How to Be a Faculty Mentor - The Labster Podcast, Episode 16
April: [00:00:04] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. I'm proud to say that at Labster, we are guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you were an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you. With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton and educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's Virtual labs simulations for students and high school, college and university.
April: [00:00:43] Having a faculty mentor can make a world of difference to a student looking for guidance on how to pursue a career in STEM. In this episode, we'll get to speak with a professor who combines her passion for teaching and mentoring STEM students with an active collaborative research program now in the Department of Natural Sciences at Bowie State University. Professor Lucia Santacruz was mentored early and her academic career. She now views her current role as a mentor as her opportunity to pay it forward and support the next generation of scientists. We can't wait to get started, so welcome to the podcast Lucia.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:01:26] Hello to all, I'm glad to be here.
SJ Boulton: [00:01:29] Your story to me is super interesting and I'm very curious to learn more about your story and your journey, especially considering how interest in your career has been. I know that you moved from Duke University to Bowie State University, which is historically a black university in Maryland, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how that transition was for you and why it was so important to you to teach in a HBCU.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:01:57] So, you know, faculty in the United States, particularly in this very elite universities are mostly individuals that are engaged in research. Mm hmm. Run big labs, have big grants, big postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates for rotations, have technicians but very rarely engage in the day to day teaching. Hmm.
SJ Boulton: [00:02:29] Yeah. I recognize that.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:02:30] A lot of the teaching is done by other individuals, and I'm not saying that I am diminishing the labor of those instructors in the classroom. They're heroes in many ways, but they're individuals that are supposed to be the bastions of science or that are the bastions of science in at least in the United States. Very rarely are in the classroom. Students don't see them. And to me, that is actually, you know, what's the point of acquiring all this knowledge of doing all this research of figuring out this, all this incredible facts about life, about space, about, you know, geology? Hmm. If you cannot share that or you only share them in journals that experts understand and experts read.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:03:30] So fundamentally, I think it's an ethical duty, it's a moral imperative to make science shared with everybody. And that is not easy.
SJ Boulton: [00:03:42] I know this is a paradigm that we see in a lot of institutions that perhaps the professors that are the leaders in the research groups, the principal investigators and certainly in the UK have experienced this too often. They aren't involved at the coalface, so to speak with the student teaching and and lecturing. And you know, sometimes it's true, too, that those people that are excellent minds in the research and development side of scientific endeavor, they're not always the best communicators. However, within those research groups, there are often those with like a true passion for communication and a true ability to connect with people who sometimes do a better job.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:04:23] Absolutely right.
SJ Boulton: [00:04:25] And I wonder if you had a perspective on who should maybe be the face of it?
Lucia Santacruz: [00:04:31] Oh, that is a tricky question, because it actually lies in the abilities and inclinations and passions of each individual. And if your passion is to sit with an X-ray diffractometer, they're analyzing how the atoms in a molecule are rearranging themselves. When they are catalyzing a reaction, then you know, yet you walk into a classroom with 60 18-year olds who are looking at you wondering, you know, what time will be this over? And they're cold or hungry, or they had a fight with their girlfriend or boyfriend or simply, they don't think they're just looking at the title of your lecture and going 'what in the world is that?' And you don't engage them, then, you know.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:05:27] Yes, you do have a very fair point. But I also think that it would be wonderful if everybody is assigned this journey. The aspect of communicating sharing was more central. And I actually I think it would go a long way to ameliorating this distrust of science. And we wouldn't be seeing this, this denial of phenomena that are affecting our whole planet climate change. We wouldn't have really all this reticence towards vaccination because people would have more of it. You know, science would be more of the everyday commonsense part of their existence and not something just for geniuses, right?
SJ Boulton: [00:06:17] Sure. I hear you.
SJ Boulton: [00:06:19] So this was an observation that you made when you were at Duke, you said, or when you were starting at the surgery department. And did that experience change? Or did your viewpoint or your vantage change when you switched to Bowie State Uni?
