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CSE21 Panel Explores the Importance of Mentorship

By Jillian Kunze

Mentors can help students and early-career mathematicians navigate the complex world of research, build strong professional relationships, balance multiple responsibilities, and plan for the future. During the 2021 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE21), which took place virtually this March, the Sustainable Horizons Institute’s Broader Engagement program sponsored a mentoring panel and networking session to explore this idea. Christine Harvey (MITRE Corporation) moderated the discussion between two mentor-mentee pairs: Sally R. Ellingson (University of Kentucky) and Derek Jones (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and Jay Lofstead (Sandia National Laboratories) and Paula Fernanda Olaya Garcia (University of Tennessee, Knoxville). The panelists discussed the importance of mentorship in applied mathematics and presented strategies for maintaining such relationships.

Ellingson utilizes her experience with high-performance computing to perform cancer research at her university; she also routinely visits Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She met Jones—who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Kentucky—while interviewing students for a research assistantship in 2016. Now, Jones spends his time developing deep learning for cancer research at Lawrence Livermore and pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego.

Jones’ involvement with Ellingson’s work served as an exciting introduction to the world of biology and high-performance computing. “Her project exposed me to a whole new world of research,” he said. “She has opened a lot of doors for me, and I have tried to take each opportunity and make the best of it.” Jones had no research experience when he began working with Ellingson, so she helped him learn to navigate the research process. In turn, Ellingson noted that collaborating with Jones has taught her much about what it means to be a mentor.

From left to right: Jonathan Allen (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), Julie Mitchell (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), Sally Ellingson (University of Kentucky), and Derek Jones (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) pose after presenting at a minisymposium about computational drug discovery during the 2019 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place in Spokane, Wash. Ellingson, who serves as a mentor to Jones, met him when he was interviewing for a research assistantship in 2016. They both spoke about the value of mentorship at the virtual 2021 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE21) earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Mary Ann Leung.

Lofstead, who researches data management for supercomputers at Sandia, met mentee Olaya Garcia through her university advisor. Olaya Garcia received her bachelor’s degree from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia and is now a graduate student in computer science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Among other things, she focuses on enhancing the reproducibility of scientific workflows with cutting-edge container technology.

Lofstead believes that it is important to really get to know one’s mentees by discussing both research interests and personal endeavors. He begins the process by getting a sense of a mentee’s capabilities, then pushes them to succeed while offering continual support. “I never ask anyone to do anything that I don’t believe they will be successful at, even if they have no idea how to do it,” Lofstead said. Both he and Olaya Garcia agreed that the mentee should be primarily responsible for developing and maintaining an action plan for research; the mentor can help, especially at the beginning, but the student should gradually take more control. “Lofstead gives a lot of responsibilities, but he also gives a lot of trust and authority,” Olaya Garcia said. In addition, both parties should be realistic with their goals and communicate their expectations of one another.

Harvey then opened the session to attendee questions and asked how to best find a mentor outside of a specific program’s framework. When Lofstead looked for mentors in the past, he reached out to individuals at a career level that he hoped to attain in 10 years. “If you see someone doing the things you want to do—even if it is purely aspirational—just approach them and say, ‘I want to do what you do, can you help me get there?’” he said. Furthermore, a potential mentor does not necessarily have to do exactly what a mentee wishes to achieve — one might simply choose somebody that they admire and with whom they work well. “One of the biggest things is having that sense of trust and understanding of each other,” Jones said.

Jay Lofstead (Sandia National Laboratories) and Paula Fernanda Olaya Garcia (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) at the 2019 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis, which took place in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Jo Ramsey.
When searching for a mentor or mentee, one should account for several important considerations. Mentees must be willing to trust their mentors and remain passionate about their work. Olaya Garcia noted that mentors who offer guidance and support in multiple areas are especially valuable. “It is best to work with someone who is not only focused on work, but will understand the struggles of being in a Ph.D. program,” she said. Having a mentor who appreciates work-life balance and recognizes the necessity of periodic breaks is indispensable. Olaya Garcia also applies this mindset herself when she works with undergraduates; she draws from her own experiences at that stage and recognizes that students still have a lot to learn.

In today’s climate, many connections are formed online. However, virtually reaching out to a potential mentor can be intimidating. Ellingson recommended including a personal message when connecting via email or through LinkedIn. “You need to put effort into it to make sure that you get something out of it,” she said. One’s initial greeting should not seem like a blast message that was sent to a lot of people; it should contain at least a few sentences that are specific to the recipient. The message should be personal and straightforward, and preferably readable in under two minutes. If email is insufficient, Lofstead recommended asking whether any existing connections can facilitate an introduction to the person in question.

The popularity of interdisciplinary majors is on the rise, and mentors can help students shape their own individual paths. The panelists advised students to spend time exploring different research directions. “Give yourself a wide variety of things to work on and try, and figure out what you like,” Ellingson said. Though a career path is a uniquely personal decision, conversing with experienced professionals who have explored dissimilar career trajectories can help students learn about various fields and identify possible future directions.

Furthermore, mentors should acknowledge and respect the questions and priorities of their mentees, especially those from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities. Lofstead, who was a first-generation college student, affirmed that addressing questions and issues outside of technical research is essential for successful relationships. Jones echoed this sentiment. “A nontrivial part of the difficulty of graduate school is these challenges, which minorities might experience more than other population groups,” he said. Because issues in graduate school and early-career settings affect different people in different ways, junior mathematicians should seek out mentors who can relate to these unique experiences. “There is a context behind every person,” Olaya Garcia said. “You need to see an individual not only as the one that is doing the research, but as a whole person.”

Mentor-mentee pairs must also establish the frequency of their communications, especially when they are unable to connect in person. Some students may require an increased level of interaction, or less interaction and more space to conduct their work. Ellingson always follows her students’ leads when it comes to productivity strategies. Though sending an email may be easiest when working from home, arranging a dedicated time to meet can enable a more robust back-and-forth discussion. For example, Jones has been making a concerted effort to schedule times to converse, as keeping up with colleagues remotely is more difficult than in person.

After the question-and-answer period with the panelists, the session moved into gather.town for networking purposes. Attendees entered a virtual mentor mixing room, where they chatted with the panelists to learn even more about building and maintaining mentoring relationships.

The 2021 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place virtually in March 2021, featured a panel that explored the importance of mentorship.

CSE21 attendees can access a recording of this panel and other conference presentations by logging in to the virtual platform. Recordings are available until June 5th. If you weren’t able to attend the meeting, SIAM has reopened registration at a discounted rate for on-demand viewing of all talks. Learn more and register online.

  Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News