The Art of Mentorship

In the last two years, Susan Girdler, PhD, and medical student Mary Shen have each been honored for their commitment to mentoring others. In conversation, the two discuss the importance of mentorship, supporting women in leadership, and building beneficial relationships.

The Art of Mentorship click to enlarge Susan Girdler, PhD, and Mary Shen

By Jamie Williams, , Photos by Lane Deacon, UNC Health Care.

“I should give you my business card,” Susan Girdler said, fishing through her bag.

Girdler and Mary Shen had met for the first time only a half hour before, but quickly found common ground discussing the importance of mentorship. It was clear that they were building the same bond they’d help foster with others. It was genuine. There was little doubt promises of further collaboration would be fulfilled. It’s what they both do naturally.

Over the past several years, Girdler, PhD, professor and associate chair for junior investigator development in the Department of Psychiatry, UNC School of Medicine, has helped build a mentoring network for female faculty members. WISDOM – Women in Science Deserve Opportunities and Mentoring – sponsors seminars and professional development opportunities designed to help early career female faculty balance the desire for career success with obligations outside of work. She leads the UNC Association for Professional Women in Medical Sciences (APWIS), and in 2016 she co-developed a Carolina Seminar Series, “The Attrition of Women from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

“The question you hear is ‘how can I do it all?’” Girdler said. “How can I be a top notch scientist, get grants funded, publish at the level I need to, and also have a life and a family – or even just friends and hobbies – outside of work?”

Mary Shen is a third year medical student. She’s been a leader of the Association of Women Surgeons and worked to build a bidirectional mentoring program where medical students offer guidance to pre-med students, but also receive mentoring from residents and faculty.

“There are students I’ve mentored who are now in medical school, and I feel like a proud grandma,” Shen said laughing. “I could have a test the next day, but I still want to spend hours just poring over someone’s personal statement.”

Both Shen and Girdler have been honored for their work, earning UNC’s University Award for the Advancement of Women in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The two award winners recently discussed their experiences and insights about mentorship.

During their conversation, Girdler and Shen covered the growing scholarship of mentoring, how to build relationships with mentors, and how supporting women in leadership roles can have a lasting positive impact on institutions – including the UNC School of Medicine.

Susan Girdler and Mary Shen

Q: Dr. Girdler, you’ve said mentoring provides a great deal of professional fulfillment. What do you both get out of it?

Susan Girdler: We know from research that those who mentor actually have greater satisfaction in their own jobs. That’s definitely true for me. Yes, there’s my clinical research, and I know, sometime, years down the line, the papers I publish may have an impact. But mentoring others, seeing them reach their goals, the impact is so much more evident. It provides a great deal of meaning in my career.

Mary Shen: Mentoring has allowed me to look back on my own experiences and see them in a different light. It’s a valuable reminder that no matter where you are in your career, there’s someone who wants to be in your position. Applying to medical school, for example, there are probably hundreds of guidebooks you can buy. But hearing about it from someone who has been through it and who has the same background or interests as you makes a huge difference.

Susan Girdler, PhD

Q: What are some of the benefits you’ve gained from your own mentors?

MS: At this point, I’ve been on the mentee side of things a lot more. I’m interested in going into surgery and when I started my first surgical rotation, there were certainly difficulties. Having people to talk to about those challenges was really helpful. One of my mentors has also been able to connect me with professional opportunities, the chance to attend conferences, and other things like that.

SG: There are two things that people want from mentors. One is for a mentor to network them and introduce them to opportunities they may not have had otherwise. The other is honest feedback, which can be harder.

MS: As a mentee, you feel like you always want to be on your ‘A’ game. This person is a role model and you want to impress them. But, my best mentors have been people I’ve felt comfortable discussing my weaknesses with.

SG: Surgery is very male dominated. Have most of your mentors been men?

MS: I’ve had both men and women, but, at this point, many have been women. They just have a different understanding of the specific challenges we face. They've likely been through the same experiences. I can go to them with questions I wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable discussing with a male mentor. When seeking out mentors, I’ve looked for people with the same viewpoints and values as me. Their gender or ethnicity has not necessarily been a consideration. They have just happened to be women.

