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Conversation #65: Kelly Young on Mentorship

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Kelly Young
A conversation with Dr. Kelly Young of California State University Long Beach (CSULB) on mentorship.

I'm a Full Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University Long Beach.  A CSU graduate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I trained at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Oregon National Primate Research Center at the Oregon Health & Science University. My desire to teach in both the classroom and the laboratory made returning to the CSU system a priority, and I'm proud to be a Chancellor’s Doctoral Incentive Program recipient.  In my reproductive biology laboratory, my students and I examine the genes and proteins that regulate the gonadal transition between atrophy in the non-breeding season to fully functional in the breeding season. Most of the research in my laboratory has been conducted with CSULB undergraduates, and I focus on developing independent, productive, and confident undergraduate scientists who take the lead role in their research projects. My passion for engaging undergraduates in science extends into the pedagogical world, where my goal is to design and teach student-centered courses. I’ve been involved in several course-restructure projects to create more effective classroom environments where learning, grades, and motavation improve. I’m also thrilled to be working with fellow faculty members as we all work to better our teaching and mentoring techniques. In that vein, I developed a STEM-faculty learning community for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and a BUILD Mentoring Community at CSULB. My goal of enhancing student success and trying to make the world a more positive place drives me to work hard each day.

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Tiera Coston: Hello and welcome to the Teaching, Learning, and Everything else podcast. I am Tiera Coston and today I am speaking with Dr. Kelly Young who is a professor and teaching mentor at California State University Long Beach. Her research focuses on examining the effects of the environment on ovarian function. Most of her research has been conducted with undergraduate students where her goal is to develop independent, productive, confident undergraduate scientist who take the lead role in their research projects. Dr.Young is constantly working to improve her teaching and mentoring and support other faculty in doing the same. She has developed a STEM faculty learning community for the college of natural sciences and mathematics as well as a mentoring community at her institution.a Full Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University Long Beach. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Kelly Young: Thanks so much, it’s such a pleasure to speak to you Dr.Coston.
TC:Great, talk to me about your journey to and through academia in research. How did you come to where you are now?
KY: Well, I guess I circled my way around the country. Starting and ending here at California. My undergraduate degree was in biological sciences from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and that really where I developed a passion for hands-on learning because I really wanted the job my professors had which was a balance of teaching and research. I went on to obtain my phD in molecular biology and biochemistry from John Hopkins in their school of public health division of reproductive biology. I focused on my role there on apoptosis and testicular function. I returned to the west coast for a postdoctoral fellowship in reproductive physiology at the National Primate Research Center at the Oregon Health & Science University. There I worked on ovarian function, focusing on the development and regression of the corpus luteum. While I was there my friend actually forwarded me an email with a job search from CSULB and they were looking for a reproductive biologist who focused on environmental effects on reproduction who was interested in combining teaching and research. Her email said, and I’ll never forget this, “it sounds like they’re describing you” and I applied. It was the perfect timing for this but I applied and here I am. I got the job, I consider this my dream job. I get to be here everyday and I started in 2003. I really love the balance of teaching and research that CSULB offers.
TC: I will tell you , you said it’s your dream job and based on what I have read that your students said I can see that you really live that. We are going to talk about that in just a moment. What I want to know now is what role mentoring had on this journey. This was your passion from the beginning but how did mentoring play into that?
KY: Mentoring played a huge role. From the start of this and I really have to acknowledge the dean of the college of science and mathematics at my undergraduate institution, Dr. Bailey. He and his wife Dr. Christina Bailey are some of the most incredible mentors I know and Dean Bailey encouraged me to apply for phD programs because this was a new idea for me. I didn’t know what to do, I had this strong passion for science and for teaching and he encouraged me to apply and when I received acceptances to a variety of phD programs he actually invited me to a family dinner at his house to discuss which offer I should accept. He did this by asking me “what is it that you want to do?”.He then provided guidance based on my answers instead of what he ranked the programs. This was really crucial to me because at the time I didn’t know anyone with a phD besides my professors. It was really a foreign process to me. I didn’t know what to look for or what mattered when considering a program. The fact that he took time and ask where I wanted to go with it… just provided this huge mentoring role for me. I guess I should note one important thing about this story is this was not just for me. Dean Bailey provided this kind of caring guidance to literally thousands of students. He was dean for over 40 years so he had a huge career in mentoring. He shared his time, his family, his expertise throughout. I just had the fortune to have an impactful, caring mentor even though he wasn’t my research mentor at the time. It was sort of smaller bits of personalized attention but they were very impactful on me and career. Certainly on my mentoring style now.
TC: That’s a great segway into my next question. How did your experience inform your mentoring style? What did you make up in your mind, this is the mentor I want to be?
