The influential role of mentoring in higher education

Throughout different stages of our lives and careers we establish relationships with people that can become influential in our development as professionals but also in our growth and maturity as human beings. These kind of people that have such impact in our formation are often called mentors. The definition and characteristics that make someone “qualified” to perform the role of a mentor depends on the categories you have for them. Independently of your criteria, mentors will have a certain impact in your development.

Mentors serve as guiders and supporters. They are people we trust and often look up to. During the different years that I have been part of higher education I have had the privilege to meet a lot of people that have guided me to where I am today. My mentors are not only conformed of professors and advisors, but colleagues, classmates and fellow graduate students as well as early career scientists. My active involvement and engagement in research started during my freshman year of college. It has been through research that I have been  able to network and meet a lot of people who I have collaborated and directly work with.  However, not everyone that  I have worked with has served as a mentor to me. Although, I do recognize that even though they did not play the role of a mentor they were important in my formation.

Being mentored represents an opportunity to learn from someone else’s expertise, discuss different ideas, get advice on career paths and so much more. A mentor is not someone that will tell you everything you have to do, but someone that will provide some sense of direction. At the end the decision is still yours and you should feel ownership of what you want for your career and your professional and personal development.

Within higher education it is imperative that we have a broad community of mentors that represent different fields, perspectives, backgrounds and experiences. Diverse mentorship efforts or programs allow to promote equity and inclusion within the institution but also to hire and retain a more diverse professoriate, students and staff. During my different experiences with mentorship I have found that I feel more inspired and reassured that I am capable of pursuing a career in Academia because I have been mentored by people that look like me and with who I share similar backgrounds and interests. My decision to pursue a PhD was highly influenced by the different relationships I developed during my undergraduate and master’s. My understanding  and recognition of the lack of representation for minorities in my field also served as a motivation to position myself in a place where I can have an active mentoring role to continue breaking the barriers to make higher education a place that is accessible to a broader community.

How do we begin to incorporate changes in higher education?

In a world that is constantly changing, how instruction and education are imparted must coincide with those changes, it should be representative of the world we live in. Education serves as the major tool for academic formation, knowledge development and overall understanding of how things and the world function. In order to break barriers and enhance a global understanding, instruction in higher education needs to evolve. There are a variety of changes that could be made within higher education to improve its development, expand its reach and make it a place that is more appealing for a broader group of people.

Where do we start when thinking about implementing changes in higher education? An evaluation of how the institution works, overall performance of students, faculty and staff can be an initial step to determine what works and does not. It is very important to understand and acknowledge the weakness and strengths of a school, program, department, etc. Acknowledging this allows to have a clear understanding of the areas that need to be prioritize in order to be successful when transitioning to the changes that want to be incorporated.

As a person that has been participating in higher education for over 7 years in different states and territories of the Unites States of America (USA), I have identified things that I would like to improve or change within its structure and function. These observations became more evident once I started teaching in graduate school. One of the things I first noticed when I became a laboratory instructor for an introductory biology course was the lack of interest and engagement of students. Additionally, the expectations of the course were not aligned with the prior preparation of the student. This often resulted in taking additional time to go over material that was expected for the students to already know.  The students I taught were mainly freshman, which meant that certain skills for this introductory course were assumed to have been learned and developed during high school. I think the fact that students often struggle to engage in the class is due to the lack of confidence that can come from not having acquired certain skills yet (e.g. data analysis in Excel). 

A way to strengthen students skills prior to when major assignments are due can be through an early assessment of their standing. For the upcoming semesters the TA’s of the course prepared an ice-breaker activity that incorporated some data collection and analysis. This provided the perfect opportunity to review material or introduce data analysis to the students. As a way to continue the development of these skills, I opted for having a data analysis activity at the end of each class as a way to review steps, answer questions and overall maintain students active and constantly thinking about how to work with data. Keeping this material fresh in their brains proved to be highly beneficial for when students had to design their own research projects. 