Mary Shen

SG: It’s true that core similarities like work ethic and priorities are much more important than superficial similarities like race or gender. But the most important thing is trust. You have to be able to trust that your mentor has your best interest at heart, that they are truly in this for your development, not any sort of selfish motive, and that you are free to fail around them.

Q: What are the different benefits of having mentors who are more senior versus those closer to your career stage?

SG: The traditional model is a more senior level person taking you under their wing and showing you the ropes. A senior level person can leverage resources for you in a way that someone closer to your age cannot. But peer mentoring is becoming more and more popular. When you remove the hierarchy, you provide much more natural social support. You are more likely to develop a long-term, collaborative relationship. Peer mentoring is especially important for those who are underrepresented. If you’re the only woman in your department, or the only African American, you have to find a support network.

MS: I’d say they are equally valuable. Mentors who are close to you can help you plan for the next step. With more senior mentors, you ask ‘ok, what am I looking at long term?’

Q: In peer mentoring, how do you balance support with the competition inherit in academia?

SG: It’s a lot easier when you’re where I am. I don’t think I helped anyone when I was Mary’s age so I really admire her. I was too worried about clawing my way to the top. Later in your career, though, you feel like you can pay it forward. You don’t have to have receive an award. It’s ok not to have the most publications. I don’t know exactly when I got over that hurdle, but it is fun.

MS: I’ve benefitted greatly from more social relationships and hearing stories from people about how they got through what I’m going through right now. With the Association of Women Surgeons, we hosted several events that were more informal, where women could come to support other women and simply offer advice. I read earlier this year about a study saying that by age 6, girls are less likely than boys to think members of their own gender can be brilliant. It can take collective encouragement and mutual support to overturn these stereotypes.

SG: That attitude is something we have to keep chipping away at. It’s an issue of unconscious bias. People still have blinders on about women’s abilities, or they judge women differently than men. It’s hard to change that attitude because it’s so engrained in our culture.

Q: Can mentoring combat that bias?

SG: I think training mentors can help. We have a great mentorship training course on campus that was developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is offered through both the Center for Faculty Excellence and Office of Graduate Education. A large component of the course is related to identifying and overcoming unconscious bias. But you have to be open to it. You have to be willing to see that you, too, have biases. If you can’t accept that, it’s a huge block.

At the School of Medicine, we’ve made a lot of progress in recent years increasing the level of women in leadership positions. And I’d encourage those leaders to continue supporting other women and fighting against unconscious bias. It’s common to see men sponsor other men for things. I don’t think women do it as naturally. I think women in leadership positions should work to bring other women along, be good role models, mentor and support other women.

Q: What can be done to address the problem of women dropping out of medicine and science at higher rates than men?

SG: We know that women have been graduating from medical school and graduate programs at the same rate as men. So they are equally prepared for the workforce. But in the transition from post-doc to assistant professor, or assistant professor to associate professor, we are losing women from the medical pipeline. Of course, this coincides with the time of family formation. We need more support for family-friendly policies. Women are still the primary caregivers. When we lose women from the sciences, who knows what advancements and discoveries we are missing out on. That’s why we have to keep making changes, keep chipping away. It’s hard to change habits, and it takes time to change a culture that’s existed for a very long time. There’s a lot to celebrate, but more progress is needed.

Q: What’s Next?

MS: I think that we are slowly learning that medicine is a team sport. It’s not just doctors practicing in a silo, but, it’s all different people with different specialized skills coming together to care for patients. A lot of our medical school exercises are geared toward teamwork, team building, leadership, giving and receiving feedback. Continuing to make topics like this part of the formal curriculum is a great thing, especially for those underrepresented in medicine.

SG: The adoption of the Quadruple Aim and the continuing focus on physician wellness is a very good thing. We have to continue to advocate for family friendly-policies. It’s hard to get to afterhours events or early morning meetings when you have to put your kid on the bus to school. Can we make it more acceptable to telecommute, or join these things from home? That’s a small change, but for some people it could make a big difference. We have to keep finding solutions like this, and I think continuing to build the number of women in leadership positions will help. Ultimately, I’d encourage everyone to spend some time getting outside of your lab, seek out others outside of your department, and try and meet other people. You’ll find so many people across this campus interested in supporting the careers of women in science. If you have a vision and want to get something done, don’t wait until you have all your ducks in a row. That might never happen, just get moving and do what you can.


Share This: