Connect with a Mentor Mentor relationships are an important ingredient in keeping interns on a STEM career path

Julia Steed, a senior at Oak Ridge High School, was uncertain about her future until she had the chance to spend part of her summer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory alongside Dr. Catherine (Katie) Schuman, a research scientist focused on artificial intelligence. Now, she is strongly considering a future in computer science.

Steed found this research opportunity through the Next Generation STEM Internship Program (NEXTGENS), a STEM internship program offered through ORNL that can provide important experience to local high schools students to learn more about what it means to be a scientist.

“Before this experience, I was trying to decide between engineering or computer science,” said Steed. “The time spent with Katie (Schuman) and the way she involved me in her projects really raised my interest in computer science.”

Studies have shown that how a mentor engages the intern is an important part of the intern’s overall research experience. One such study found in Higher Education called “Key actions of successful summer research mentors” identified areas that are not typically seen as research specific as important to help a student flourish in a research experience. Researchers in this study evaluated how students in the National Science Foundation (NSF) undergraduate internship programs evaluated their research experience in regards to specific aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship.

“Among the top three reasons mentors choose to serve as a mentor is the intrinsic reward and value of the experience,” according to Dr. Erin Burr, an ORISE researcher who evaluates STEM education and workforce development programs. “The other reasons our mentors cited included to train and prepare the future workforce (39 percent) and to accomplish work and advance research (26 percent).”

The study identified six mentor actions that directly correlate with an intern’s positive experience. These actions range from how to prepare for the arrival of a student intern to involvement during the intern’s time at the research project. As suggested in this study, many of these are seemingly obvious behaviors for a mentor to exhibit; however the lack of execution in these areas often leads to poorer research experiences for students.

Schuman herself credits her career as a research scientists to her relationships with her mentors. “I had very good mentors that helped shape my career path. Without that sort of experience, I would not be at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a research scientists today. Mentorship matters.”

Students also benefit from the insights of a mentor beyond the research task at hand. Mentors can offer advice on careers and professional development, as well as better understanding of how to understand and adapt to “work” culture.

Many mentors welcome this level of involvement with the student, according to Dr. Erin Burr, an ORISE researcher who evaluates STEM education and workforce development programs for the U.S. Department of Energy, among others. “Among the top three reasons mentors choose to serve as a mentor is the intrinsic reward and value of the experience,” she said. “The other reasons our mentors cited included to train and prepare the future workforce (39 percent) and to accomplish work and advance research (26 percent).”

In her mentoring experience, Schuman has found that it is important to have a strong mentor relationship during the research experience but to also be there for support as the student continues on in their career.

“We like to bring interns back to do further internships,” Schuman said. “We keep them on for as long as we can, pass on as much as we can and support them as best we can for their future careers.”

For Steed, one of her favorite opportunities was working with Schuman on training the computer to play games more aggressively. “We would train neural networks to play different games like asteroids and then we would change the functions for the scores to try to get them to do different behaviors.”

Schuman enjoyed sharing her research passion. “It’s really important to me to bring in students at all levels—from a high school student like Julia to undergrads and PhD students. We want to communicate how excited we are about the work that we get to do and help inspire the next generation of scientists to come up and pursue our field. Then for me, selfishly, it's to have the ability to get myself excited again about the work that I'm doing, because the people who come in are passionate and excited about the field of computing.”