All Aboard the Mentor-SHIP!

Written by Leka Mhlophe

Being a newbie in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics (MBHG), it can be very intimidating interacting with researchers at different levels of their research careers and wondering how they got there, and whether or not you would ever get there. It’s simply amazing seeing and being around people who are at the forefront of medical science and frankly counting the lucky stars that I get to be a part of something great. However, transitioning from undergrad and a different university to postgraduate studies at a new institution made adjusting to things slightly complex. I had so many questions, I thought I was going to have to figure them out alone. I’ve never been happier to have been incorrect – enter the MBHG Mentorship programme coordinated by Dr Liezl Smith and Mrs Danielle Kenny.

What is the mentorship programme?

The MBHG division kickstarted the mentorship programme in May of this year after a brief hiatus. Newcomers – comprising BSc Honour’s and new Master’s students within the division – were paired with a mentor who knew the ropes around the division. The idea was to engage in a voluntary, professional relationship where one with more experience shares their knowledge and expertise with someone who has less experience. The success of the programme has garnered attention from Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Science management team as Dr Smith and Mrs Kenny were invited to pitch how the programme can be implemented in other divisions across the faculty. I‘m sure many of us see working in the sciences as a competitive environment with little space for camaraderie. However, attending the initial welcome session to the mentorship programme revealed to me just how much the division cares for its people. It was definitely awesome to find out that my new workplace not only looked beautiful, but the people working there also had beautiful, caring souls.

How does the programme work?

The programme is formal in the sense that there are expectations and assessments that make sure the programme is functioning to its full capacity, however, every mentor-mentee relationship is different and is given the freedom to develop organically. Firstly, during the contracting phase, the programme coordinators identify individuals who might need a helping hand, which can include senior staff and researchers since everyone needs support at some point. Next, is goal setting. The division recognises that goals seldom are achieved when working by yourself, so it is important to have a community of people who have been where you are and can advise you further as well as hold you accountable. Thirdly, feedback from each mentor-mentee relationship helps identify any challenges or barriers impeding programme success to facilitate a better suited and more efficient structure, we are scientists after all! In this way, the division can recognise individual needs that may have not been apparent before and implement resolutions to address those needs.

Currently, we are in the thick of the Implementation and Action Planning stage. The newcomers have been paired with their mentors and have scheduled their monthly meetings for the year. I’ve met with my mentor twice already. In addition, a further level of support has been incorporated into the programme structure in the form of peer-to-peer mentorship. For this, groups of mentees/mentors meet on a monthly basis to check in with each other on how they are finding the programme and share their experiences to learn from one another. The evaluation of the programme will take place at the end of the year where we will all pool feedback via anonymous and in-person sessions to see how the programme can be bettered for next year’s cohort.

The who, where and when of the programme

The mentor-mentee relationship is based on mutual trust and respect. It’s only fair then that there are certain expectations. The most important thing is to maintain a professional relationship by both parties. Another common role is that confidentiality must be maintained, one must be prepared for meetings and punctuality! Mentors are expected, amongst other things, to listen and give feedback or advice, share their experiences, and help with networking and direction towards the appropriate resources. Mentees are expected to initiate meetings, be willing to learn and be proactive (i.e., coming to your mentor with goals and potential actions and informing co-ordinators of any concerns). By checking in with your mentor, it becomes easier for them to know what’s going on in your work life and how they can further assist you in reaching your goals. Mentors and mentees are expected to meet at least once a month, and this is also pretty flexible as it can be virtually or in person. My mentor and I prefer to meet in person. These meetings help mentors follow up on mentees’ progress to help keep in line with predetermined goals. It’s good to provide feedback on something you’ve been able to do, so it feels like you’re moving forward, and you’ve accepted responsibility for your actions.

Building on this culture of respect that we have in the division; the programme also seeks to emphasise listening skills. As scientists we are expected to communicate in many different forms, from academic articles, research posters and formal presentations to science communication activities (like this blog post!) and public engagement efforts – as you can see effective communication is very much integrated into the life of a scientist. But can one listen well? So, in addition, to voicing your concerns, an aim of the programme is to help you listen to and understand the concerns of others. There is also a lot of emphasis on goal setting (in all life areas), personal responsibility and accountability, reaching out for help and having discussions. The people at the division are very open to helping, guiding and answering questions.

