Addressing Cultural Caveats

Tips for mentoring underrepresented groups

© Matt Foster

As an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico, Esa La Beau was on her way to a promising research career. She joined a lab, presented her work at three national conferences, and contributed a significant amount of data to the project’s findings. But when it came time to publish, there was an issue over the order of authorship. La Beau, who comes from a Native American and Hispanic family entrenched in traditional values, couldn’t bring herself to argue with the senior scientists about the order. “Typically people from my cultural background don’t speak up to elders,” she says. “So I just resigned to the fact I wasn’t going to get credit for 3 years’ worth of work.”

But one of La Beau’s mentors,...

Studies have shown that mentors, particularly those of minority groups, play a large role in a student’s decision to stay in the sciences. But tackling diversity issues can often come with a price. “I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues’ science slip when they try and take on the extra responsibility of recruiting and mentoring minority students,” says Michael Summers, a molecular biologist at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “It doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible, and rewarding, to manage both.” A few decorated mentors of minority students—all recipients of the US Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring—share their secrets to successful mentoring.


Growing up in Iowa, Werner-Washburne lived in a family much more diverse than her surrounding community. In addition to her five siblings, her German and Latino parents also hosted 28 foster children of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. “My childhood was chock-full of diversity,” she says. “So when I got into science, it was a bit shocking being one of the only minorities in my field.” Besides her noted work on the molecular genomics of stationary phase yeast, which has racked up more than 3000 citations, according to ISI Web of Knowledge, Werner-Washburne has dedicated her career to helping Native Americans and Latinos overcome cultural caveats and jumpstart a career in the sciences.

She was a recipient of the special presidential award for service to the Society for Advancing Hispanic/Chicanos & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). She also helped start the Initiatives to Maximize Student Diversity (IMSD) program at the University of New Mexico. Here are the lessons she’s learned along the way.

Create opportunities close to home
Most of the minority scientists in Werner-Washburne’s classes and labs come from Native American and Hispanic communities with deep historical roots in the Albuquerque area. La Beau’s family, for example, has been there for 400 years and she’s reluctant to leave them behind. Historically, Werner-Washburne says, the majority of top notch research opportunities are at universities along the coasts. So she applied to bring part of major sequencing projects like FlyBase, from Harvard, and VectorBase, from Notre Dame, to the University of New Mexico for 5-year grant periods. The programs support several positions, which Werner-Washburne most often fills with minority students.

Discourage the “Imposter Syndrome”
Attending scientific conferences can be overwhelming, says Werner-Washburne, because the disparities in racial composition become obvious. As a result, minorities often suffer from “imposter syndrome,” as she puts it. “They don’t feel like they belong, like they are treading somewhere they’re not welcome.” Werner-Washburne puts her mentees in touch with other minority scientists attending the conferences, or remotely through email, to alleviate the feeling of alienation. She also tries to convey to her students that their unique cultural background gives them a different perspective to problem solving, a valuable asset in the lab, “when the research hits an inevitable rough patch.”

Stress opportunities over obligation
When picking a graduate or postdoctoral lab, Werner-Washburne noticed many of her minority students would accept the first position they were offered, even in the face of potential personality clashes or limited publication opportunities. “Native American and Latinos often have a strong sense of obligation,” she says. “They feel they need to be grateful, even if they aren’t excited about an offer.” But she has been trying to break her students of this habit, teaching them to say no, to think about what is best for their career, and not worry about appearing unappreciative.

Share your own personal experiences
As a Latino woman, Werner-Washburne has had plenty of experience being a minority in science that she shares with her mentees. “You need to open up the conversation,” she says. “A lot of people in this generation of upcoming scientists feel talking about diversity will cause conflict. I think ignoring it will.” Werner-Washburne encourages students to embrace their family and community history and harness cultural characteristics—such as family ties, problem-solving approaches and work ethic—in their interactions with other researchers.


