willing to give a big amount of money to someone who they think will give the community the most benefits.
After a modest 5 hours of rejuvenation, I started the second day in Boston. On sore feet, I took a visit to Deer Island Water Treatment Plant. I thought this plant had to have something to do with Deer Park water.
On the island, it was a sure sight of classic factory-manufacturer type of area. On the right was the enormous body of water and to the left was a fenced top-secret area with mechanical giants standing.
The team was greeted in the reception area that resembled a common university hall, with actual classrooms. A display of a water processing machine from early last century was nothing but merely an outdated piece of metal scrap. Thanks to his curiosity, I managed to bust a display door open and not being able to close it.
The tour guide came and gave them a presentation on the history of the Island. The intro video was, frankly, probably recycled from last few decades; it reminded me of a video on how to use the internet. The guide then showed samples of water in different stages of purification.
The crew was led outside. Grey clouds covered the sky, attempting to cause some troubles to the tourists. A stench immediately hit me; it reminded me of the river I sometimes passed by when I went to school back in Vietnam. The team was advised against taking photos inside buildings, so sadly I could not showcase some tubes and chambers. The guide explained steps of processing raw sewage to release it back to the environment safely. Raindrops fell as the crew toured around the plant. From a distance, a strange-looking windmill was spotted; it was introduced as a new design which would be much more efficient than the current one. From the overpass, the team found a pleasant scene of raw sewage water, with foam and plastic cups floating atop; it was mentioned that the scene was much more tolerable than some other samples. At the end of the tour, the tour guide told the team about his entry to the field. He never expected to end up at the plant, but he has been enjoying it since. A key to finding your passion is to go out there and try different things: your passion might lie somewhere unexpected.
The water treatment plant was an underrated man-made marvel. The whole construction successfully transformed murky waters to release back to the environment while also produced clean air and fertilizer. Such body of work was the contributions of all scientists and faculty throughout decades. The team would like to express their gratitude towards their hard work. The future is hopeful with more methods to treat sewage with more efficiency and accuracy. Speaking of future, the future belongs to future researchers like Trekkers, who will take on previous foundations to develop more marvels. Topics alert: renewable power or pollution treatment?
Leaving the plant, mister Gage assigned Trekkers the scavenger hunt and went home to do administrative work. I was teamed with Monica and Alex. But teams were no longer a thing, because the whole crew decided to form a Team Alpha, comprised of all ten Trekkers. They first headed to MGH station, followed by an avoidable 13-minute walk to reach the giant dinosaur.
The team then reached Fenway Station to get to Fenway Park, home of Boston Red Sox. I could not care less because baseball will forever lie in his dark book. The exterior was strangely unassuming for such a big sport team.
Somehow, the ended up in a sketchy convenience store. I was very concerned because of all convenience stores in the whole Boston metropolitan area, why this knife-fight stadium? The items were probably decorative, as they probably expired already before this town was founded. However, behind the also sketchy vending machine, a little hip-hop-ish shoes boutique. The shop itself was pretty banal, but the entrance, it deserved the credit.
The library, in short, impressed me. The grandeur of the building was admirable, both exterior and interior. Different section and different rooms connected each other to form a maze of knowledge. The courtyard was nothing short of spectacular. A sitting patio surrounded a garden and a statue fountained located harmoniously in the middle of the courtyard. Queen Elizabeth would probably be very impressed with the designing job. The statue was funny to me though; it reminded me of a mother taking a selfie with her baby, although she was holding a toy or a flower.
The team reached Copley Square, a sight of knowledge and relaxation. The team spotted the Tortoise and the Hare, and they were quick to run their bodies all over the statues.
Fatigue finally hit them, and they were looking forward to going home. However, they decided to get one last push to the Public Garden. Such a nice spacious park! They promptly found the guy Summer in the list, but realized that it was actually spelt Sumner. The crew lingered for the bit in the park.
I lied down on the grass, the tingling touch of slight damp grass was soothing. I then thought about the time I was waiting for i-Trek result. Because of travelling inconvenience, I was so certain that I was going to give up i-Trek regardless of the decision letter. Nevertheless, I took this risk and endured a little bit more flying to join the program. I am glad I joined. Sure, sleeping on an air mattress and day 2 already drained me a lot. However, I met some really nice people and gained insight to the best institute out there, MIT. This was the first time I came to Boston area, and probably would not be the last. Isn’t that the idea of putting yourself in the unknown? I joined i-Trek, never been to the area and did not know anybody in the program. But after the program, I would have much more experience and connections to help me with grad school application. Heck, it would probably make into top 5 of my most favorite trips ever. I might not be a yearned-for grad candidate right after the program, but this would be a start. I would plan a bit more carefully, be a bit more proactive, and feel a bit more confident.
The team dragged themselves back to the train station nearby. It was rush hour. The struggle was real. The station filled with people. The trains were stuffed like a turkey. They had to wait for the third train of the route to even get on. While they were waiting, on the platform, a street band performed “Daylight” by Maroon 5 with violin.
Today’s presentations by MSRP students were very interesting and impressive. We saw Ranine, a former Trekker, explain to us what her research was about. Some of the posters that grabbed by attention included developing new transistors that would continue to obey Moore’s law, analyzing image recognition, and using virtual reality to improve our current technological systems.
After finishing the poster presentations, we continued with our research and began brainstorming about the different methods that we could use to detect harmful agents in water. A team mate and I had already discussed the idea of detecting higher concentrations of lead by developing some kind of conductive/non-conductive material that would change its conductive properties upon contact with lead. After spending a few hours, we found a compound formed of graphene and some type of modified MultiWalled Carbon Paste nano tubes. This compound is shown to increase its electrical conductivity when higher concentrations of lead are present. Ideally, we could implement this technology at a low cost and make it available for anyone.