Mentoring Matters with Dr. Mary E. Konkle


Mentoring Matters with Dr. Mary E. Konkle

Dr. Mary E. Konkle is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Ball State University (WHERE). Connect with her on Twitter at @mechem44996100 .and by email

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.

One of the most common pieces of advice that I give to undergraduate students is that you need many mentors, because you are a multi-faceted person. No one mentor can be all things to you. I come from a family of teachers (both sides, multi-generational), so passing along knowledge has always been valued. Key early mentors were my music educators, Ms. Diane Barton and Mr. Everette Hornbarger. They taught me that music is a craft that takes years to master and there is no short cut to that. They taught me to listen first in order to be in tune and harmony. They taught me, through music, that you first listen, then play, then adjust and finally listen again. It is the same as the scientific process. I went to college as a Music Education major.

I took Organic Chemistry as a Music Education major, which is where I found my next mentor, Dr. Terry Kruger. He taught me to pay attention to the outliers. I was a music major taking Organic Chemistry! He invited me to his office for a chat and mentored me until I graduated. He put a C&E News article about how a new professor found his research agenda when starting out in my mailbox with a sticky note on top, "This will be you someday". He read poetry aloud in the NMR room while his Organic students took spectra, so I knew it was OK to hold onto my creative/artistic endeavors. I learned from him to give students compliments that they are yet to grow into, but represent their promise and essence. His to me was, "Your excellence is that you come in every day, trying to make everything work just a little better." I am still growing into that one.

Dr. Kraig Wheeler is a key mentor for beginning my career as a professor. He taught me to strive for excellence. If you aren't working on SOMETHING actively, then why not? He taught me to take a critical eye to systems and to standardize best practices (even if they are just best in your own experience).

Dr. Patricia Lang is the last mentor I want to highlight. She was my PChem professor, and one of the few females I saw in my junior and senior year as a Chemistry major. She taught me to never let yourself get too serious. She has taught me that perfection should never be the enemy of progress, no matter the limitations of institutions or circumstance. She has done this while always recognizing that those limitations are, indeed, a reality. I have had the fortune to return to my alma mater as a professor and am lucky to call her colleague, mentor, and friend.

Q5 Why is mentoring undergrads in research important to you?
I was fortunate enough to have an early formal mentoring experience (shadowing a professional in a career of your choosing) in the 6th grade as part of my elementary school's gifted and talented program (taught by Ms. Kit Walleen). I got an insider's look at being an excellent music teacher. I got one-on-one attention and my questions answered.
In mentored research, I see that same opportunity. Students undergo a transformation from student to scientist. They take ownership and can contribute to the team with their best while being supported in their worst. That's real life. They learn to fail and come back in the next day, ready to go.
One of the most important things I have found, in the decade I have been doing this, is that mentored undergraduate research can be an opportunity gap closer. Did you go to an under-resourced high school? A rural high school? The first in your family at college? Are you a member of an under-represented group? Nearly everyone starting in the research lab, no matter their background, starts at ground zero. As long as people can get through the door, which is why it is so important to make sure that access to our research experiences have minimal barriers to access.
What has been the most surprising, difficult, or rewarding part about mentoring undergrads in the lab?
The most rewarding is seeing that no matter the scientific success of a project, that those people are different when they come out than when they went in.
The most difficult is that there can be difficult life circumstances that you cannot address as a research mentor.
The most surprising has been how much they teach me.

Q7 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 been a better writer and had a clearer system in mind for turning student work into publications. Publications are one of the main professional currency of our field. The students graduating need that currency for the best placement possible.

Q8 What have you learned from mentoring someone who didn't have the same advantages as you did (social, academic, financial, etc.)?OrWhat have you learned or gained from mentoring in general? Or How has being an undergrad lab mentor had an impact on you either personally or professionally?

My graduate and post-doctoral training were at private institutions (Vanderbilt and Trinity respectively), while I have had academic appointments at comprehensive public universities (Eastern Illinois and Ball State University). Many of my students in my lab have not had the familial educational background (one of my grandmothers had a college degree in Botany and the other had business education past high school) that I was lucky to have. Through a program funded by the NSF, LSAMP, I have mentored students of races different than mine (white).

As a biochemist, there are these annoying lab procedures that take 10 min or so. Too short to start something else and too long to walk away (or I forget that they will finish soon). So, I stand there with my students and chat. About their weekend, their family, their classes, their off-campus jobs.
What I have learned from those 10 minute packets of time....

My husband and I have a 5-year old son. He knows my students and my students know him. I have mentored several female students, many of whom eventually ask me questions about being a mother and a scientist/professor. My son has met people from Venezuela (who taught our whole lab, and him, how to make arepas), Nigeria, Ghana, a former Amish, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people who are not of his race. He has watched them struggle and work hard. He has watched me do the same.

Q9 What resources would help you with mentoring undergrad researchers?
A formal institutional system for rewarding excellent mentoring of students.