There are other additional resources that can help a newcomer find their way. One such resource is the TPSC (Tygerberg Postgraduate Student council). They run a myriad of skills-building workshops that can help propel one into the working world or just have a more balanced life in general. The division also has some socials that run throughout the year, encouraging staff and students to get to know each other more and form better connections.

My thoughts as a newbie:

The centre of the programme is to provide support, and as a newcomer, I knew asking for it would be difficult and that is what makes this programme so well thought out in my opinion. I feel it puts me in a position I would otherwise not find myself in. It does become difficult for me to ask for help, or it is difficult to accept that I do not know everything (very counter-productive as a scientist, I know). I suffered from Imposter Syndrome upon arriving and having a regular talk with my mentor really helps demystify what being a scientist is all about. One thing I enjoy about the programme is that we’re paired with people within an age range to which we can relate. I may need help with aspects of my research project, but I can simultaneously share a meme with my mentor and we can both enjoy it. Another thing my mentor has bestowed upon me is the invaluable lesson of putting myself first. My supervisor also shares the same sentiment. It is so easy to get caught up in the work and put yourself on the backburner. My mentor doesn’t do any work from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. I settled for having Saturdays to myself because there is so much to do. My favourite part of the programme though has to be peer-to-peer mentorship. We really enjoy each other’s company, and it is something I look forward to every month. As someone who has never been part of something like this before, I was intrigued to be a part of the programme and felt well-taken care of.

But don’t take just my word for it. I talked to a couple of our mentors and mentees to hear what they thought about the programme.

Interviews with my peers:

What are some expectations that you had for the programme? Have they been met or mentioned as part of the programme?

“I expected to be able to help my mentee with not just navigating the postgraduate environment, but also managing stress, and being someone, they can talk to if they’re struggling with work, supervisors and generally providing a safe space. These expectations were met because we have to check in on the mentees, their mental health, see how they’re adjusting so the programme does highlight a lot of my expectations”- Rencia, MSc (mentor)

“I hope to create a safe space for the mentees to feel comfortable to discuss any issues that they may be having during their postgraduate studies. I hope to be able to teach them motivational skills and share my knowledge and experience with them. So far the program has just started, so I have had two meetings so far and they seem to be developing well”- Suventha, Post-Doc (mentor)

“As someone who has never had a mentor before, I had no expectations. However, I was very intrigued. I can talk about what is expected of each person, and I can say the general expectations are very fair. My mentor is great, they’ve made me feel very comfortable.” – Nalang, Hons.(mentee)

“My expectations were that I would be paired with a student on Honours level. We would meet at least once a month. I am hoping to form a close relationship with my mentee and also learn different things from them. I’ve met with my mentee twice, and so far it is going well. I’m learning many things from them and I hope that they are as well”- Tayla, MSc (mentor)

“As a mentor, I feel like the programme just needs us to be there for the mentees. Being a newcomer, it’s very helpful to have someone you can go to if you have any challenges or questions. Having a dedicated person is what the programme is trying to achieve, and that is my expectation for it, which has been met. Us having guidelines, such as the regular meetings makes it easier to commit to the programme. I’ve been a mentor before and having an unstructured programme didn’t foster commitment.” – Naomi, Post-Doc (mentor)

“I expected to get comfortable with the new working environment, especially because I’m exposed to scientific methods I’ve never encountered before. I expected that my mentor would help acquaint me with such so that I can learn to work independently.” Armin, Hons.


For mentors: Which goals or accomplishments have you achieved in the past, which you can mentor on?

