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Culturally Aware Mentoring Retains Scientists of Color in Research

By February 21, 2018No Comments

Interview by Gaoyuan Liu 

Dr. Stephen Thomas, Director of Maryland Center for Health Equity

Looking back on his experience as a graduate student, Dr. Stephen Thomas recalls a time when a faculty member tossed his thesis draft into the trash, in front of his own eyes. Many years later, after securing a successful career as a professor in the Department of Health Services Administration at the University of Maryland, and as the director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity, Dr. Thomas knows that these same biases he faced in his time still affect scientists from underrepresented backgrounds today, often in subtle ways.

As one of the leaders of NRMN’s Culturally Aware Mentoring (CAM) program, Dr. Thomas understands the importance of positive mentorship in promoting diversity in biomedical science. In his words, mentoring needs to be tailored for the individual, so that “…we have more meaningful mentoring experiences.

The CAM module is available for anyone’s use at

Could you describe what type of work you focus on at the University of Maryland?

My work as director of a major research center is focused on addressing racial and ethnic health disparities across a variety of disease entities and also focused on training the workforce—the public health and biomedical workforce—to work on these issues of attaining health equity for all. So it’s in this context that my work of mentoring faculty is very important, especially since the senior ranking professors, in many cases, do not represent the racial and ethnic composition of the country.

How does your work relate to Culturally Aware Mentoring (CAM)?

We have a job to do in preparing a new generation of scholars, many of whom will be women and who will come from racial and ethnic minority populations.

My work with the culturally aware mentoring is important because we care about what happens in hiring rooms when seniors need to decide who to hire. The door gets closed and many times, that room where people are deciding who gets hired, or who gets tenured, is not very diverse at all.

The evidence of racism in health care and public health would be easy to ignore were it not so well documented. The fact of the matter is an African-American woman with a college degree is more likely to have her baby die the first year of life than a white woman who has not graduated from high school. This is one of many disparities that have been well documented. We are beyond the point of simply counting in greater detail and sophistication the suffering – we need to move to action. Some of that action involves diversifying the workforce, diversifying the very scholars asking the questions and the very people going into these communities to intervene.

So when it comes to mobilizing a diverse workforce right now, there’s still some sort of barrier or invisible force holding back or discouraging minorities from entering science. What are these barriers in your experience?

It is very true that these barriers are invisible. However, if there was any time, now is the time for us to acknowledge what those barriers are.

I grew up in the 1950’s and I remember the visible signs, when I visited my grandparents or the Deep South where the water would still say “white” and “colored.” I remember seeing restaurants that had signs which said “coloreds to the rear.” That was very visible. Those laws [created during the] civil rights movement have removed those kinds of blatant examples of racism – but that doesn’t mean racism went away. Now, to think it’s 2018 – we’re seeing it and we cannot ignore it.

There’s an opportunity for us to say: “These are not invisible barriers.” We’re all shaped by experience of racism and discrimination in this country in the United States. And some of that is unconscious.

So, the “Culturally Aware Mentoring” module that we have at NRMN is specifically focusing on making unconscious bias something that’s visible. We’ve learned more about those who may think they’re prepared, who would say “I’m colorblind. I don’t see color. I just see, you know, patients who come to me with disease, or junior faculty.” The evidence suggests that so-called “not seeing color” or being “color blind” is actually a form of blindness. It’s actually a way of reinforcing existing preconceived stereotypes. The way we get rid of those things to become aware of them, not only in others, but in ourselves.

Culturally aware mentoring does this in a way that isn’t polarizing. It does it in a way that opens up conversation to self-awareness. I think that’s the power of the CAM module.


What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from developing the CAM module?

I want to say that one of the things I’ve learned in the past four years is that we will not make progress if we only focus on individual change. We have to also focus on institutional change. It makes a difference at this school [University of Maryland, College Park] that the president has a performance review, and that one of the criteria he is evaluated on is diversity and inclusion.

And so I would say to you when the president of our university has that as a criteria…guess what happens when he’s talking to the Dean? Guess what happens when he’s talking to his provost? Guess what happens when he’s talking to his vice president, asking them what are we doing in this area how we can improve diversity here? It matters at the top. Leadership matters.

How can the research conducted by you and your colleagues inform best practices for scientists and mentors in general?

One or two challenges we have with using a term like mentoring is that it means different things to different people. It’s a fact that mentoring existed long before NRMN. Far too many of our racial and ethnic minority scholars have tormentors, not mentors. Their experiences are marked by trauma. So we need to expose [that] fact. Some of our faculty are talking to us and we cannot ignore that.

I will tell you directly from our core values at NRMN as well as CAM: mentoring is not monitoring.

That’s that’s one of the nuances of our work at NRMN and what we mean when we talk about best practices. Simply assigning someone to monitor someone else is definitely not sufficient. It is a relationship that must be built on trust. Each of the modules in CAM are particularly focused on building trust and establishing the kind of ethical trustworthy relationships that could lead to academic success.

So how do you encourage mentors to approach talking about race and ethnicity?

One of the things that we have to do is not make it simply simply a cognitive exercise, going down the list of things to do and cannot do.

I think the one most powerful things that we do specially in CAM is our use of simulations, the use of reenactments. It’s taking the real stories of real people who have experienced either good or bad mentoring and then reenacting it in our workshops and in our training and that way we add that aspect and an emotional component where scholars can actually see what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a micro-aggression and they can also see what it feels like to personally be the perpetrator of a micro aggression even when that may not have been your intent. So these are like “ripped from the headlines” kind of scenarios, real people [with their] names changed to protect the anonymity, that we actually reenact.

I had found that to be one of the more powerful ways of helping people look in the mirror, but also see how they should respond when they witness these types of things happening. The point isn’t to say, “I don’t do those things.” You also have to be someone who is not simply a bystander. Sometimes when people see micro-aggressions happening, they get shocked into silence, “I don’t know what to do in the moment.”

So in culturally aware mentoring, we help people prepare themselves for acting at that moment. Acting in the teachable moment, and knowing when you’re faced with a difficult situation is what we try to do.

What words do you have for young scientists who want to find success?

You have to persevere. I’d say any of our young scholars who come from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds know how to persevere. No matter what stage they’re in, they show real resilience along the way.

I’ve not let my bad experiences make me leave the profession, but I came up in a time of our country when we were prepared to face blatant discrimination. Unfortunately, we have a generation of young scholars today who are not prepared for facing blatant discrimination. They’re unprepared so much, that when they experience it, that sometimes it causes them to leave [academia]. That’s why NRMN is so vitally important, we have to increase the likelihood that senior faculty encountered are mentors, and not tormentors.

Any final remarks?

The final most important thing I want to stress is that that we also have to change the institutions where we are. One of the ways we’ve done that at the University of Maryland College Park is we’ve launched a program called Advancing Faculty Diversity. It’s a year long curriculum where junior faculty are delivered specific aspects of CAM training, with ongoing sessions throughout the year.

I’m proud to say that we now have the first wave of young African American scholars who have been promoted to tenured positions. This program has the support of a university president. So, I guess, my point is that it’s working.

I’m hoping that the lessons we’ve learned over the past four plus years at NRMN can keep translating to the future.

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