The four semesters that I taught this course allowed me to identify what worked and did not for the students and myself. Having a guided tutorial during the first day of the class served as an explicit layout of the major expectations of the course and the opportunity for students to understand the importance of understanding data, how to analyzed and interpret it. As students understanding of data analysis software’s increased, their participated and engagement in the course also became more active. Students that were more advanced would help their classmates which all promoted for interaction and teamwork.

Implementing changes like this one in the classroom can be scaled to the institutional level. As higher education institution’s begin to work towards a more inclusive environment and becoming accessible to a broader group, things such as acknowledging the changes that need to be incorporated and developing a plan to work towards that goal can highly influence its accomplishment. Additionally, building a support network of a community that seeks to make change happen and its held accountable for the progress that is made can significantly impact the long-term effects of the new implemented changes. Lastly, a key thing to keep in mind is that in order for a change to work and evolve according to how the world changes is the need to revisit the plan and make sure that is still working and if not determine what modifications are necessary for it to work again.

Use of Social Media in Higher Education

The evolution of technology has made its use an indispensable one in education nowadays. As new technologies are been developed the access to information generally increases, of course, this is dependent on the resources individuals have to access it. Today, we are not going to directly address the accessibility to new technologies, but the role technology, in particular social media plays or could play when incorporated as a tool of instruction in higher education. Including social media within the curriculum can be beneficial to increase the engagement of students but could also become a distraction for them, so we need to be careful when incorporating these.

After browsing the web, I came across a blog on the Schoology Exchange website that discussed the use of social media as a tool to increase student engagement in the classroom. Some of the major things addressed in this post were as follows: (1) social media as a virtual “classroom”, (2) keep students involved during days where there is no in-person instruction, (3) the encouragement of collaboration and group-work, (4) continue class discussion, (5) improve writing skills and, (6) global learning.

The usage of social media as a virtual classroom is a very realistic scenario, specially during these days given that most academic instruction around the globe is being held remotely.  This is a way to improve accessibility in cases where students are not able to make it to the actual classroom. Being able to develop or structure a course that serves the needs of a broader student body allows to increase the reach and opportunity for higher education by making it more accessible.  Using social media as a tool to continue and increase the involvement and participation of students in class discussion is a great way for further engagement and not have the conversation or interest in the topic die after class is over. This blog post captured my attention because it reminded me that I have had professors that have use some of these tools to promote the usage of social media as part of the course they are teaching. This is something I had not considered before and I find it quite innovative.

During my first semester as a master’s student in the University of New Hampshire I took a class that required students to create a Twitter account and ‘tweet’ weekly about aquatic ecosystems. Each week we had to post an original tweet (with the class hashtag)  and comment in at least 3 posts from our classmates. The posts could cover any aspect regarding aquatic ecosystems. This at first seemed challenging to me particularly because I am not very active on social media. However, this class requirement made me stay up to date with news, scientific articles and general information on freshwater science issues. In addition to fulfilling a class requirement, this later became a tool for networking and increased my visibility as a scientist in social media in a not so traditional way. It was in fact through what is commonly now know as ‘Academic Twitter’ that I found my current position at Virginia Tech.

I think there is a lot of value in the usage of social media as a learning tool. It provides more opportunity to further explore, learn and engage. It is a great way to expand your network and reach a broader audience because you are posting things online that can become public to anyone in the world if you decide so, which serves as a platform to connect with future colleagues, find jobs and increase your overall visibility (if you want). I think is important to recognize the big role social media is playing on our education, especially in terms of how information (true or false) is being disseminated. Social media can be the first source of information anyone has access to, given its popularity nowadays. Therefore, I think if more academics become active on social media the potential for increases in reliable information are greater.

 

Open Access

Open Access journals amplify the access to reliable and peer-reviewed information. Accessibility to reliable information allows to further develop knowledge and understanding in an easier way. Open access to information serves as a great tool for instruction and education, which allows to advance the development of science and technology. Making scientific publications open access broadens the reach of the audience as it breaks former restrictions and opens an opportunity for faster learning. Open Access journals can be perceived as an evolution within Academia.

