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Mentor of the Month: Michelle Kovarik, PhD

By March 22, 2019No Comments

How did you get involved with NRMN?

I am a former IRACDA (Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards) postdoctoral scholar from the SPIRE program at the University of North Carolina. I was invited to join NRMN as an alum of that program.

Which of NRMN’s program(s) have you participated in?

I have participated in the MyMentor program.

Describe your role in MyMentor and tell us a little about your experience in that role.

As a mentor with the NRMN program, I have gotten to know and mentor two participants, a
postdoctoral scholar in the Tufts TEACRS program and an undergraduate research student
funded by NIDA. Both have been great experiences. The first mentee and I were “near peers” in
that she is only a few years junior to me in her professional development and has similar career
goals. As a result, we had many mutually beneficial conversations, especially about mentoring
undergraduate researchers. My second mentee is at the same educational level as the students
I mentor in person at Trinity, but it has been enlightening to see how our conversations are
different than those I have with my own students. To me, this mentoring relationship is a good
example of how important it is to have multiple mentors at the same time, including some who
are not a direct supervisor and on whom you will not depend for a letter of reference.

Have you participated in other similar programs in the past? If so, how was your experience
with NRMN different or unique?

I have formally mentored ~25 research students during my graduate studies, postdoctoral
work, and career at Trinity, and I’ve been an informal mentor to many near peers as well.
Compared to those experiences, I appreciate how the NRMN program creates structured
opportunities for conversation, especially about topics that are hard to broach, like race and
gender issues in the sciences. I know from experience that as a student it can be hard to ask for
a mentor’s time in order to have an open-ended conversation and to bring up sensitive issues.

When I mentor students in person, I find that we have these conversations most often when we
are working side-by-side in the lab. Just as it’s sometimes easier to bring up a personal
conversation during a long car ride, I find that being in the lab together can create a similar

If someone called you and asked, “Why should I become involved with NRMN?” how would you

It’s a great opportunity to expand your professional network and reflect on your career that is a
“right-sized” time commitment, enough time to be meaningful but not so much as to be
burdensome for already-busy people.

How has your experience with NRMN changed the way you approach your career in the

I believe that I am a better mentor to my students on-campus from having participated in the
NRMN MyMentor program. Participating regularly gives me an opportunity to reflect on my
role as a mentor. Discussing the challenges and opportunities of mentoring undergraduate
research students with my first mentee made me articulate more of my mentoring philosophy
and take a critical look at how I manage my research students. Talking with my second mentee
this summer has given me more insight into the questions my Trinity students might have in
mind but may not have had an opportunity to ask. In the sciences, our training is often narrowly
focused on how to plan, execute, and interpret experiments in the lab, but often our careers
demand that we manage junior scientists despite a lack of training in this area. NRMN helps me
to fill that gap.

Describe a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your

My first publication out of my lab is something that made me tremendously proud. I had
wanted to develop a research program with undergraduates for a long time, but I always had
some apprehension about whether or not I would be successful in coming up with good project
ideas, training students to do publishable research, and pulling it all together in a way that
would stand up to peer-review. That first paper went a long way towards giving me confidence
and serving as a reminder that even when I feel like an imposter, I shouldn’t give in to self-

What makes you an ideal mentor?

I’m not sure I’m ready to describe myself as an “ideal mentor” but I think that some of my
strengths are that I have worked at a wide range of colleges and universities: private/public,
religiously affiliated or not, PWIs and an HBCU. I’ve also been lucky to work with students and
professional scientists from all over the U.S. and abroad. These experiences have given me
practice listening to how people who are different from me might experience a familiar
situation and helped me to build a wide network to which I can connect mentees.

Each morning, what do you look most forward to in the day?

Most honestly, coffee. But on a more professional note, I love going into my lab each day. I feel
so fortunate to have a job that lets me pursue my own scientific interests while also working
with students. Having worked for a long time to become an independent scientist, it’s really
meaningful to me to know what that space represents.

Is there anything you’d like to share about yourself with a potential future mentee?

I am an introvert, and as a student, I always worried about “networking” and was intimidated to
approach potential mentors. I think I can offer useful advice to future mentees who have
similar feelings because it’s an area where I think I’ve grown a lot as my career developed.

What is your current position and what is your favorite aspect of it?

I am currently an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Trinity College, a small liberal arts college
in Hartford CT. My favorite aspect of this position is the opportunity to integrate my research
and my teaching. Working with undergraduates is an ideal job for me; I enjoy working with
students as they develop individual intellectual interests and mature as scientists. I especially
appreciate that in my role at Trinity there is never a failed experiment because even when our
results don’t match our expectations, they provide an opportunity for students to grow in their
problem-solving skills.

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