KY: That experience and that role modeling definitely informed how I mentor now. I consider myself a student first mentor. I ask potential research students questions about their career goals, their plans, what do they want for working in a laboratory when their interviewing. As you said I work predominantly with undergraduate students so this is their first foreway into research and so I take that information that they give me and together with the student I really make a plan on what kind of research experience will work best for that student to meet his/her particular career goals. I ask them that same question Dean Bailey asked me “what is it that YOU want to do?”. Then we can divide the timeline with experiment.. get an abstract in mind.. when the need to get their personal statement in.. where do they want to apply.. where is this gonna fit and how is this gonna fit within my research agenda because I don’t want to neglect where my research needs to go. In my mind, It absolutely needs to fit what my students want to get out of this experience and if they are a fit for the lab. They may not be a fit for the lab and I want to make sure they find the ideal fit for them.So, I just look at a variety of thing but always coming back to that question. What is it that you want to do? What Can I do to help you get there?
TC: I love the student first mentoring approach. And as I listen to you talk I can clearly hear those ideas of good communication, expectation setting.. What are the students expectations? What are my expectations? How do you continuously advance and improve your own mentoring skills? I know you experience different, you go through, you learn but do you do anything else to keep your mentoring skills as good as they can be.
KY: Yes, I think the thing I do the most is make mistakes. I reflect on them. Like “oh man that communication didn’t seem to go well, how can I do better next time?”. So, the trail and reflection is how I continuously advance. I think for me, the BUILD program here on our campus, we have an NIH build grant and we developed a mentoring community. This mentoring community has been a key for me in terms of improving and advancing my mentoring skills. I have learned so much from other mentors on my campus and across campuses and been able to incorporate some of things I’ve seen into my practice. Through the BUILD community we have different workshops and things. Talking about important topics like intercultural communication, being culturally aware when mentoring. Those things are always inspiring. You leave the workshops really enlightened and you want to bring it back to your mentoring practice. I think that’s more sporactic. I think on the day to day one of things that are so important to me is the communication I have with other mentors. I’ve seen a change on campus just with the word mentor. Transitioned from being just a noun to a verb. It’s a thing, it’s a practice, it’s an activity, it’s something we can engage in and improve at. That’s the key. Just having that transition on campus means I find myself in conversations about mentoring quite often. Even if its about an issue that may not have arisen in my lab, I can still critically think “how would I do it?”. That helps me so much. Talking to people and having that community of active mentors.
CT: I have definitely heard that from mentors at a variety of institutions. It brings me to ask about your mentoring program, you alluded to earlier. How did your program come into existence? How did you decide you needed a mentoring program? What are things you do to facilitate/support those interactions between the mentors?
KY: Well, our mentoring training program really came into be with the NIH build grant. You know very well from XULA. With our version of what we proposed for the BUILD grant, we proposed a BUILD mentoring community and this program is a direct spin off from a similar program I helped create in our college of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. A faculty learning community focuses on teaching and we use the same successful format and applied it to mentoring. That’s how we created our BMC, BUILD Mentoring Community. The way that this works is that faculty from across our 4 BUILD colleges,we have 4 very different colleges that engage with BUILD on our campus. They get together in groups of 10 or 12 for a semester of guided online discussion and action about mentoring. We follow the national research mentoring network entering mentoring program;they have a number of learning goals and we basically have converted some of the ways the entering mentoring approaches things to adapt it to our particular faculty members who have experience mentoring and to our particular situation, our particular campus. We go through the learning goals each week, things acceptance and understanding or aligning expectations, promoting professional development. We ask faculty members to discuss on our Google groups discussion board about that topic then we ask them to take action. It’s not just enough to just read about it and talk about it. Let’s do something about it. For example for the maintaining effective communication week we asked faculty to actually engage in active listening. We read about it, talk about it and now let’s do it. Then we have to come back and talk about how did those conversations go with your mentees when you were practicing that active listening. The idea is that each week the activities and the discussion shouldn’t take more than an hour. Two at the most. So it’s present it’s just kinda on the back-burner just simmering. It’s not gone, it’s present throughout the semester. You are tending to it and you are mindful mentoring the whole semester. This has worked really well. At the end of the first semester the faculty members create a mentor-mentee compound and then (They actually engage in a second semester. The mentoring is year-long.) they propose a change they want to see in their mentoring and they do it. They enact it and they assess its effectiveness. We always like graphs in our reports. What did you actually do? Did it work? Then after completing the year long training they receive a $1,000 stipend because we want to recognize this was a commitment to mentoring that would eventually affect student success. So far we’ve trained about 70 mentors across our campus. The beautiful thing is because we are taking mentors from across the four different colleges people are returning to their communities but still still talking. They are still communicating. We have even had some research collaboration come out of this as well! It’s not just mentoring alone so it has been a really positive experience for us.
