Mentorship: the route to networks, upliftment, science

“Mentorship is important in all fields, but it’s particularly important in science,” says Dr George Smoot. Ten years ago, Smoot won the Nobel prize for physics, after he discovered the cosmic microwave radiation background, the ancient radiation left over from the Big Bang.

Last week, he was one of 29 Nobel laureates who, along with about 400 postgraduate students from 80 different countries including 11 from South African, descended on the German town of Lindau. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, in its 66th year, aims to bring together Nobel laureates and young scientists to inspire and share knowledge, as well as form networks and collaborations.

“The really most important thing is to see people who are doing good science, and see what standards they have, how they check their work, how seriously they take it, and how they interact their colleagues,” Smoot says. “It’s like sportsmanship in sports. The real point is to develop societal skills on how do you actually operate in a world in which there are big commercial activities, where you’re competing, but you’re also collaborating. That’s very important stuff that you [learn] from having good mentors.”

The concept of mentorship, however, is not intrinsic to South Africa’s academic space – or industry, for that matter.

While Rosanne Diab, the executive officer of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa, agrees that mentorship is “absolutely critical to one’s success in a career”, “the whole idea of mentorship is not something that’s common in many of the disciplines, particularly humanities and social sciences”. While there are examples of good mentorship, the process is not formalised in South Africa’s universities.

“A mentor is like a supervisor who you look up to, but also a life coach … someone to help you through,” Diab says.

She points to the department of science and technology’s internship programme, which each year places unemployed science graduates into internships within the department’s agencies and units. “Many of these graduates have excellent academic qualifications, but are unable to find a job,” Diab says.

“If you explore further, you’ll find that they are lacking a network, a mentorship to help them and connect them, guide them through this process.

“It’s not their qualifications. It’s their network.”

This lack of network and mentorship affects previously disadvantaged students keenly, particularly black women.

The latest National Survey of Research and Experimental Development Survey, released in May, found black women accounted for 12% of researchers at universities in South Africa in 2013-14. Despite being the largest demographic group in the country, there were just more than 2,100 black women researchers in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. There were 18,212 researchers in the higher education sector in 2013-14.

White men accounted for the largest percentage at 28%, followed by white women (27%) and black men (18%). Indian men and women (both at 4%) and Coloured men and women (both at 3%) held substantially lower percentages. Black women academics also had the lowest percentage of PhDs.

Asked to comment on these statistics, Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, a history lecturer at Rhodes University, said last month that she attained her doctorate because she was supported by her then-head of department Prof Paul Maylam. “You have to actively take an interest in black women and help them through. Often black women don’t think that it is something they could go for…. I got my masters and my first teaching job because the head of department wanted to give me a chance,” Mkhize said. “He could see that the history department at Rhodes [University] was heading for retirement [because the professors were nearing retirement], so he got young people in.”

Thomas Ellerbeck, a member of the board of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting, says: “The world is much more complex than it was 10 years ago,” he says. “Getting different views on your behaviour, on how you make decisions, it helps you to develop and grow. This is not only something for people in academia and universities. It’s also in business.

There is a point in young people’s lives or businesses when they have to make important decisions, and it is useful to have someone to advise them, he says.

“There are different types of mentorship. The most important thing is that there is interaction, that both are talking and challenging themselves. In a good interaction, both benefit from different perspectives, different ages, different life experiences,” Ellerbeck. “I think you should formalise it a little bit, though, otherwise it could be like a ‘coffee talk’.”

Mentorship, like society and science, is evolving. Smoot says that in the past, it was important because a lot of science and laboratory techniques were passed down as “lore”. “There are plain textbooks that explained physics to you, there are not so many textbooks that explain to you how to be a theorist. There are almost no textbooks that explain to you how to be an experimentalist,” Smoot says.

“It’s actually seeing how people do things, how they approach [problems[, how they figure out what kind of projects to work on, how they deal with the public,” he says. “Mentorship turns out to be extremely important.”

Ellerbeck says that he knows a number of people who say they “have to do” mentorship, as though it was an unpleasant task. “If you ‘have to do [it]’, then you shouldn’t do it,” he says. “You should really see this as a chance for both [sides] to grow.”

But it helps if the person being mentored has an idea what their concerns are, Ellerbeck says. “But, because I’m older and probably more experienced, I can be challenged with your questions. In the end, it must also help me.”

Wild was a recipient of the Academy of Science of South Africa’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting fellowship

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent on 3 July 2016.

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