Out of the Fume Hood and Into the Computer. How One Mentor Made the Decision to Go Remote (Guest Post)


Out of the Fume Hood and Into the Computer. How One Mentor Made the Decision to Go Remote (Guest Post)

Dr. Mitch Anstey (he/him/his) is an assistant professor at Davidson College (Davidson, NC) in the Department of Chemistry. Davidson College is a primarily undergraduate college with a student body of roughly 2000. As with many institutions concerned with student and staff safety, Davidson College enacted a blanket policy in early April prohibiting student research on campus for the upcoming summer. Connect with Dr. Anstey on Twitter @theyneedacraned or through email mianstey@davidson.edu

For me, being able to say yes to mentoring undergrads in remote research projects this summer was not easy.

I am a parent of three children below the age of five. I am also a college professor teaching a full course load. Even when school and childcare line up perfectly, I still feel like I’m working two full-time jobs. But school and daycare closures and a fear of COVID exposure from childcare providers mean that my spouse and I are now the only support our children have.

I’ve spent the past three months going day-to-day, making personal and professional decisions that are needed right now. I can’t take time to consider the long-term repercussions of these decisions. This has been weighing heavily on me, because at some point I will have to deal with those consequences. (Future Me is going to be real mad.) To add mentor responsibilities on top of that is not something that anyone should take lightly, and I wouldn’t fault anyone should they take a hard pass.

But I did take on that responsibility.

I felt bound by a commitment I made to the students, and the students said they were up for the challenge of making it work.

With my lab normally focusing on synthetic chemistry and battery science, the work had to change. We moved our research out of the fume hood and into the computer. The students are spending the first few weeks learning an analytical technique, single-crystal X-ray crystallography, so that they can work with a backlog of structure data from the various compounds the group has made. What has helped immensely are the proliferation of online workshops and webinars around many of the topics we want to learn. I virtually attended the four-day Canadian Chemical Crystallography Workshop in late May, and my students are joining me for the Rigaku School of Practical Crystallography webinar.

With their ability to solve X-ray diffraction data and generate three-dimensional atomic coordinates, they can then move this data to the computational side for insights into oxidation and reduction processes, the associated redox potentials, and any structural changes that might occur. We will likely be relying upon colleagues at Davidson and elsewhere to make us smart about computational programs like Gaussian and Spartan, but Davidson College has already given us remote access to the computers on campus as well as access to clusters off-site.

Honestly, I haven’t taught any of this in a formal way. I’m making it up as I go along, and that’s not what I promised the students way back before the pandemic hit. But remote mentoring is what I can provide now, and I hope it’s enough.

Want to share your strategies, challenges, or thoughts about mentoring undergrads in the lab? Join our Mentoring Matters series here. Or choose a post already published on your blog details here.We welcome contributions from mentors at all career stages and experience levels. And, yes, that includes first-time mentors.