On Finding a Mentor

Ah, mentor-hunting. Not as hard as it sounds, if you follow a few simple guidelines.

So what is a mentor?

It is someone who is invested in your study just as you are; someone to bounce ideas off of; someone to ask questions of; someone to guide you if something goes awry. A teacher who happens to be an expert in your field.

  • Keep your eyes peeled

Mentors are literally everywhere if you take the time to look. They don’t have to be some strange professor at a foreign university. Teachers, parents, friends’ parents, family friends…the list is endless.

I found that the more people knew about my research, the more potential mentors I found. On a casual visit to my neighbor’s house, in fact, I discovered that my friend’s dad was close friends with a guy who worked in my field exactly.

Badda-bing badda-boom.

The bottom line is that people get excited when us younger folks are interested in things other than sports and teeny-bop music, and if you share your research experiences with them, you will find a plethora of open arms and listening ears.

  • Know who you’re dealing with

Sometimes we’re in one of those I-need-help-now scenarios. In this case it’s perfectly fine to do some internet research to find that help.

Look for professors and scientists doing research in your field. But, before you contact them, look a little further into what they’re currently working on. Are they in the midst of an experiment? Have they recently published a journal article?

It will make this person 1,000 times more likely to help you out if you can reference something like this when you contact them. It shows that you have a serious interest in their work specifically (even if this isn’t 100% true).

  • Keep it inquisitive

I love my research science teacher to death, but I think I’ve found a much better way to approach a potential mentor than she has instructed me. She told our class to send out emails similar to the following (filling in the blanks, of course):

Dear Dr. Please-Help-Me, 

            I am a student at ______ enrolled in a course called _____. I am looking to conduct a study in the field of _____. During my study I hope to find out ______.

            I am writing to you to request some assistance. I am trying to find a professional who has experience in this field outside of my teacher to help guide me with my research. I was wondering if you would be willing to mentor me with my study. I need someone who would be willing to: ____.

            I am hoping to find a mentor within __(time)__ so that I can get started on my project. I have a __(time)__ frame in which I am working to carry out my study.

            Please contact me via email if you would be willing to assist me. Thank you for your consideration and time.

Sincerely,

Your Name

I’ve found that the response rate for this approach was much lower than if I had emailed a professor with just a few questions that I thought they could answer quickly. These types of “quick questions” often turn into deeper discussions that often turn into mentorships on their own.

Short, sweet, interesting.

  • Keep them updated

Keeping constant contact with your mentor is important. Send them updated drafts of whatever you’re working on (research plan, protocol) as well as information on where your study is headed.

Even if you don’t need their help at that particular moment, you very well may need it soon. And nothing’s more annoying than that friend who only calls you when they need your help.

  • Keep trying!

As I mentioned in my Advice to a Young Scientist post, this whole process may take a little while (for me, about 15 emails)- remember that having a professional guide is invaluable. Try email, a phone call, even a formal letter.

If you need any help with your search, please contact me! (getoutthereblog(at)yahoo.com) I’ll do my best to get you started.

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Mentors really are everywhere. Check it out!

SOS: A message from Mother Earth

Arctic sea ice levels days away from record low.

It’s articles like these that quite frankly just scare me. At the same time, though, they fascinate me. How could we let this happen? How does nobody know what to do about it?

I actually print out the most scascinating (see what I did there?) ones and have started a collection of them in my room. I’ll put them all in one post at some point.

Prepare to want to move to Mars.

‘Til next time.

The Art of Balance

This year while conducting my experiment, I stumbled upon an unexpected phenomenon. My project was very… well… scientific. It forced me to be precise and organized. Towards the end I was becoming increasingly tired of the meticulous measurements. I started to dislike the fact that I was required to write everything down in a notebook.

So I turned to an old hobby of mine- tie-dying- because something inside me felt I needed a creative outlet. I almost craved something not so exact.

It worked out perfectly. I splattered and dipped and threw the dye on as I pleased, and the shirts always came out looking neat. Then, miraculously, I could return to my calculations with a clear head.

I guess I learned there’s something to be said about using both sides of the brain simultaneously. One thrives off the other. Yin and Yang.

I present to you… The Art of Balance.

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Mae Jemison has some awesome ideas on this topic, although she focuses more on the integration of the two rather than using them for balance. Either way, lesson learned.

It was sort of funny looking through my pictures from this past year- tie-dyes mixed in with research photos. Gotta love it…

Home Experiment Photos

For your entertainment…Measuring some mussels

 

Looking scientific…

And again…Measuring salt water for the tanks
Basic set-up of my experiment- wine chillers for constant temperature, air pump on the top right chiller, tanks beneath the bench, a sweet tie-dye sheet to the left for my enjoymentHeroically smashing up salt to make my salt water (looks like a lot more fun than it actually was)
My babies!