Lucia Santacruz: [00:06:34] Well, I always liked teaching. You know, maybe it's because I'm the oldest of six and I was always helping someone with some homework, but it changed. It changed. It made me more humble. It really cemented my convictions that.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:06:52] Science has to be accessible not just to my cell bio students or cancer bio students, or to surgery residents or to med students. It has to be accessible to everybody.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:07:04] And that, you know, you have to have one a global understanding of your field. You cannot just be thinking about that specific atom in that specific molecule. You have to realize that that atom is part of the molecule that is part of a cell that is part of a tissue and so on. And all of that is interact with and connect.
SJ Boulton: [00:07:28] Absolutely. And I suppose that ties into, you know, raising aspiration in what are effectively the next generation of scientists to me. We don't know where where our next generation of scientists are going to come from and who will stick with it when they've graduated to. Did your experiences at all at Bowie State University and how did that impact your thinking when you were trying to kind of empower people to follow a STEM career?
Lucia Santacruz: [00:07:57] Every time you teach a subject, you have to make sure that you very clearly establish a connection to real everyday life. Hmm. Let me give you a very, very simple example. The nature of water and why water is essential for life. And the very simple example that I can give it to my students is, you know, when you workout, you get very hot. And because your muscles are, you know, moving in your burn, you're doing all these reactions that dissipate energy, heat blah. And if water wasn't the way water is, we would cook ourselves together.
SJ Boulton: [00:08:51] Indeed, this is so funny because two days ago I sat in a meeting where we were discussing this exact topic for a simulation, and we were like, It's so important to teach these fundamental concepts just so you have this underpinning realization that you can link to the phenomena that are around you all the time.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:09:10] Yeah. And or things like, for instance, you know, why do I have lactose intolerance? What is lactose intolerance? Yeah, for sure. But the concept, the idea, the visualization of what it is has to be delivered in an accessible, really approachable and understandable fashion.
SJ Boulton: [00:09:35] Do you feel that that really impacts your students?
Lucia Santacruz: [00:09:38] Oh, absolutely. Oh, my goodness, yes, particularly my students in HBCU in in an HBCU, so Bowie State University is the oldest historically black college and university in the state of Maryland, which is where I work and live, and a large proportion of our students are first in their families to attend college. The population of Bowie STEM students is, I want to say, the high 80s, no more than actually 90 percent African-American.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:10:22] And I'm primarily working with students that come to the biology program and they come to the biology program and a lot of them with the goal of becoming doctors physicians. Right, OK, because being a physician is a career path. There seems to be so impactful in their communities. And it's also because of the media and so on. Very glamorous. And people think that all physicians can drive a Lamborghini or a Porsche Panamera, which is not, you know, that's not the case.
SJ Boulton: [00:11:11] In the UK absolutely not.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:11:13] Not any more in the United States. Let me tell you that I know the field of medicine, both from the professional aspect and from the personal aspect. Sure. And yes, some physicians can have very, very wonderful salaries, but not all of them do. So any help? But it's been glamorized by TV shows like Gray's Anatomy and so on. And they all portray being a physician is such a wonderful life. Right?
SJ Boulton: [00:11:42] I wonder also if this and again, this might be my naivete to kind of the cultural aspects that go along with this story. But again, I'm very curious to learn. I wonder in those communities, other the same parental pressures like, you know, a parent wanting a positive outcome for their student, you know, pushing them to, you know, raise their aspiration. Also kind of like, Oh, you could be a doctor, you know, come on, off you go. Do you experience or do you observe kind of parental pressure?
Lucia Santacruz: [00:12:14] Absolutely. But I think that's a normal thing for parents. We all want our kids to do well. Yes, sure. And in particular, when the example, the societal example of doing well is being a lawyer or a doctor. Right?
SJ Boulton: [00:12:29] Yes. Yes. OK. I see where you're coming from? Yeah.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:12:32] But having said that, I have sadly have students who are all put in a terrible position where their parents are. And I don't want to say smothering, but it is almost smothering their individual vocations. And to become a physician or a scientist, not only do you have to have the brains, but you have to have the dedication, the years to invest in this and be a financial support. It is very expensive to go to school from the time you graduate high school until your mid-30s, you know, and then, you know, life creeps up. People get married. People have kids. People want to buy a house and you're still in training, still making very little money. It is difficult now. In my experience, when I have encountered students where it is evident their parents are pressuring them. That's where I put in my motherly mentoring hat.
