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The Push and Pull of Mentoring: A conversation with Dr. Melissa Kosinski-Collins

By Amanda Shilton

In May 2023, BIOME invited Professor of Biology and POSSE Academic Coordinator, Dr. Melissa Kosinski-Collins to give a talk about the many facets of long-term mentoring relationships. Dr. Kosinski-Collins (or Dr. KC as her students fondly call her) has been at Brandeis University for over 17 years. In that time, she has taught and mentored over 7000 students, some of whom she remains in touch with years later. She received her Ph.D from MIT in 2004 studying the folding and aggregation of the human protein crystallin, before pursuing an education research postdoc with the HHMI Education Group. Dr. KC is a faculty member at Brandeis University where she teaches the Introductory Biology Lab courses among several other undergraduate and graduate courses ranging from Structural Molecular Biology to The Biology of Women’s Health. She is also the academic director of the Brandeis Science Posse program. This program is aimed at attracting and retaining talented, under-represented students in STEM. As a Posse scholar, students receive a full-tuition leadership scholarship and attend pre-programming events before beginning their first semester in college. More on the Brandeis Science Posse program can be found here.

We invite you to refer to Dr. Kosinski-Collins slides on “The Push and Pull of Mentoring” as you read through a summary of the talk below! 

The Push and Pull of Mentoring

What is mentorship?

Dr. KC began her talk by sharing her history as an educator and mentor. She spoke about several of her own mentors who had a large impact on her life, including her graduate school P.I, peers, friends, and students. When she asked the audience what adjectives they think of when they picture  successful “mentorship”, some of the answers included honesty, openness, empathy, common interests, and investment in one another. These qualities and traits can be found in numerous relationships that we cultivate in both our personal and professional lives. Although we often forget about the mentors in our personal lives, they are just as important and influential as those in our professional careers.

The challenges of mentorship

Mentorship is rewarding. If it were not, we would not continue to do it. As rewarding as mentoring can be, it can also be a drain on our mental resources. Dr. KC talked about some of the struggles that she has faced as a mentor and as a mentee over the years.

A successful mentoring relationship requires intimate knowledge of one another. This can be difficult for several reasons. First, there is an existing power dynamic between mentor and mentee. Despite this dynamic, it is imperative that your mentee never feels powerless. The imbalance of power can quickly erode a mentoring relationship, especially when it creates a space where a mentee feels uncomfortable being honest about their struggles, goals, and broader interests. Similarly to any other relationship, each mentoring relationship that we enter has preconceived notions from mentor and mentee regarding expectations and goals. Dr. KC discussed the internal struggles that she experienced as she grappled with her desire to go into teaching despite her P.I.’s hopes for her to pursue research. Successful mentorship requires lots of growing pains, which can also mean vulnerable and uncomfortable conversations. 

As mentors, we cannot fall into the trap of viewing our mentees as a “mini-me”. Our job as mentors is to find out what our mentees goals are and support them in their pursuits. 

Sometimes, mentoring relationships experience a shift without an easily identifiable cause. Perhaps your mentee suddenly seems disinterested or unmotivated. It may be a personal issue that is seeping into their professional life, but it may also be related to the work and a change in goals. Continue to address motivation with your mentee, and remember that these relationships are fluid and can be expected to change along with time. Sometimes these honest conversations lead to a new type of relationship and goal, and other times it may lead to the end of that relationship based on logistics, time, and feasibility. Don’t forget: our time is a limited resource (more on this in a bit!)

Lastly, Dr. KC talked about competition – a particularly rampant, yet under-discussed struggle in STEM mentoring relationships. It can be difficult to celebrate the successes of someone else when it feels as though they encroach on your own goals for the future. It can also be difficult as mentors to accept that we have the capacity for feeling  jealous of the successes of those we mentor. The best way to address most of the struggles that arise in mentorship is through open and honest conversation with our mentees and also with ourselves. (Don’t forget, the relationship has to work for everyone!) 

Advice for mentors

Dr. KC suggested writing 3 goals on a piece of paper when you begin mentoring someone. These goals can evolve over the course of your mentoring relationship, but it is important to write them down so that you know where you started and so you know what you, as a mentor, would like to get out of this experience. Perhaps it is seeing someone fall in love with science or apply to graduate school. Whatever the goal, write it down. Create an open space with your mentee and allow those goals to change as you get to know your mentee more. Get advice from other people in your life. Rely on your own mentors as you mentor others. Be open to constructive criticism. And protect your time. As people who care deeply about mentorship and education, it can be difficult to say “no” when we are asked to help in some way. With over 300 students every year however, Dr. KC has learned the importance of realizing her own limitations and being okay with  saying “no”. Some people you will mentor for a day, others for a year, and a small number for a decade. You cannot check in with everyone, and so her advice is to let your mentee reach out if they wish to continue a relationship with you. 

Dr. KC ended her talk by telling us how she has been spending her sabbatical with a former student who is now a researcher at a veterinary school. This is a beautiful real-life example of how our mentees in one setting can turn into our mentors in another.

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