When Summers arrived at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County in the mid-1980s, he noticed there was an enormous, racially eclectic pool of young, talented students, but that the science departments couldn’t retain them as they became juniors and seniors. Working closely with UMBC’s president, Freeman Hrabowski, Summers launched the Meyerhoff Scholars Program to recruit talented minority high school seniors into the program and place them immediately into labs when they enroll at the university, in the hope the effort would improve minority retention rates. Out of the more than 600 alumni of the program, nearly all have gone on to graduate programs in science or engineering at such institutions as Harvard, Stanford, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Berkeley, Yale, and Johns Hopkins.

Summers was the recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor of the Year Award in 2003. He studies the internal architecture of HIV to understand how it and other retroviruses assemble and pack their genetic material. Here are ways he’s helped guide minority students in science.

Set up mentoring early
Balancing your own research and the extra time needed to recruit and train underrepresented groups can be daunting, says Summers. And taking on students during the academic year can be frustrating “because of the intermittent nature of training.” When Summers accepts students into his lab, he makes sure to train them during July and August when he has a little more free time. This includes meeting with them once a week.

Organize activities outside of the lab
“The best way to really help people understand each other is to have activities outside of the lab,” he says. Summers plans an annual ski trip to Maine and also coordinates long bicycle rides two to three times a week to encourage his students to interact with other senior scientists at the university. Once the students became accustomed to each others’ “cultural quirks,” says Sepideh Khorasanizadeh, a former postdoc of Summers’s who is now a biochemist at University of Virginia, “we worked together smoothly in the lab.”

Help current students find summer research positions
Often, minority students in the Meyerhoff Program come from financially disadvantaged families and rely on summer jobs to support their academic career. Summers works to place his students in labs with paid summer positions, which can subtly change their relationship to the work. “Students tend to feel a greater sense of responsibility when they hold a paying position,” he says. Nowadays, he writes these positions into his grant applications.


As the second female faculty member hired to University of Tennessee’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources in 1979, Ann Draughon is no stranger to overcoming the odds in science. Draughon, who studies food microbiology, became a full professor in just 10 years. In 1995, she served as the first female president of the International Association for Food Protection. “It has been exciting to watch women become an integral part of the sciences,” she says. “It is a gradual evolution, but with more scientists getting involved with minority recruitment initiatives, I think currently underrepresented groups will be as prevalent in the sciences as women in 20 years.”

Besides her research on food-borne pathogens, Draughon also serves as the director of UT’s Food Safety Center of Excellence. Here is some of her advice for helping mentor minorities in her lab.

"I think currently underrepresented groups will be as prevalent in the sciences as women in twenty years.”
—Ann Draughon

Bridge language gaps
Draughon once had a female research associate complain of sexual harassment in her lab, but after some digging, she discovered it was a misunderstanding based on different cultural mores. (The woman misinterpreted a married postdoc’s friendship with her.) With a mixture of backgrounds “there are bound to be some misunderstandings,” she says. One of the biggest issues she’s found is when English is a student’s second language. It is much easier to use command words if you are just beginning to learn English, she explains, but this abrupt phrasing can be perceived as condescending. Draughon deals with this by taking her entire team out to lunch once a month so they get used to each other’s communication styles outside of the lab setting.

Be realistic
Underrepresented groups often go through periods of crises and self-doubt, says Draughon. “There is no point in a student working on something if they can’t do it well and learn from it,” she says. She constantly monitors their progress in both the lab and classroom. If they’re struggling or feeling overworked, she’ll talk with them about dropping a class or switching their research, even if it is a setback academically. “You have to have realistic expectations,” she says.

Build a lifelong relationship
A mentee’s struggle as a minority in science doesn’t end with graduation or a job offer, says Draughon. Randall Phebus, a food microbiologist at Kansas State University, spent nearly 7 years in Draughon’s lab as a master’s and PhD student from 1985 to 1992. And even though he hasn’t worked in her lab for 17 years, he still calls her for advice. She encourages her students to continue using her networks and connections.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated a student was left off a paper's authorship list. The issue was instead about the order of authorship. A correction has been made, The Scientist regrets the error.

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