The journal I have selected for this assignment is the Journal of Freshwater Ecology. This journal is from the United Kingdom and has been published since 1981. The publishers of this journal are Taylor and Francis Ltd. The scope of this journal centers in the field of aquatic science, agricultural and biological sciences, ecology, evolution, and behavior and systematics. This journal serves an international audience as well as a wide range of topics within Ecology. Within this journal you can find a variety of topics and studies that allows us to further understand the dynamics of freshwater ecosystems at different scales (e.g. physiological, biogeochemical, population and community diversity).  The manuscripts published in this journal center on manipulative experiments and field and case studies.

The Journal of Freshwater Ecology approach to open access is stated as follows:  “all articles published in this journal are free and permanently accessible online without subscription paywall or registration fee” The authors that decide to publish in this journal keep their copyright to the article and in fact, the publishers of the article have a “non-exclusive right to publish the Version of Record under a creative common license”. Any manuscript that is submitted for publication in this journal goes under a comprehensive peer-reviewed process that consists of an editor and 2 external experts in the topic that is being presented. The external reviewers are anonymous to the authors of the paper.

Publications in this journal are addressed as beneficial for your career as they aim to increase your visibility and discoverability.  The impact of this journal as an open access one is said to be “eight times” greater, given the accessibility that it provides through open access. Open access for this journal translates into higher readership which increases the potential for more citations of your work. Additionally, this journal claims to have a broader impact beyond Academia, given that the availability of your article online allows anyone to access it.

Open Access journals serve as a major tool of progress within the structure of Academic peer-review practices given the expansion of its accessibility.  However, it must be taken into account that the peer-review process must remain as a rigorous and comprehensive one to guarantee the integrity and accuracy of the work that is trying to get published. Overall, the expansion and availability of Open Access journals allows not only the scientific community, but the general public to be better informed and have access to revised information that will benefit the development of new projects, policies, and practices.

 

Ethics in Research

Dishonesty in research is a topic that throughout the years has been getting more attention which is very alarming. Just by comparing the amount of cases that have been reported  and published on the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) website you can quickly notice that the number of cases does not appear to decrease. Research misconduct is a threat to the scientific community and science in general because it lead to disbelief and lost of trust from the general public. This limits the influence scientific findings have on the audience and represents a challenge to those who conduct research ethically. To further discuss ethics in research I am going to reflect and discuss one of the many cases that have been addressed as unethical and where misconduct has been highlighted.

The case selected is of a former post-doctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The misconduct addressed in this case is the falsification of data in a paper publication and in two grants that were supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Institute of Health, respectively.  The manipulation of the data conducted resulted in the exaggeration of results in order to support the proposed hypothesis. The consequences of this misconduct were as follow:

(1) any sort of research conducted has to be supervised for 3 years starting on December 30, 2019

(2) any research application or grant proposal specially any grant to be  submitted to the U.S Public Health Service (PHS) needs to be supervised and go under rigorous evaluation if the person that has engaged in research  misconduct is involved in any way

(3) any institution that hires this person has to submit a certification to ORI that the data that is being presented by this person for an abstract, manuscript, grant, etc.  is legitimate and that all the procedures to obtain it have been accurate

(4) if the person has not applied or been involved in any grant applications or manuscripts publications they need to inform this to ORI

(5) exclude themselves from advising at any capacity on an PHS committee for 3 years

The manipulation of results at any stage in your career is something that can have a domino effect and greatly affect your professional role as well as your credibility, specifically in science. Your integrity as a scientist is one of the most valuable assets you have and in order to maintain, be respected and valued for the work you do, is critical to remain truthful and transparent about the procedures you use and how you obtain your results. This is not limited to science only, but in any field that you embark. The misconduct evaluated here and the consequences of the actions engaged in, required this person to be supervised for  3 years and refrain from serving any roles in any committee that involved PHS.  Being in an early-career stage can be very damaging when engaging in research misconduct and this will  present challenges for their professional opportunities and further development.  Although, the “major” consequences are set to only last for only 3 years, the case is public and that will always be brought up in any future job interview, paper publication or grant application.