CT: Well, I will tell you from my perspective as an outsider. A couple of things stand out about your mentoring program. The first is, I loved the way it organically evolved from a faculty learning community because that’s sort of what your trying to do but you put it in the context of mentoring and I think that’s such a great model. The second is that I love the sort of feedback loop. You really, in your program, get to close the loop. You get to make and assess that change. See how it all turned out and go back and tweak it. See what you can do better. I want to point out from my vantage point, I think those are two great aspects of your program.
KY: I agree because I have seen that difference for when I am accountable for making a change. Like I said the workshops are so inspiring. You leave and you come back to your office and you got 30 emails and there are grant proposals due or whatever. All this stuff come up and you kind of forget to put it into practice so that’s why I always love the part about accountability like let’s try it now. Let’s do something small and see if it sticks. Some mentors will tell me “I don’t keep doing that one part”. Active listening! I can’t do it and that’s fine. The idea is try it and maybe you can come back to it. And maybe they’ve adopted other practices. You don’t have to completely reinvent yourself or your personalities to enhance your mentoring.
CT: Exactly, that speaks to James small teaching. You don’t have to revamp. You can make one small change and really have an impactful experience in your classroom and I love the way you have applied that in the content of your mentoring program. I want to read a quote that I found from your former students. They said things like “she cares about students”, “ She wants you to succeed” , “she is passionate about what she teaches” , “class was by far the most difficult but also the most rewarding” ,“takers her time to make sure you understand the material” ,“she loves to teach and you can tell by the way she lectures” and “she is so inspiring and amazing” . What I am assuming is the same passion you have for teaching you also have for your mentoring. Actually, I am not assuming it. I know it. What I want to know is how you balance high academic standards with care and compassion. Where the student feel it was challenging but also that you care whether or not the succeed.
KY: Wow well, we have very kind student here! Thinking how do you balance the two I almost have to say that caring and compassion lead me to high academic standards. If I really care about my students I want them to have a true learning experience in class. I want them to think critically. I want them to struggle and work and succeed. All within the safe space of my class. I want that process to happen. Honestly I think it would be easier to drop my high expectations for them. I think that would be a simplier thing for me. I don’t think that’s in the best interest of my students. I want them to not only have the skill but to know they have the skills to get through challenges after my class. What skills can they learn that goes beyond just the content for one class? You can’t just say I have high expectations therefore I care. Then not really care. I think you have to approach this with a genuine desire to foster an environment where students can thrive. So, I work really hard to get to know my students. They know I’m cheering for them. They get emails the night before every big exam. Saying “You can do this” and “The work will pay off”. I try really hard to find joy in each lecture period. What can I find? Let’s bring something good here. Doing that, breaking up the lecture so we can talk one-on-one. Talking to students before and after class lets them know you really care about them. Then when you introduce the tough stuff they’re with you and they know you are right beside them. I think that’s really important.
CT: Absolutely! So speaking of these students, I’m interested in the type of students you mentor and teach. Mentoring and teaching always go together. If you teach well your mentoring. If you are mentoring you are teaching. So, tell me about the students you mentor. I’m interested in these types of students because I want to know do you necessarily share a cultural background with them. Is it a diverse group of students? So tell me about the students you mentor.
KY: Well, as you know I have the honor of working at California State University Long Beach and we are a beautifully diverse institution. On the data side, we area 4-year large public undergraduate, masters granting institution. We are classified as a hispanic dominated intuition. Over 75% of our undergraduate population is non-white. More than half of our student body is first-generation, lower income and pell grant eligible. On the personal side, I have to tell you that the students I teach in my lecture and laboratory are awesome. They are go-getters. They are proud to be in college. They are reachers. They are strivers. They are going places that maybe are very new places for their families. My students work many hours doing outside jobs in addition to being here on campus. Many of them have a lot of family responsibility. They volunteer and serve in our community. They study a lot or at least they should. We are such a large campus, over 38,000 students, and we’re considered a commuter campus. I really find that our students form communities of support for each other. I think we have a phenomenal group of students.
CT: With that diversity of your student body, have you found a challenge in mentoring students who are different than you are.
