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Conversation #59: Leyte Winfield on Mentoring

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Leyte WinfieldA conversation with Leyte Winfield of Spelman College on mentoring students.

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dr. Leyte Winfield is a teacher, scholar, and mentor. She strives to expose everyone to the beauty and versatility of chemistry and to nurture the potential of women of color interested in pursuing degrees in the field. In 1997, she received a commission in the United States Army Reserve where she obtained the rank of captain and was assigned to the Army Medical Institute of Chemical Defense before resigning her commission in September of 2009. Academically, she pursued the study of chemistry with the hope of becoming a cosmetic scientist. Her aspirations led her to obtain a B.S. in Chemistry from Dillard University and a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of New Orleans. She is a synthetic organic chemist with experience in academic, industrial, and military laboratories. From these combined experiences she has gained expertise in the various aspects of medicinal drug design, instrumental methods, and synthetic techniques. Her current research interest is to understand the relationship of the structure of a molecule, particularly benzimidazoles, to its activity as a chemotherapeutic for cancers that disproportionately impact the African American community. Her efforts have been recognized by the American Association of Cancer Research and the Council for Undergraduate Research and have been funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. She holds six patents covering more than 500 unique small molecules. Her emerging interest in chemical education and broadening participation has produced two textbooks, several publications, and funding from the national science foundation.

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Transcript (by Acacia Brown)

Dr. Tiera Coston: Hello and welcome to the Teaching, Learning, and Everything Else podcast. I’m Tiera Coston and today I’m speaking with Dr. Leyte Winfield, who is the synthetic organic chemist with experience in academic industrial laboratory. Her experiences serve as the basis for her expertise in the various aspects of medicinal drug design, instrumental methods, and synthetic techniques. Her efforts has been recognized by the American Association of Cancer Research and the Council for Undergraduate Research and have been funded in part by the National Institute of Health. Her emerging interest in chemical education has produced two textbooks, several publications, and funding from the National Science Foundation. She is also the recipient of the 2015 Vulcan Award for teaching excellence which recognizes outstanding teaching, mentoring, leadership, and service to Spelman College by a faculty member. She is presently the chair and associate professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the Interim Associate Provost  for research at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. Welcome Dr. Winfield and thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Dr. Leyte Winfield: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Coston: So tell us, what brought you to the world of Biomedical research?

Dr. Winfield: So, it was really my first interest in chemistry, which eventually led me to the field of biomedical research, but initially I was interested in cosmetic science and developing creams and lotions for various consumer uses. In my training to actually gain the expertise to be able to develop those consumer products, I fell in love with the field of drug design. I think that it was apparent to me that it would be more rewarding to assist people who are going through various illnesses by developing compounds that would be useful to them, not that cosmetics don’t have their place in society, but I like the idea that I would be contributing to something that truly would improve one’s way of life or standard of living by offering them healthcare options that are not currently available through therapeutics.

Dr. Coston: I see, but I see that cosmetic science  was such a practical introduction into the world of chemistry.

Dr. Winfield: It was.

Dr. Coston:  So what I’m interested in, and I’m probably going way back to the beginning of your education. What were your experiences, speaking through elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, and in this industry as an African American woman?

Dr. Winfield: So at every turn, I’ve been very grateful to have individuals who’ve inspired me, even if they were not officially my mentors. They have provided the fuel that kept me interested in chemistry. For instance, before I knew that there was a shortage of African American women in STEM, all of my science teachers were African American women. I went to Bel-Air high school in Baton Rouge, LA and I remember my biology instructor was a female and I remember that my chemistry instructor, Ms. Cane, was a female. On the first day of class, she asked everybody on a sheet of paper what it is they wanted to do. Without hesitation, I wrote chemistry. Now that I look back and think about it, I’m wondering how my path may have been different having not seen a female interested in chemistry early on because I know that’s some of the barriers in terms of getting more students interested in chemistry. It’s just that they don’t see themselves in these spaces and because I was able to see that early, I think that has part of the motivation for me to pursue this career.

Dr. Coston: Great segue into what I want to get into next, there is in science the idea of, or anywhere for that matter, of belonging of feeling that you’re supposed to be there, you belong there, this is what I’m meant to be doing. Notwithstanding the fact that you were able to see those black female science teachers early in life. What else gave you that sense of belonging? What other resources were available to you to give you that sense that “I absolutely belong here?”

Dr. Winfield: It was some time before I recognized that I needed to feel that sense of belonging. I would even say that it wasn’t until I became a faculty member that I realized how important it was to have role models that look like you and to be in a space that didn’t challenge your capabilities based on your skin color or your sex or any other demographic that individuals can use to limit your success. I went to a HBCU. So high school, my high school was predominantly caucasian and I was often in honors classes where I was the only black student. Even then, I didn’t have the sense that I needed a role model. My focus was just “you need to do good work because you know the career path you want to go in and you will be judged by the work that you do here.” When I got to envision myself where I can influence others, I realized how important it was. I think the first time, actually, that I realized that I need that was in grad school, a little bit before being a faculty member. When I saw the first African American student come into my graduate program, I was so drawn to that individual. I was like, “We MUST connect. I MUST help you.” I realize now that I have been in a program by myself for about three years and I had not seen anyone that looked like me, other than the staff workers, no students, no faculty, no visiting lecturers, no guests. We hardly saw women in chemistry at the time. When I saw another African American who happened to be a female, I think I probably scared the individual because I was like, “We WILL connect! We WILL bond! We WILL be there for each other.” I think it was that feeling of isolation that  I had never recognized in myself that when I saw that individual that I knew I needed to be connected to someone who could share my identity, who could share my experiences. I didn’t want that individual to feel isolated or feel like they needed something and did not have any resources for getting what they needed.

