Faculty mentoring, peer mentoring, and confidence – a premed story
Molly MacIsaac UA’18 and Jim Stellar
Molly is a premedical honors college student with a major in Biology. She works in a research lab in the RNA institute. All of that is classical and excellent. She also belongs to student groups such as the Pre-Med Club, and Students for Academic Success (SAS) that helps which helps with tutoring and mentoring. We decided to write a blog about how one builds confidence while building a record of excellence.
First, question: Molly why did you come to the University at Albany and how did you get involved in scholarly research with the RNA institute?
There were many factors that placed me at UAlbany. I grew up in Saugerties, a small town about 45 minutes south of Albany. Since I was young I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and that desire was reaffirmed as I took Biology and Chemistry courses in High School. As excited as I was to go away to college, my family is very important to me, and I wanted to be fairly close to home. Also, considering the monetary aspect, I couldn’t afford the price tag of a private school. After all these considerations, UAlbany became my first choice. I visited the campus, and I fell in love.
In my Spring semester of my Freshman year, I began to look up information on the current research being conducted by professors at the University. However, there wasn’t much information on how to get into a research lab. I blindly emailed some professors but that didn’t seem to work. A few months later, in the summer, I was recommended by word of mouth, to a PI who was looking for an undergraduate student. He asked me to come in for a brief interview, and by the end, I had accepted a research position in the Halvorsen Lab at The RNA Institute here at UAlbany.
All good. But I have a second question. Describe your involvement with SAS, what is its mission, and how it has impacted your experience at UAlbany.
I vividly remember the night SAS began. It was 1:00 AM in late spring semester of my freshman year. I was in the basement study lounge of Steinmetz Hall in the Honors Program with two of my friends. We were critiquing some of the tutoring services on campus, when we realized there were no tutoring organizations that were lead by students. A conversation turned into an idea, which turned into a plan, which turned into SAS. Our mission was to offer a tutoring organization that was unlike any on campus, and aid in the process of learning for any student that wanted it. And we certainly succeeded. In our first year we had over 30 tutors and 120 tutees.
I can’t begin to explain how this organization changed my trajectory here at UAlbany. In high school, I never explored leadership positions; I never really had an interest. After just a few months in the organization, all I wanted was to help other students in whatever means possible. I have had the most incredible mentors over the last two years. They have inspired me to turn around and do the same for others, and this organization has enabled me to do just that.
You have a faculty mentor. How does mentoring by undergraduates at the university or in the Honors College compare?
I have experienced mentoring from a variety of people. My faculty lab PI gives me daily mentoring, typically regarding my research, but sometimes it extends beyond that. Consulting with a faculty member so frequently elicits a certain type of relationship that only strengthens over time (as long as they like you). Mentoring from upperclassman is also something I capitalize on a daily basis. I frequently use my older friends for various types of advice. However, forming a relationship with older students takes time, which brings me to the Honors program here. Unfortunately, there isn’t an official mentoring program that’s implemented in the Honors College. This is something I would like, and I’m working to change. Unofficially, yes, many upperclassmen offer their input on varying subject matter to younger students. However, this mentoring is typically exhibited in close friendships, as in my case, and it takes a while to form these relationships. If we could expose these freshmen to an upperclassman mentor as soon as they begin their undergraduate career, we could facilitate a relationship with older students, and allow them to fully exploit their potential here. This mentoring, as in my case, could also inspire students to reciprocate, and offer mentoring to students who need it, eliciting a community that’s constantly growing academically.
You told me at one point you were shy as an undergraduate. You are not shy now. What happened between freshman year and now in your junior year?
Yes, in high school, and even in my first year of undergrad, I was very shy. As I started my freshman year, I hate to admit, I never intended to pursue any type of leadership positions. SAS was the first thing that brought me out of my comfort zone. As corny as it sounds, I felt like I was making a difference at my school. Our organization helped over 100 students in the first year, and I was a part of it. Beyond SAS, my research certainly brought me out of my shell. The research symposium was undoubtedly the best day of my college career. But it was the first time presenting, I was not prepared, and I was dreading it. Guess who the first person to visit my poster was? You. Thankfully I didn’t know who you were until after I was done presenting. However, by the end of the day I was glowing. I couldn’t wait to present again. There are many more examples of events that changed me into the person I am today, but I think it’s important to understand that all students have this potential. They just need some mentoring and a small push out of their comfort zone, and we need to give them the resources to get there.
Until you wrote that above, I had no idea that I was the first person to whom you presented your research poster. I thought you were a graduate student. As a PI myself, I often had that experience with my own undergraduates from my neuroscience laboratory at a previous university, and especially when we went to the Society for Neuroscience meeting (oddly … where I am now, keeping in touch with my faculty roots as a university president)
At a less personal level, what you write about SAS is classic in that helping to found it also helped you develop confidence. Of course, confidence is key to using the knowledge one learns in college to be effective in a work site even if it is a faculty member’s research laboratory. It also works back in the classroom where a more focused student who is passionate about her/his field does better in their classes.
Another important point is what you said above about the need for a positive relationship in successful mentoring “(as long as they like you).” When the student selects the faculty member’s laboratory in which to work or chooses their peer tutor/mentor from SAS, that liking is key to the free and deep flow of information with that student. Yet we often ignore that emotional interaction in favor of the academic curriculum in course-based teaching structure where whether you like what you are doing is set apart from the offering of facts and theories to learn in classes.
As we know from neuroscience (e.g. David Eagleman’s book, Incognitio, or my recent book Education that Works), the instinctive/gut-level decision-making processes in the brain is critical and it communicates to the conscious decision-making process with emotions. It gives us the feeling that we have the right major and field or the confidence to project that knowledge to others in a poster presentation. The university needs to create such mentoring opportunities such as SAS…or leverage and celebrate when our students do it themselves.