PUI Profiles in Summer Research – Peer mentoring for the win

In the first of our summer research PUI profiles, Dr. Kate Plass shares what is going right…and wrong…in her research lab. The power of peer mentoring is making high impact experiences for students, while the inevitable administrative details steal precious research time…

Haven’t I got this right yet?

Hello from my undergraduate research group in the chemistry department at Franklin & Marshall College! I am grateful the summer is here. Classroom teaching is deeply satisfying, but mentoring summer research students is fun. Students and I are immersed in experiments, with brief breaks for ice cream (we are currently excited about

Turkey Hill Dairy’s Graham Slam and Red Velvet flavors). I love guiding students as they are transformed by the joys and challenges of real science. This summer I am working with seven students: four of whom are in my lab and three of whom are working on a new collaborative project in the lab of my colleague, Dr. Jen Morford. We just finishing our first two weeks of summer research. So much has gone right! So much has gone wrong…

One thing right: Peer-mentoring

One aspect of my summer research program I am very pleased with this summer is the peer-mentoring structure in place in my lab. Thanks to external funding (Thank you NSF and Dreyfus Foundation!), F&M’s support for summer research, and a generous research-for-academic credit policy, F&M students commonly have multiple research experiences. This longevity allows peer-mentoring structures where more experienced students train and direct less experienced students.

“…longevity allows peer-mentoring structures where more experienced students train and direct less experienced students…”

This summer, I have two peer mentor/mentee pairs working together; the peer-mentors were peer-mentees last summer. I have already caught powerful moments that show this mentoring structure provides more than just practical benefits. The practical benefit is, of course, that peer-mentoring takes pressure off of me to train students. The literature (Lopatto 2010) tells us that peer-mentoring is an important contributor to personal growth enabled by undergraduate research. But, this does put some distance between me and new students, and I sometimes worry whether it is always working well. So far this summer, both peer-mentors have readily adapted to guiding their team. Given how their faces lit up in the moment they realized they had become the mentors, I think they were excited to take these leadership roles. Without specific prompting, are working with their mentees to plan out the practicalities of experiments together, thinking ahead a week or more. One student mentioned off-hand that because her peer-mentor often emphasized safety, she was making sure she did the same now that she was a mentor. I even overheard a conversation between a mentor/mentee pair as they were poring over spectra. The peer-mentee whispered “Should we ask Prof. Plass?” and her mentor replied “Not yet, I think we can answer it.” Such thoughtfulness, independence, and ownership from my research students!


One big wrong: Failing to protect my time

In a classic blunder, I have let too much summer research time be claimed by “other”. How did I let this happen? I know I need to protect precious research time. I know Hofstadter’s Law (which states that things always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law) applies to everything I agree to do. Ok, so the Mid-Atlantic

Regional American Chemical Society Meeting in nearby Hershey, PA next week was too good an opportunity to pass up. But it means students are spending time preparing posters and I am repeatedly looking them over and providing feedback. Less forgivable, I have said “yes” to too much and allowed too much bleed over from the semester. Departmental, College, and service concerns have all lingered. It is so bad that when I tell my students I have to go to yet another meeting, they laugh at me. In my next post I hope to report that I have said “no” to most distractions and forced important, non-research issues out of my daily routine.

In a classic blunder, I have let too much summer research time be claimed by “other”. How did I let this happen? I know I need to protect precious research time…

David Lopatto “Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Student Experience” Peer Review Spring 2010, Vol. 12, No. 2, https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/undergraduate-research-high-impact-student-experience

Katherine Plass is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Franklin & Marshall College. Kate leads a team of undergraduate student scientists to explore the surface and solid-state behavior of nanoparticles of interest for optoelectronic applications.

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