Dr. Coston: So, you sound like you had something sort of intrinsic to you to mentor. You talk about influencing others and the thought of this other African American woman who came into the program and immediately your thought was “I can help. I can support.” Tell me how your mentorship has developed. I know now you have mentored quite a few students. It sounds to me like that started quite a ways back.

Dr. Winfield: Yes, I think early on, especially when it was at the peer-to-peer level, I was in the mindset of this is what I’ve done to be successful, follow what I’m doing and you’ll be successful too. I’m almost very forceful with it. I felt that “I know what I’m doing, listen to me.” It was more of the teacher-student model even when it was peer, but I realize that I’ve evolved to a point where I’ve learned to be a guide and that if someone comes and they need assistance, I can lead them to what they need. If they need a little bit more from me, I’ve learned to wait until they ask that or sometimes I volunteer additional assistance, additional guidance. I try to wait and see how they respond because I realize even though it was well received because I was giving resources that individuals needed, I realize that sometimes that can be overbearing. Now, I acknowledge that I have resources that may be beneficial and I let individuals gravitate to me. Once I find that connection, I try to balance the telling them specifics to do with being a guide or suggesting to them what would make them successful with also being very open and honest about things that I feel that they need to correct. If I need to judge them or tell them that I think that they’re doing something wrong, I try to make sure it’s coming from an instructive place and not a judgmental place even though it may be viewed as judgement.

Dr. Coston: You have just spoken very eloquently of quite a few of the positive aspects of mentoring. For example, how you evolved learning that it is better to guide rather than to direct. How you come with a sense of compassion opposed to judgement. Let me ask, is your experience your sole source of mentoring knowledge or have you gone other places to sort of learn the things that you’re speaking of now?

Dr. Winfield: So, I’ll add this to my experience. When I first became a faculty member, I was invited to the ACS national meeting to give a talk on mentoring and to give advice, from my experience, to those who were up and coming, either postdocs or graduate students who were getting ready to finish their degree. At first, I was very traumatized because I didn’t realize that what I was doing all along had been mentoring. Through the sharing of my experiences, I had a wealth of information that others could benefit from and knowing the type of person I am, I wanted to continuously put myself in the position to be a resource. So, I did not only continue to give those types of seminars, but I also went to those seminars myself for individuals who indicate that they had expertise in the areas of mentoring, advising, or even coaching. I would gravitate towards those particular trainings so that I had the latest information to be the most benefit to either my peers or to my students. It’s not just my intrinsic qualities but it’s also me seeking out professional development opportunities to allow me to make the best use of the talents that I have that are in aid.

Dr. Coston: I thoroughly appreciate you acknowledging that, although, clearly from your description there was the capacity in you to be a good mentor, that it was very important to you to seek out other resources in order to improve your mentoring. I think that’s very important to sort of combat the thought of, “I know what I’m doing. I don’t need any help.” I really appreciate that. I will ask you this in all of your experience. You have the power to advise a group, who has the power to implement whatever it is you advise them. So in all of your vastness of experience, if you had three suggestions to provide to this group regarding mentoring in order to facilitate the successful passageway of especially underrepresented populations into this biomedical workforce, what would you say?

Dr. Winfield: I would say the best lesson that I have learned about being an effective mentor as well as an effective leader is the power of listening. It is very important to listen more than you speak. I think what happens when you listen is that you gain understanding that you probably didn’t have before the mentoring session occurred. It could not only be beneficial to that individual how you respond to what you hear, but it could be beneficial to others. I think it’s VERY important to listen. At often times in our mentoring relationship, it’s not always about giving advice. It’s about listening. It’s about listening and being there for whatever it is that individual needs from you at that particular time. The second biggest thing I’ve learned is to be honest in terms to your limits of being able to help someone. I think it’s a part of all of us that when we can, if we could help someone, if we can stop their pain, if we can end their suffering, we would do that. We have to be honest about when we’ve reached our limit to be able to help that particular individual and when there’s someone else who is better able to help that individual. Those are the two biggest lessons. The others are just vary based on the situation that you’re in. I would say that a part of listening is a part of getting to know the individual and mentoring has to be personalized. You have to not have canned responses for everybody that you mentor because what one person responds to positively may not sit well with the next person. You have to make sure you’re able to match the advice and match the support to the individual that you’re working with. Some people I mentored just need to know what their resources are. Some people I mentor need to know what to do with the resources. So you have to be very clear about who you’re mentoring and make sure you’re providing the correct assistance to the appropriate individual.

Dr. Coston: Alright, so we have been talking about mentors or mentoring, particularly from the side of the mentor. Now I’ll ask you for, even if it’s just one bit of, information or advice to mentees, those young people who are up and coming, who may even not be in the pathway to this particular industry but may be thinking about it. What would you tell them to keep in mind? What would you tell them?

Dr. Winfield: I would tell them beware of the box. Beware of the thought that there is only one right way, the one right path, to the career that they want. They’re many options that I’m learning about. Even now, that had I known early on or had I been open to early on, my career may have looked very differently. So, just to be open to the possibilities. Be open to the guidance that you might get from someone that’s mentoring you because if you’re not going to be open, it’s going to be very difficult for that mentoring relationship to benefit you. It’s about being open and being able to trust that individual that you can be open and vulnerable with whatever you need to seek assistance on.

Dr. Coston: Ah, beware of the box. Thank you. We have been speaking with Dr. Leyte Winfield, chair and associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the Interim Associate Provost at Spelman college. Thank you for your time.

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