Advice to a Young Scientist

Not to be confused with P.B. Medawar‘s book Advice to a Young Scientist– I’ll actually cover his ideas later.

What I’ve come up with are five essential pieces of advice for budding twenty-first-century researchers or scientists (or research scientists, for that matter).

1. Sense of Direction-

You must have some idea of where you intend to go. This is one of the more difficult and time-consuming aspects of research, especially if you’re new to the process.

Keep in mind I am by no means telling you to have a two-year plan of what comes next by the time you begin, because that will all come naturally once you get started. But it is many times more difficult to approach a teacher or parent with a question like: “What should I study?” rather than, “How can I set up an experiment looking into mussel growth?”

Think about a branch of science you’re interested in and narrow it down from there. Mine was environmental science. Yours may be engineering, computer science, psychology.

Don’t worry too much about picking the “wrong” topic at first, either. Use your younger years to explore new subjects and ideas.

2. Fearlessness of Failure-

One of my favorite topics, mostly because this year I essentially learned the most graceful way possible to fall flat on my face. I had the Sense of Direction and dedication, but really had no idea what I was getting myself into. For some reason I thought my experiment would work out flawlessly.

When it didn’t, I cried like a baby.

Then I found this article on failure and slowly started to feel proud of how much I was learning by not doing everything right. When something didn’t work out, I wrote down potential reasons for the failure and learned to move on. I’m telling you: anything that could or may go wrong probably will.

Brace yourself and enjoy the ride.

3. Persistence-

Goes along with #2- don’t let those little glitches defeat you. It may be the toughest thing you will do- yes, even tougher than the statistics- but find a way to clear your head and get back up. Talk to a colleague, a teacher. Write down a couple possible solutions.

This also includes a piece of advice that you just have to learn for yourself: Anybody will respond if you contact them enough times. You’d be surprised at how many borderline-instantaneous email responses I’ve gotten after this:

“Dear Dr. So-and-so, I write to confirm that you received the following email I sent a few days ago. (Insert email here)”

Works like a charm.

4. Find a mentor-

It goes without saying that in life in general (and in science particularly), we need someone to ask questions of and to bounce ideas off of- an expert who’s willing to be your teacher. So, find yourself one of these people.

Not so easy. I wager I wrote about fifteen emails to different scientists, researchers, experts in my field before I received one hopeful-sounding response.

It’s not that these people have anything against younger scientists or think your ideas suck or don’t want to help, but often they’re simply too busy and don’t think you’re serious enough to dedicate any substantial amount of time to.

You need to prove them wrong by showing them you’re interested in your (and, therefore, their) field and that you won’t give up after one disheartening response. Ask for suggestions if they truly can’t help you themselves- colleagues? Journal articles? Websites?

Finding a mentor is difficult but rewarding work- I’ll get to all the essentials in another post.

5. Own it-

Excuse the cheesiness, but my favorite way to describe this one is: If you don’t believe in your research, who will?

The hardest time to do this was at science fairs when the kid standing next to me conducted cancer research that was being looked into by the Johns Hopkins medical school… You think I’m kidding?

Somewhere along the way I’ve learned to be proud of my work, even if it was nowhere near as earth-shattering as I’d hoped. Because I know that with a little more work, someday it very well may be.

————————————————————————————————-

Want even more ideas? Check out this TED talk by E.O. Wilson. “Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes…”

What do you think is the most important attribute of a young scientist? Comment or hit the contact page to let me know!

‘Til next time.

Where I’ve Been (Part II)

I know what you’re thinking- nobody wakes up one morning desperately wanting to see how water temperatures will affect some mussel species. So I’m going to try to break down for you where my interest stemmed from.

My parents have always been more eco-conscious than most, doing their best to separate our recyclables and to reuse plastic grocery bags. My mom lives for our local farmers’ market and my dad prides himself on taking over two weeks to use a tank of gas. But I don’t believe just growing up in a household like the one I did gave me the push I needed to start looking into climate change- though it certainly helped.

It really started in the 4th grade when my teacher assigned every kid in my class an environmental topic on which to write a short essay. Ms. Falcone nonchalantly plopped my future on my desk when she gave me a packet titled “Climate Change”.

“I think you can handle this one,” I remember her telling me. The flame was lit.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was racking my brain for ideas in my school’s ROGATE classroom (ROGATE is an optional, extra class for ‘gifted and talented’ students in elementary and middle schools). It was the beginning of 7th grade and my teacher had just announced that we could choose our topics for our year-long research projects that we would present to kids from across the state at the end of the school year.

I had no idea what to do. Looking back now, I don’t think I even knew what I was interested in at the time. Sure, I played soccer and enjoyed writing and did well in school, but I didn’t exactly have an identity yet. And I had no intentions of wasting an entire year studying something I didn’t like.

