Mentoring Matters with Dr. Jennifer Robison


Mentoring Matters with Dr. Jennifer Robison

photo of Dr Robison and family displaying school spirit (Manchester University Spartans) at home
photo of Dr Robison and family displaying school spirit (Manchester University Spartans) at home

Dr. Jennifer Robison Assistant Professor of biology at Manchester University located in North Manchester, Indiana. Her research program focuses on understanding the molecular and physiological events that occur during abiotic stress in plants. Connect with her on Twitter @JenRobiSci .

Q1:If you had a mentor(s) as an undergrad who you credit for the career path you're on now, please share a little bit about who they were and what they did that made such an impact.

Carol Loeffler was my undergraduate research mentor at Dickinson College. She always made me feel appreciated, never made me feel like a screw up (even when I did), and emphasized finding joy in research. She never gave me the answers or took over but gently coached me through issues. I try to emulate her when I work with my undergrads.

Q2: Why is mentoring undergrads in research important to you?

My research experiences were life changing as an undergraduate, they helped solidify my interests and excite me about research as a career. I feel every undergraduate should have such a research experience which I try to provide. Even if they learn they hate research, it's an important lesson in the early stages of their career where missteps aren't as disruptive. Undergraduate years should be exploratory, trying lots of options to see what you like or don't like. By running an undergraduate research lab I give them something new to explore.

Q3: What has been the most surprising, difficult, or rewarding part about mentoring undergrads in the lab?

The most rewarding is absolutely making stronger connections with students than you can in a classroom setting alone. One on one mentoring and setting up a safe place for them to fail (which we all do in research!) results in a stronger bond. The most difficult is the speed at which research projects progress, as a PI you have to recognize you will not be producing a paper a year with just undergraduate researchers due to the length of time each individual works with you.

Q4: What do you wish you would have known (or what skill set do you wish you would have already had) before you started mentoring undergrad researchers?

I wish I had more grant writing experience for undergraduate funding. It's a completely different scale than the larger grants to support grad students and postdocs. I have felt lost trying to figure out both places to find grants and how to successfully create one.

Q5: What have you learned from mentoring?

One thing I have learned is that you need to provide more scaffolding for undergraduate researchers than I expected. My first research student we were both flying by the seat of our pants and while she had a good experience it made me realize I needed to create structure. I treat research more like a course now with clear expectations, a jointly created research plan ("syllabus"), and weekly check-ins.

Q6: What resources would help you with mentoring undergrad researchers?

Undergraduate-specific research structure guides, for example, now I have a few resources I've put together to help structure the lab experience so every student gets the same scaffolding which I am willing to share!

Q7: Do you have any tips for helping a new lab member push through the initial awkwardness after joining a lab?

I like to build our lab as a team, to that end I have a lab name and logo. When students join the lab they are given a Robisci member keychain and a handful of stickers with the logo on it. This makes them all feel like part of the group. As I’m at a small liberal arts college most of my students already know each other in some capacity before they join the lab but this makes them feel more connected.

Are you a mentor to an undergrad in the lab? Do you want to share your experience and be featured as part of our Mentoring Matters series? We welcome experiences from researchers and scientists at all career levels. Click here.