Dr. Rocío Mercado
One of my key values when it comes to teaching and mentoring in higher education is inclusion. At its core, inclusion means encouraging each student’s academic and personal growth, fostering each student’s scientific identity, and understanding that each student is an individual with a unique experience. As a key part of being more inclusive when teaching and mentoring, I make it a priority to convey to students that abilities are not fixed, and I believe that imparting onto students a growth mindset is one of the best ways to set them up for success in, and beyond, my classes. There are opportunities to teach a growth mindset through courses (discussing it along with the technical material in a class), 1:1 discussions with students, and personal actions/behavior. Studies show that having perceptions of innate qualities such as “brilliance” and “genius” in successful scientists discourages many women and historically excluded groups from entering scientific fields. These ideas are, unfortunately, often unwittingly learned from a young age. It is thus vital for increasing diversity in the sciences that students do not learn to interpret mistakes or lack of preparation as a lack of ability, and that they see things like ability in a specific subject (e.g., being “good” or “bad” at math) as mutable properties.
In research mentoring, I aim to teach students the critical thinking skills needed to successfully conduct research, from identifying an important problem, to defining a project, to carrying out the necessary experiments and disseminating their results. I believe that, to set up a mentoring relationship for success, it is important to set clear expectations at the beginning of the relationship, and to regularly check in with mentees to make sure our expectations are being met and continue to be well-aligned. In addition to meetings for following the progress of research projects, regularly scheduled development meetings with mentees are important to discuss how they are progressing toward their personal and academic goals, and if there are any actions we should take to make sure they keep moving in the right direction.
Research shows that forming a strong scientific identity early on in one’s academic career helps in retention of traditionally underrepresented groups in science. When teaching and mentoring I thus aim to foster a student-focused culture of inclusion, and to create a culture of belonging, both in my classes and research team. I want to ensure that all my mentees are able to identify as scientists, including those who come from historically marginalized groups. Having a strong scientific identity has been shown to be a strong predictor of academic success, as well as to increase student persistence within STEM fields. Faculty play a significant role in fostering scientific sense of belonging, and I see my teaching and my mentoring duties as going beyond the lecture hall and seeping into small yet sincere positive interactions in other settings, such as office hours, lab, and conferences. Interactions with students in these settings can add to a student’s sense of belonging, both in university and in research. At conferences, I make time out of my schedule to attend the presentations of younger students, and to ask meaningful questions, as these small efforts can make a significant impact on a student’s perception of themselves as a scientist. In teaching, I aim to incorporate inclusive elements in my curriculum; one small but effective example is highlighting work that recognizes individuals from historically marginalized groups.
I do not assume that the mentoring style that worked for me will work for each of my students and mentees, and I look forward to working with a diverse group of students to figure out what works best for each individual. My perspectives on pedagogy and current approach to teaching are shaped by my experiences in higher education, as well as through formal training in pedagogy. Similarly, my approach to mentoring comes from my real-world experience mentoring students, as well as through formal training and workshops. I make it a priority to constantly develop and improve as a teacher and mentor by actively enlisting in professional development workshops, reading the literature written by subject experts, and regularly seeking feedback from both my own mentors and mentees.