Summer lessons learned: Mentoring 101
Lauren Lamers, MPH
Menominee Tribal Clinic
Keshena, WI

Over the years, I have been incredibly fortunate to have had several mentors who truly helped me grow professionally and personally.  I would not be where I am now without the guidance of such phenomenal role models. 

This past summer, though, the tables were turned as I stepped into a mentoring role myself.  For eight weeks, I had the privilege of working with Simone Tucker, a recently graduated Menominee high school student as part of the Short-Term Research Experiences for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP) program.  STEP-UP is managed and funded by the Office of Minority Health Research Coordination (OMHRC) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The program seeks to increase participation in biomedical, social science, behavioral, and clinical research among students of backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in research fields.  STEP-UP interns work with research mentors over the course of eight weeks to complete a project that they then present to their peers and NIH researchers during the annual STEP-UP symposium at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. 

Apple orchard at Keshena Primary School, Keshena, WI,
planted as part of local childhood obesity prevention efforts.
Photo by Simone Tucker
For her STEP-UP project, Simone worked with me to assess childhood obesity prevalence in Menominee County.  Over the last several years, the Menominee Community Engagement Workgroup, a coalition of local community members and leaders, has been planning and implementing initiatives to prevent childhood obesity, but they have so far been unable to monitor childhood obesity prevalence or evaluate their efforts.  Simone was able to analyze screening data collected through local school physical education programs to estimate the local prevalence of childhood obesity.  She also conducted an environmental scan to better catalogue current childhood obesity prevention efforts and facilitate planning for future prevention initiatives.  Her work has played a key role in helping the community set the stage to evaluate their work in the future.      

Throughout the summer, the project enabled Simone to build research and public health skills including data collection and analysis; writing a scientific abstract; preparing oral and poster presentations; and communicating her work to various audiences including her peers, healthcare professionals, scientific researchers, and community members.   Additionally, the STEP-UP internship was a unique opportunity for her to learn about research and public health more broadly and to observe firsthand some of the efforts to improve health within her own community.  It was also very rewarding for her to see that her work would play an important role in moving those efforts forward in the future.  

Simone presenting her poster during the STEP-UP annual symposium
at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.
(From left: Dr. Carolee Dodge-Francis [University of Nevada - Las Vegas*],
Simone Tucker, Lauren Lamers)
What I think was the most valuable outcome of the STEP-UP program, however, was that Simone truly developed a stronger confidence in her own abilities.  One of the most rewarding parts of the summer was seeing her transform from being nervous and uncertain at the beginning of the project to seeing her confidently present her work during the STEP-UP symposium at NIH.  It was really a special opportunity for both of us to step back and take in how much she had learned and accomplished over the short space of eight weeks.    

While I knew at the beginning of the summer that there would be a lot to each over the course of the STEP-UP internship, I didn’t quite anticipate how much I would gain from being a mentor.  Although I still have plenty to learn about what it takes to be a good mentor, there are a few key points that I will take away from my experience: 

1.  Mentoring takes time, planning, and investment.  I realized pretty early on that mentoring wouldn’t be just about teaching the nuts and bolts of research or public health.  Being an effective mentor really involved strategically planning not only what I would need to teach, but also exploring how (admittedly, usually by trial and error) to teach the concepts and skills my student would need in a way that was practical and engaging.  Most importantly, though, it involved taking the time to really learn about her interests, strengths, and weaknesses and actively provide opportunities to help her grow.

2. Remember what it was like when you were first starting out.  In many ways, mentoring helped me realize how far I’ve come even over the past year of my Fellowship.  From time to time, though, I also needed to step back and remember how overwhelming it can be to learn so many completely new concepts in a short amount of time.   Keeping this perspective helped me remember to reinforce that learning is a process that takes time and involves plenty of mistakes, but that these mistakes are often what help us grow the most.

3.  Provide clear guidance, but encourage independence.  If there is one thing I learned about myself this summer, it’s that I’m often guilty of micromanaging.  One of my biggest challenges was finding balance between providing enough guidance and direction and knowing when to step back so Simone could have the freedom and flexibility to take ownership of her own work and learning.  In many ways, it was difficult for me to let go of wanting to oversee all of the little details of the project, but once I did I think Simone was really able to test her capabilities and grow from the experience. 

4.  Mentoring is an incredibly rewarding experience.  Although mentoring presented unique challenges, it was also a lot of fun.  It really allowed me to reflect on why I love working in public health and share that with a student whose career is just beginning.  It was fantastic to go from teaching Simone about the basics of research and public health to being able to have in-depth conversations about topics ranging from the recent Ebola outbreaks to public policy aspects of obesity prevention.  I also think one of my proudest moments of my Fellowship to date was watching Simone’s presentation at the NIH a few weeks ago - it was truly a testament to all of her hard work and dedication.  Helping her grow not only in her knowledge and skills but also in her confidence has undoubtedly been the best part of my summer.

So overall, it has been a summer full of learning, growth, and hard work, but also a lot of fun.  I am so grateful for this opportunity to be a mentor, and I have an even deeper appreciation for all of the mentors I have been privileged to work with over the years.  I look forward to seeing what the future holds for Simone and to any new mentoring opportunities that may come my way.

*The University of Nevada - Las Vegas (UNLV) American Indian Research & Education Center (AIREC) is one of four NIH STEP-UP high school coordinating centers. AIREC coordinates the American Indian/Alaska Native STEP-UP students nationwide. For more information about the program contact DeeJay Chino at 702-895-4003, or email: