Closing the Mentorship Gap for Minorities

Rayne Rouce, M.D. - February 10, 2021

We must be intentional in our efforts to mentor, recruit, and retain underrepresented minorities within our laboratories, our clinical divisions, and our outreach programs.

Academic science and medicine put enormous energy into ensuring productive mentorship at all stages of one’s scientific career through initiatives like early-stage investigator awards, training programs, and networking events. While multiple mechanisms exist to encourage these activities, as in most other areas, there remains a mentorship gap for minorities in academia. What little research exists on the topic reveals this discrepancy is even more dramatic for women of color.

While much work has investigated “best practices” in mentorship, studies recognize the outsized role that personal experience plays in all mentor-mentee relationships. To state it plainly: Having a mentor that looks like you and who might better understand your work and life experiences could result in a more empathetic and empowering mentoring relationship. Indeed, the best mentorship dynamics are grounded in mutual trust and respect, which are often easier to build with mentors who have shared your experiences. But how do we get there?

The field of gene and cell therapy is “niche” enough, without this additional layer of “likeness.” Pipeline programs that enhance the “n” of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in medicine and science are certainly key, but this pipeline can’t be built overnight. In the meantime, we all can play a role. If we are to succeed, we must be intentional in our efforts to mentor, recruit, and retain URMs within our laboratories, our clinical divisions, and our outreach programs. Whether lived or not, we can acknowledge the role unique experiences play in our mentees’ professional development and take these into account when reviewing applications for opportunities, the so-called “whole file review.” We can ensure the rungs on our own mentorship ladders consist of a diverse array of people, reflecting diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender, but also of thoughts and experiences.

When I reflect on my personal experiences, I recognize that while I may not have had a mentor who looked like me until my post-graduate training, I have had many a mentor who have “seen me” and made an effort to take my unique cultural experiences into account—and that speaks volumes!

Here, I want to emphasize the responsibility each of our members has in finding Black and minority scientists of promise to promote and take under their wings. Because some minorities might not yet have had the beneficial mentorship experiences of their white peers, we all have a responsibility to actively mentor minority students, postdocs, fellows, and instructors, and provide them with guidance and opportunities. We believe this is one important strategy to address the undeniable disparities at all career levels and across academic medicine.

So, in addition to diversity and inclusion efforts that include implicit bias and cultural competency training, building and cementing the pipeline is perhaps what ASGCT is uniquely suited to do through new educational initiatives and partnerships with like-minded societies or foundations. Together, we can build a better future.

Read the first post in this series: Diversity and Inclusion Committee Plans to Expand Society’s Reach and Resources.

Dr. Rouce is an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the ASGCT Communications Committee.

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