“I graduated honours Cum Laude, so my goal on the academic side is to help my mentee with thesis writing and make it easier for her. For example, for her literature review assignment, I gave her writing tips, explained what reviewers normally look out for, how to get access to papers that are not open access and essentially revealed to her a whole toolbox she can use to her advantage.” – Rencia, MSc

“Since I have done a master’s and PhD, I am hoping that my experience and journey will help. I also have some experience in grant and fellowship writing as I have been awarded NRF and EDCTP fellowships.”- Suventha, Post-Doc

“In terms of goals and accomplishments, I think I can mentor on my experience as an honours student coming into a new environment (my undergrad was in chemistry with very little molecular biology knowledge) and then doing my best to succeed in an unknown environment. I’m proud of being able to do my project, successfully present it to judges and then pass with distinction- which was a goal I had set and promised to myself at the beginning of my honours year. Hopefully, I can draw on that experience to help my mentee to do the best they can for their honours degree.”-Tayla, MSc

“I can share my side of the story, my challenges, my journey and hopefully my mentee can learn from it. I joined the department as an honours student, now I’m a post-doc. I think I have a lot of wisdom to offer and being an international student, I can offer tips on studying and working abroad for example.” – Naomi, Post-Doc


For mentees: What goals do you hope to achieve through this programme?

“I hope to learn how to communicate my fears better since that is an issue of mine. I have a problem verbalising my shortcomings with a superior, and I hope to overcome that. I’ve met with my mentor twice already, and I can already see myself being comfortable enough to express vulnerability in this sense. She has helped me realise that uncertainty and not knowing and being scared are perfectly normal, which means a lot because I would be suffering in silence otherwise.” -Nalang, Hons

“I hope that the programme would help me navigate the division and the internal systems better so I can get my degree and practice what I have learned in the future. I also hope to use the skills my mentor will show me to make better connections with senior scientists which would be advantageous in my career going forward.” Armin, Hons


For mentors: Describe any experiences or topics you can help with as part of this mentoring programme.

“I do Kundalini yoga and meditation practices daily for about 15 minutes. These help in stress reduction as well as in preventing burnout by improving energy. Honour’s students will oftentimes struggle with stress and burnout because of the intensity of the programme, however, it’s not productive to tell them to not stress. Or telling them to do unspecified, generalised yoga. I feel that with my experience with these meditation practices, I can isolate the ones that will be most effective that can be easily learned and implemented and teach them to my mentee.”-Rencia, MSc

“I hope I can help with motivational aspects, as well as scientific writing and keeping their goals in terms of their career development in mind.”- Suventha, Post-Doc

“I really struggled with burnout and imposter syndrome while I was doing my honours. I’d like it if this could be something discussed by all mentor-mentee pairs, as it is something that many people might struggle with and not even realise it.” -Tayla, MSc

“Definitely my experience as an international student and upgrading an MSC to a PhD. One can definitely listen to my story and they can then choose what they would like me to dwell and dive deeper on. Because I have so much experience, it is hard to condense this into a few topics to focus. However, I am confident that my knowledge and experience on a wide variety of life’s challenges will be useful” -Naomi, Post-Doc


For mentees: Describe any experiences or learnings you hope to get from this mentoring program.

“I hope to learn about the numerous perspectives that exist not just amongst ourselves but also in the division. It is very easy to be caught up with going the academic route or continuing research in TB because that’s what the division is focused on. I guess you can say I’m eager to get to talk to people and listen to them, so I can learn what is possible through the skills I would have obtained from the programme.” Nalang, Hons

“My mentor has provided a lot of guidance for me, even from our one meeting I can tell she has a lot to share. I hope to learn how to manage everything going on efficiently in terms of the project, my personal life and the academic load from someone who has experienced it before, which is very reassuring.”- Armin, Hons


For mentees: Would you like to be a mentor next year?

“If my prospects do not take me elsewhere, even then, I would like to mentor somebody.”-Nalang, Hons

“It depends on how busy I get next year, but I feel like since next year will be more relaxed, it is something that I would like to do and carry on this positive cycle.”-Armin, Hons


In closing, support at the MBHG is something that is never in short supply. Involvement is the name of the game, which makes it so much easier to see everyone as colleagues and refer to them on a first-name basis!  I am definitely looking forward to my time here as well as engaging in more ventures (there’s so much to do) that I will definitely write about in future.