SJ Boulton: [00:13:42] I was going to ask you about your mentoring, and it seems like something that's very important to you and your relationships as a student.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:13:48] Yes. And I .. actually, to me it is one of the most satisfying and soul nourishing aspects of my what I do. And I sit down with them and have a conversation. You know, I tell them, What did you really? What makes your your heart tick? What makes your blood boil? What makes you excited about this? And more than once, you know, I can recall two or three students.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:14:16] I don't want to give their names because I didn't ask them whether I could talk about them personally, but I recall one of them - a fabulous, fabulous. Not only was he great in academics, but as a person, she was wonderful. His parents were going for him go to medicine. She would faint at the sight of blood. He took my cancer biology class just because he was curious and interested. But when we would talk about specific aspects of cancer treatment, cancer screening, diagnosis, the poor guy was in the back of the room and his eyes were twirling in his eye sockets and this is a guy that is like seven feet tall, you know.
SJ Boulton: [00:15:08] Not your traditional person that you might associate with being squeamish, I hear you.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:15:13] And he was able, you know, we had many conversations after class, during class. I always had granola bars in my office or cans of tea or juice or whatever. And I, you know, he said, Look, you know, this is not what I want. I don't want to go to medical school. And he ended up and he actually said, I don't even want to go for a Ph.D.. I really want to do something else. And he was through his own agenc, he landed a job in a biotech company that does cytogenetics, and he is fabulous at it and he's doing so well. And I am so happy for him.
SJ Boulton: [00:16:01] Absolutely. I'm so happy for your student that they had the time and the space to come to that realization before entering a profession. Do you think it's something that can be effective in every institution? I'm conscious that cohorts can be really large in cohort sizes, are increasing all the time and making the time and space for every student to have a mentor might be very difficult.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:16:25] You are absolutely right, and that is a very tricky problem. And I mean, there is no easy answer. I am fortunate that in Bowie State, we have like 600-700 students in the natural science department and because of the way we do advising and if the professor is engaged and cares, then you can form a good relationship with the student and watch them grow. And to me personally, there's nothing more satisfying than seeing the kids that I have had in my intro biology I haven't taught intro biology for biology majors seen in a couple of years - but watch them grow and then make their own decisions and change their paths as they are learning and experiencing new things. That, to me, is it's beautiful because ... And so the reason why I'm I want to circle back that is part of mentoring.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:17:35] Mentoring is shepherding, but letting the person experience. Give advice but not impose, listen and give an opinion, and but don't be impositive in your advice. And always, always, always tell the truth. But you don't need to be also harsh. I mean, you know, if a mentor comes in and tells the student, 'you're useless, you know, with these grades, you will never, ever be anything. So you better just think about doing something else.'.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:18:15] It's true that not everybody has the academics to enter a competitive medical school or graduate school program, but you can not be destructive in your feedback to a student. First of all, it's rude. And second of all this are tender souls. These are individuals that are growing, and they need to be guided, not beaten and beaten. This may be a very strong word, but they don't need to be. I find that, you know, in human relationships, even in those situations when you are, when you are encountering something very difficult and very ... It's better to just use kindness and use decency to accept change than using force or some more or some or a more assertive way of doing things. So, so to kind of shorten things, I try to listen and give my students alternatives, show them things that they haven't thought about, you know, and let them make that decision.
SJ Boulton: [00:19:29] One thing that your discussion was bringing up for me, especially when you were talking about your mentorship and a little bit about the pressures that students face was the paradigm that we have at the moment with a STEM diversity gap, especially in employment. And, you know, students sometimes come to university with an idea like a big idea, like, I want to be a doctor or I want to be a surgeon. But until they get on campus, they're not necessarily exposed to all of the nuanced, less visible roles and career paths that can be open to them. I know myself, I had an idea of what I wanted to be when I went to university, but it wasn't until I actually got into my degree that I realized all of the other things that I could do. And you know, those things aren't aren't always accessible when you're 16 or 17 thinking about what it is you want to do with the rest of your life.
