Name: Sandra Mantilla
Can you provide an overview of your role and responsibilities with the Young Scientist Foundation?
I am a third-year graduate student in the pharmacology program at Case Western Reserve University. I have worked as a mentor for two years with Daniel Shanghai, a high school student who is about to enter his senior year. I am responsible for developing summer projects that he is able to complete within two months, as well as teach him laboratory techniques and supervise his work.
How long have you been mentoring students?
I have been mentoring students for 4 years now, 2 of which have been through the Young Scientist Foundation.
Why is mentorship important to you?
Mentoring is important to me for two reasons. The first reason is because I want to be able to give younger students a taste of what it is like to be a scientist, this way they can get a better idea from an early age of whether this would be a good career choice for them. The second reason is because I want to let students know things that I wish someone had told me when I was their age. Before becoming a graduate student, I myself had to go through a trial an error phase due to lack of exposure and research opportunities. I made a lot of mistakes that made me take the long road to get to where I am right now, and I would like as much as possible to prevent students from making the same mistakes I made.
Did you have mentor figures that influenced your own career path?
Oh, definitely! I had a summer internship in the University of Texas at Austin and I had a wonderful mentor that not only taught me laboratory techniques, but also took the time to give me advice about graduate school. He also took the time to take me around town for sightseeing. To this point we still maintain contact and he still gives me advice regarding career choices in the industry. This experience made me want to pursue a professional degree, and it taught me that it is important to give back in order to train the next generation of students interested in scientific careers.
What is the significance of having high school students in the lab?
Having a high school student in the lab challenges me to explain complex concepts in a simplified fashion that a layperson is able to understand. This is an important skill for scientists to develop because the public has access to a plethora of information that they are not able to digest. In the climate of declining funding for science, it is important to educate people about the importance of biomedical research, this way we can perhaps influence public policy and affect social issues.
The summer training program lasts 10 weeks. How many hours a week do you spend mentoring a student?
I work along my students for around 8 hours a day 5 days a week. It is essentially a full-time job.
How would you describe the level of supervision you provide to students?
I tend to provide a lot of guidance during the first couple of weeks and then slowly let the student work individually, always being around in case the student needs help. I tell my students to not be afraid to ask questions. I would rather they ask me a million times the same question than spend an entire summer pursuing something with no results due to a lack of communication.
What is a typical day in the lab like for you? For a student you are mentoring?
For me, I usually get in and read my emails and do some literature searches early in the morning. Then I start my experiments that I have planned in advance in order to work efficiently. For my students, I usually go over the day’s results on the evening before, we then discuss the plan of action for the following day. I tend to do this because I do not want them to wait around for me if they get in early. I want them to have a plan in advance to make the most out of the time they have in the lab.
What are the most satisfying and challenging parts of your work with students?
The most challenging part is teaching difficult concepts in a way that is easy to grasp. These are students with high school knowledge of biology and we are giving them projects based on concepts taught in graduate school. The most satisfying part is witnessing my students advance in life. Daniel was a high school junior when he started working in the lab and had no idea of what he wanted to do after graduation. This year he is more comfortable with his plans and he is currently applying to college with hopes of pursuing a career in medicine.
What are the things you wish the students were aware of prior to starting the program?
All I require of my students is a desire to learn something new, they do not necessarily need prior knowledge. Since I try to focus on giving my students a taste of a career in science, I do not expect them to know much about the field before coming into the lab.
What are some of the key skills you teach in the lab setting?
The first skill I want them to learn is to think critically. I do not want my students to do experiments and get results without knowing what they mean. Before we start out with a technique, we go over the principle of the technique, how the assay works and what we are trying to measure, then we go over our hypothesis and draw out an outline of how the results should look in order to support the hypothesis. We also go over alternative explanations, should the results not align with the proposed hypothesis, and the very last step is performing the experiment. I am more concerned with the students learning the principles behind the assay than to perfect a technique, because a technique can be performed by anyone and often times the assay might not even work, so I want my students to walk away with a solid knowledge of the project.
How do you keep track of the students’ progress?
I measure their progress based on how independently they are able to work. Sometimes this means they do some reading in advance and come to me with ideas to test out, and that shows a lot of initiative on their part that can be attributed to their ability to put novel concepts together.
How do you ensure a student is not afraid to ask questions?
The first thing I do before I start overwhelming my students with information is to clearly tell them to ask me whatever they want. I like them to shadow me for a couple of days with each technique before they do it on their own. Afterwards I supervise them while they perform the experiment and I remind them to ask me anything to make sure there is no miscommunication.
How do you strike a balance between being a task-oriented mentor and somebody who students enjoy being around?
I do not think it should be one or the other. I think high school students are mature enough to know that this is a professional setting and that they are getting an opportunity that not many people get to take advantage of. At the same time, I make sure I let them know when they are doing a good job to keep them motivated and from time to time we go out for ice cream, chatting about things that are not work-related.
How do you ensure the information you teach turns into applicable knowledge for students?
I try to focus on teaching critical thinking more than learning a particular technique. This is important because the students can transfer this skill into any other aspect of their lives, even if they decide science is not for them.
How do you teach independent thinking?
After my students are comfortable with the technique and have the proper background knowledge, I give them the plan for the next day and ask them to describe what they expect to see based on the hypothesis being tested. If my students struggle with the answer, I start feeding them pieces of information so that they are able to put it together. If they cannot come up with an answer after that, I suggest a paper that has the answer to the posed problem. I then ask them to come to me again once they have done some more reading.
How do you give credit when credit is due?
I always make sure to let my students know when they have done a wonderful job. When they get really good data that I can use to integrate in my own presentation, I make sure I credit their name for their contribution.
When you became a mentor, how did it change the way you perform your own job? What’s next for you? Where would you like to see your career go?
It definitely made me develop a different way of thinking. It is not easy to try to convey a message to someone with limited background in a technical area. It made me simplify concepts in a way that I can use now to explain to my parents and friends what I do every day in lab. It also taught me to effectively balance new responsibilities in my already busy schedule. In addition, teaching someone makes you realize areas where you are not proficient and need to work on yourself. As of now, I plan to finish grad school within the next three years. I then plan to pursue a career in industry in the field of research and development.