On a Saturday afternoon in September 2017, Kate Lachance, Weilu Shen and Tara Sowrirajan, co-chairs of the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (HGWISE) mentoring program, were surrounded by 280 notecards representing the 90 mentors and 190 mentees participating in the 2017–2018 mentoring program. They were playing a complex matching game, finding the best mentor for each mentee based on academic interests and professional goals. Eight months later, on a warm Tuesday night in May, the mentorship relationships created back in September were celebrated at a dinner, where the Mentor of the Year was announced.

Eleven mentors were nominated by their mentees for the award: Dr. Alanna Gannon, Dr. Rachelle Gaudet, Dr. Jessica Goodman, Dr. Jenny Hoffman, Dr. Evelyn Hu, Dr. Margarita Karovska, Dr. Jenan J. Kharbush, Dr. Amanda Martinot, Dr. Madeline Miller, Dr. Allison O’Neil, and Dr. Joanna Stavins. All of the nominees represented mentors who went above and beyond. “Many shared not only professional advice, such as how to navigate the PI-student relationship, but also career and personal advice,” says Lachance, a third year PhD candidate in bioinformatics and integrative genomics. “The nominations contained incredible stories about everything from mentors helping troubleshoot critical experiments with their mentees, to mentors opening their homes for Thanksgiving dinner.”

Before the award was announced, students read excerpts from the nominations that described mentors as “kind, empathetic and understanding,” an “academic big sister,” and as “a fierce and outspoken woman in science.”

The mentor of the year award went to Jenny Hoffman, professor of physics and applied physics. For Christina Chang, a PhD candidate in chemistry and one of Hoffman’s mentees, working with Hoffman has added much needed realism to stories of successful women in science. “From the outside, Jenny seems like a person who can do no wrong: a tenured female physics professor at Harvard, a mother of three precocious kids, and an ultramarathon runner at the international level,” Chang says. “It’s easy to think that superstars like this are born, not made, but Jenny teaches us to have a growth mindset. She is open about the deadlines she misses, the meetings in which she wishes she’d been better prepared, the ways she fails to meet her own expectations. She has allowed us to see the many ‘failures’ that lead to successes.”

Hoffman’s mentorship also taught Chang the importance of collaborative problem solving both in science and in life. Once a month, Hoffman’s mentorship group, which includes Chang as well as two other graduate students, meets for breakfast or lunch, where each member (including Hoffman) shares any issues they wish to discuss and, together, they work through them. “This group problem-solving approach has been transformative and validating,” Chang says. “The other group members provide valuable advice, and they can also commiserate, providing both professional and emotional support.”

Hoffman was inspired to adopt this group mentorship structure after reading Every Other Thursday, by Ellen Daniell. “It was absolutely life-changing for me,” Hoffman says. “It discusses strategies for peer mentorship among professional women and gives a specific recipe for using meeting time efficiently for collective problem solving, instead of just emotional venting,” she explains. Hoffman used the strategies she learned from the book to set up a weekly peer-mentorship meeting with four female science professors at Harvard, and these weekly meetings have proved invaluable, changing both her outlook and ability to deal with the challenges of the job.

“I then realized that my graduate student mentees would also benefit from this structure,” Hoffman says. “Regular meetings with peers would give them more perspective and creative problem solving than I alone could provide,” she adds. At the end of each meeting, mentees leave with a specific action or goal for tackling that month’s challenge.

Only a few days after receiving the HGWISE Mentor of the Year award, Hoffman received a second honor: a year of membership at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), paid for by the Heising-Simons Foundation. The NCFDD represents a community of academics focused on professional development, training, and mentorship and Hoffman sees this opportunity as another resource for improving her efficiency as a scientist, mentor, and mentee—and proving that mentorship and community problem solving are important at every stage of one’s professional career.

For the students participating in the HGWISE mentoring program, mentorship is particularly essential at the graduate level. “During graduate school, your work is your own, and you are responsible for managing yourself, as well as setting your own expectations and boundaries, and emotionally that is a whole different ballgame,” explains Chang. “There’s nothing like having your own project to learn what sink-or-swim feels like, so this is when it’s vital to create a support network,” she continues.

For many female graduate students at Harvard, the relationships created and formalized by the HGWISE mentoring program represent one of the support networks they can lean on when they need professional, academic, and emotional support. Knowing this, Lachance plans to keep growing the mentoring program so that it can serve even more women on campus. “I hope to see the program expand in terms of the number of mentors and mentees involved, the number of events we host to foster the connections between mentors and mentees, as well as the professional diversity of the mentors and mentees.”

To become involved with the HGWISE mentoring program or other HGWISE initiatives, please visit the HGWISE website.

Lean In, Lean On: HGWISE Mentor of the Year Award

Photo by Elena Iourtaeva