SJ Boulton: [00:20:24] And one little bit of data that came up when we were thinking about this podcast was a stat that was in a study released by the Pew Research Center in spring this year in 2021. It said the Hispanic workers make up 17 percent of total employment in the United States, but only eight percent of STEM workers. And likewise, black workers make up 11 percent of all employed adults in the U.S., but only nine percent for STEM workers. So that seems to be this gap still in, you know, creating access and equity, especially in STEM employment, and I'm wondering, could mentorship and supporting and engaging students with an exploration of what could be rather than, you know, just selling that big idea of doctor or surgeon - Is that something that we need to spend more attention? Do you have ideas on how we can address that?
Lucia Santacruz: [00:21:17] Yeah. Well, you're absolutely right. And actually the numbers are worse if you look at the proportion of individuals representing diversity as part of the total population of the United States. This is a topic that is in the forefront of a lot of the big institutions. NSF The National Science Foundation is putting a lot of effort and muscle and funds available to support STEM education to address those gaps. I know the National Institutes of Health are also very aware of the lack of diversity and in biomedical professions, and this lack of diversity to me is more troublesome when you start rising in the upper echelons.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:22:16] So if you were to look in the hospital, you see that a lot of the technicians in the labs, the support staff in nursing are individuals that represent diversity. But as you start advancing in their hierarchy, so you start looking at their individual set up in medical school and then the individual stood up in residency. And then there is the breakdown in the different residencies. There is this gap or the lack of diversity becomes incredibly. It's just very, very pronounced. And if you look then in general in academic institutions, women chairs in biomedical sciences.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:23:09] So in order to address that disparity, the effort has to be concerted, and it has to start, not if you're trying to address it and at the faculty level, trying to hire more individuals that represent diversity, it's too late. You need to start early. So it has to start almost, I want to say in the high school level, you know, ensuring that students have their backgrounds that will allow them to succeed.
Lucia Santacruz: [00:23:49] And unfortunately, the socioeconomics of this country are such that the individuals that represent diversity are also less advantaged economically. And if you have and in this particular, you know, I'll give you an example. If you want to go to a really good public school, you need to live in the neighborhood that it has crafted the good public school. And that neighborhood usually has very expensive homes. So it pushes out individuals that don't have the economic power to live in this neighborhood.
SJ Boulton: [00:24:33] Yeah, I hear that. Absolutely. And it's something that we experience here in the UK as well, especially in the more deprived areas in the Northeast, where I am, compared to relatively higher socioeconomic areas that we see in the south coast this year. This has been super interesting and I'm really sad because I could talk to you all day and I find your story absolutely fascinating and your ideas, so inspiring. Our time's coming to a close already, and I really want to thank you for sharing your thoughts. But I wondered, is that any kind of final thoughts or anything you'd like to touch on before we wrap up our episode?
Lucia Santacruz: [00:25:10] Well, thank you for asking me. I think this is, you know, if I can. If I can I mean, if I am talking to educators, educators are already committed, we're all trying. What I would really, really try to ask is that people realize that this that STEM and in biomedical sciences and particularly when it refers to diversity, is not a bubble. It is connected, and it's a consequence of society where we are and what decisions have been. And it will take all of us to work and to be honest and in order to really address disparities in a meaningful way, and meaningful is a very loaded word here.
April: [00:26:12] Well, I want to thank you, Dr. Lucia Santacruz. This has been, I think, a really inspiring conversation. And I just want to also thank our listeners. We Lucia, SJ, and I hope our conversation today helped to spark some new ideas about teaching and mentoring students and also a feeling of empowerment about being able to do something to close the diversity gap in your own way at your own institutions. Of course, we know you'll have your own thoughts, and we invite you to send us your feedback at Labster dot com slash feedback. And that's all for us today. Talk to you next time.