Then I remembered my fourth grade paper. From there, it didn’t take much convincing from my teacher and parents to pursue the project; everything I read about climate change fascinated me.

My hypothesis? “Manhattan will be underwater within the next fifty years.”

Yes, I was a bold one.

But I presented and was awarded a bronze “Satori” medal for my project. I can’t remember feeling prouder. The flame began to grow.

Another year and I was starting 8th grade. I had the option to continue my ROGATE project from the past year in hopes of receiving a gold Satori award. I flipped the decision over in my mind- this would require doing some sort of internship or volunteer work, getting published, and giving a public presentation all related to my project.

I was overwhelmed. I talked to my teacher about it and we came up with a plan: intern at the NY Department for Environmental Protection for a day, get published in a local weekly newspaper, give a short talk at a regional speaking contest.

Guess what? Check, check, check- I did it.

That flame was now a fire, and it was starting to spread uncontrollably.

And so I leave you with this quote:

“Everybody who’s doing anything positive in life had a teacher who turned the wattage up and wouldn’t let them turn it down.” – Chris Gardner

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Just so you don’t feel bad about yourself- how’d you like this picture to get published in the newspaper your whole town reads? Thanks, Dad.

Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Goin’ (Part I)

I’ve been working day in and day out at Rutgers’ New Jersey Aquaculture Innovation Center (NJAIC) for the past two weeks. It’s a brand-spankin-new marine research and oyster production facility in Cape May, NJ.

I probably stepped in at the most ideal time because- no offense meant here- I’m not really interested in oysters.

I conducted an independent research project this past school year looking into the potential effects of warmer water temperatures (due to climate change) on Mytilus galloprovincialis– better known as the Mediterranean blue mussel. This particular species of mussel is invasive in South Africa and California, among other areas globally. So- putting the puzzle pieces together- I was wondering if rising water temperatures would make this mussel, essentially, more invasive or less invasive in the future.

Things did not go as planned. First of all, I ran the entire experiment out of my basement (pictures definitely to come). That meant no direct access to seawater, which meant making about 6 gallons of ‘fake’ seawater a day out of packaged sea salt and water conditioner. That also meant nobody was there to see firsthand if something was going awry. I found myself writing frantic emails to my mentor trying to explain how things looked (“Umm there’s this funky off-white foam forming at the top of my tanks. It’s sort of bubbly-ish. Sort of white- ehh, maybe it is off-white after all. Do you know what it is?”).

Not to mention the not-too-fabulous stank of decaying shellfish slowly but surely spreading into my kitchen. Mix all this together and throw in schoolwork, friends, and soccer, and you’ve got one heck of a year.

But, blessing in disguise, my troubles landed me this internship. I had asked my mentor if I could spend the summer interning with her to see how raising mussels is supposed to be done, but she said she’d be busy so she referred me to a lady at Rutgers, who referred me to the AIC.

Blessing…in…disguise.

I took a visit to the AIC in early March to see what it was all about, and my mind was blown. Imagine an aircraft hanger full of brand new tanks and pipes and direct access to both treated (UV filtered) and raw seawater. They also have some pretty neat gadgets, such as a camera that you can insert into a microscope eyepiece to take pictures of what you’re seeing.

The people that run the facility are awesome, as well. They not only allow but encourage their interns and staff to run their own experiments aside from doing their daily duties. I was in research heaven.

I arrived this summer in Cape May, and on my first day of work I was put in charge of about 7million oyster larvae. Uhh…

Contrary to what I thought at first, everything turned out- or has been turning out- fine. I’ve been working with the oyster larvae most mornings and working with mussels (!!!) most afternoons.

In fact, the reason I stepped in at the perfect time is because this year the AIC made history as the first facility EVER to spawn ribbed mussels (Geukensia demissa) in a laboratory setting. And the reason this is important is because ribbed mussels can be used to protect salt marshes from the erosion that motorboats cause.

So I spend my hot, sticky-humid Jersey afternoons counting the mussel larvae that have attached themselves to different substrates and figuring out ways to persuade the mussels to detach themselves from a substrate without harming the mussels.

‘Til next time.

My mussel babies at 6 weeks, half the size of a lowercase letter ‘o’ printed in Times New Roman size 10 (about 500 micrometers long). They look like sesame seeds.

My oyster larvae at 9 days, about 200 micrometers long. They look like grains of sand to the naked eye.

Stay tuned- the Curious YOUNG Writers wordpress blog is debuting at the end of this month! It’s a science blog site featuring articles written by high school students in New Jersey and sponsored by the NJ Association for Biomedical Research (NJABR). The current topic is how unusual animals are being used as research models for various diseases/conditions.