Mission statements

Mission statements can be perceived as the goals and priorities of an entity. What an entity stands for and expects can vary depending on what they represent and what influences them. Mission statements are very common in higher education institutions and these have value and significance when it comes to determining the institutions aspirations and the kind of students, faculty and staff they want to enroll and hire. I took the opportunity of this assignment to reflect on the mission statements from institutions I have attended. The two mission statements are from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the University of New Hampshire (UNH). I got my bachelor’s from UPR in Río Piedras, where I majored in Environmental Sciences and I recently finished my master’s in Natural Resources at UNH.

The University of Puerto Rico’s mission statement goes as follows:

The University of Puerto Rico, as a public institution of higher education, is mandated by law to serve the people of Puerto Rico, consistent with the ideals of a democratic society like ours.

The main mission of the University of Puerto Rico is to achieve the following objectives:

  • Transmit and increase knowledge through the arts and sciences, putting this knowledge at the service of the community through its teachers, researchers, other university personnel, students and graduates.
  • Contribute to the development, cultivation and enjoyment of the aesthetic and ethical values ​​of culture.

To fulfill this mission, the University must:

  • Cultivate the love of knowledge as a way of freedom through the search and discussion of the truth, in an attitude of respect for creative dialogue.
  • Preserve, enrich and disseminate the cultural values ​​of the Puerto Rican people and strengthen the awareness of their unity in the common endeavor to democratically resolve their problems.
  • Procure the integral formation of the student.
  • To fully develop the intellectual and cultural wealth latent in our people, so that the values ​​of intelligence and the spirit of exceptional personalities that emerge in all social sectors, especially those least favored in economic resources, can be put at the service of Puerto Rican society.
  • Collaborate with agencies, within their own spheres of action, in the study of Puerto Rico’s problems and be at the forefront in the search for effective solutions to them.
  • Bear in mind that because of its character as a University and because of its identification with the ideals of life in Puerto Rico, it is essentially linked to the values ​​and interests of all democratic communities.

Law of the University of Puerto Rico, Law No. 1 of January 20, 1966, as amended.”

Being a native from Puerto Rico and having spent most of my life there allowed me to be exposed to a rich culture and set of traditions that are dominant in the life of any Puerto Rican born and raised on the island. From UPR’s mission statement there are a few words that stand out. Words such as “cultivate“, “enrich“, and “intellectual and cultural wealth” highlight the importance of fostering a sense of community within the students and faculty. The richness and diversity within the Puerto Rican culture is highlighted in the academic formation of its students. UPR’s statement does a good job in making this aspect of their mission stand out. Additionally, the fostering  of knowledge or contributing to the intellectual formation of its students emphasizes the eagerness of the institution to benefit and challenge its students intellectually.

On the other hand, we have the mission statement from the University of New Hampshire which states the following:

“The mission of the University System of New Hampshire is to serve the higher educational needs of the people of New Hampshire. The University System strives to assure the availability of appropriate higher educational opportunities to all New Hampshire people; seeks to enroll a diverse student population to enhance educational experiences; and provides programs and activities based on a commitment to excellence. Through its institutions, the University System engages in research which contributes to the welfare of humanity and provides educational resources and professional expertise which benefit the state and its people, the region and the nation. ”

Different from UPR, UNH’s statement is centered towards developing an education that will fit the necessities of its students, assuring that the type of education instructed provides a base of knowledge that benefits their educational experience. Some words that stand out from UNH’s mission statement are: “serve”, “availability”, and “commitment to excellence”.

Although the approaches taken from both institutions towards missions’ statements are different, they highlight a commitment to foster an education that contributes to the well-being of society. Both statements emphasize how important is to give back to the community and the importance of helping others through your knowledge and expertise. When we think about higher education institutions this is a key component that is very present in them. I believe this is due to the community that one builds when attending any of these institutions. Finally, having a sense of belonging in a place is the first thing needed for caring enough about it and therefore, engage and be eager to participate in the different events, discussions and activities that take place at these institutions.