KY: Well, yea. Really everyone is different than you are. I think every student is different. I think every student deserves a personalized plan. Just attention on their needs and wants. Since working here I have had so many perspective broadening experiences that have helped me both teach and mentor more effectively. I recall when I first started I was really pushing a student. “You can get that B. You can do this! Come on! Come on! Don’t settle for a C.” He let me know that he was working 30 hours a week in order to feed and house his family. That if he passed that class he would graduate that semester and his employer had offered him a full-time job at the end of the semester. To him the C meant stability and that was his goal. That really broadened my perspective. Instead of always telling them to go for the highest grade I realized I need to come where they are. Where are you ? OK you’re at this place where you need to place this class. Ok let’s make sure we get you there. That was a really important moment for me. The idea of asking student what they want and where they are. In my laboratory I have had so many experiences that have broaden my perspective and I love this opportunity to grow and learn more. I remember very clearly talking to a student who had done beautiful work and she had such a nice data set and I said you are ready. We can submit your abstract for this national meeting. It’s on the other side of the country and that will be so exciting. Her face just fell and I thought she was nervous. I was like “no! No! You’ve got it! You have done all the work. You can do this!” and she said I don’t know if my family will let me go. That was very different from me. My parents were both teachers and I had unconditional support when it came to education. When I presented my first poster they were cheering and calling me. It was a new perspective. This student had never left the Los Angeles area. Her family was really concerned. That really helped me. Again the very narrow experience I had was my own. I talk to the students about their family. I talk to the parents and invite them to lab. It really has helped me learn so much. Again meet the students where they are. She ended up going and she did a lovely job. We just made sure to call her mom a lot. It worked out.
CT: Adjusting to the situation! I love it! So, I can see, just listening to those few examples I can see why and how you have evolved as a teacher and a mentor. With all of that experience and evolution , let me say you are in a position to off 1-3 suggestions to a group of people who have the power to put your suggestion into action and facilitate student success. Especially those students in under represented groups and in all aspects of the biomedical research field. So with that power in your hands what would be those suggestions?
KY:This is a great superpower! One of the first things I would do is something that has helped me.Coming from our BUILD mentoring community, require that all mentors make a mentor-mentee compact. That’s what everyone has to do. When you take the time to think about your expectations for your students and what you want from them. When you write it down it helps. So for example, if timeliness is your big thing. That’s really important to you. Write it down so you don’t have students not following something that is an unwritten rule. Students come into classes late. That may not make a difference in a large lecture but it might in a lab meeting. Having all of your expectation up front is so important . And the second part of the compact is what the students expect from you. Let them know what you will do for them That you will be on time or their work will be returned within X amount of time. That you will be supportive of their career goals, be supportive of them and find them opportunities. I think mentor particularly under-serve mentees. I think mentee don’t think what can my mentor do for me. When you have it written down . Not just the expectations which helps them adapt to the lab culture and i am talking about undergraduate students in particular because that’s not a skill anyone has innately. Having what you will do for them is very powerful and really important. You also need to have someone look at your compact before you let your students see if .
Next one I think I would advocate awarding mentoring at an administrative level. I know this puts the focus on faculty members but I think this could directly affect student success because how comprehensive mentoring is perceived by tenure committees and administrative grant proposal panels really affect how time mentor spend. The time mentors spend is going to affect our students. When we ask mentors to invest in the success of their mentees we are asking them to contribute to something that is not rewarded and takes a lot time. We should acknowledge and award it. This should be part of our tenure application. For example we have a wonderful program here in our department of biological sciences where our mentoring of students is apart of our teaching responsibilities. So let’s consider things like that to foster this mentoring and the time it takes to mentor well. I think assigning and expecting good mentoring. If your gonna reward it you should expect it. I think also it may benefit underrepresented students because it’s going to standard mentoring for all student, not just students who are going to feel comfortable asking for it. Some students may not feel comfortable asking for a higher level of mentoring .
Lastly, I would like to promote , what I call, micro mentoring. This something I am working on right now. My idea is that every faculty member, every staff member on campus , I would want them to be mindful that any interaction with our students can be a potential mentoring moment. This isn’t the true definition of a mentor. My idea is just to promote this environment across the campus. For example office hours, I want faculty to be mindful of how their words affects students especially students who are struggling . They are there in office hours to ask you for help and it is true, maybe some students haven’t put in time . Also we need to consider the student hasn’t learned how to do this. Maybe because of the background they come from they haven't had that role model on how to do this. So our interactions with them can either inspire them or deter them. And that’s so much more powerful than I think some faculty think. My idea is not to put out fake positivity sometimes mentors help students understand hard truths. It’s just to understand in how your delivering things. Every communication we have with our students, in person, email, phone call, we are role-modeling what it means to be professional. Our students who are great observers are learning from us . So if approach our communication with our students with this idea of how can I make this a micro mentoring moment. Then we can really surround all of our students with an environment that is extremely supportive of them and their success.
CT: Well said! I have to say I am going to work very hard to make these suggestions a reality because I have made some of the same observations and I could of not said it better than you. Thank you very much ! This has been Dr. Kelly Young.Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University Long Beach. Thank you so much !

Transcribed by Jojo O'Conner.

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