Episode 12: Building self-confidence through near-peer mentorship

Science talks - Jordan Pilch
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

High school and undergraduate students are tested academically and personally by lessons learned during these transformative years. While seasoned professionals can help to guide students by sharing their knowledge, near-peer mentors can often have a bigger impact through similar experiences. BIO5 Public Affairs Student Assistant Jordan Pilch discusses how her roles in the KEYS summer internship program - both as an intern and as a mentor - have not only shaped her career path but also taught her a lot about self-confidence and self-efficacy. She also shares how she imparts this wisdom as a facilitator and near-peer mentor for the BIO5 Ambassadors Internship.

Jordan, you've been with the BIO5 Institute for quite a few years now, starting in 2017 when you were a high school student in the Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) research internship program. Tell us a bit about your experience as a KEYS intern and how it's fueled your passion for science.

KEYS is the reason that I am doing the science that I'm doing right now. I learned about it when I was a sophomore in high school because a junior friend who was going through the program encouraged me to apply. Brooke did a presentation at my school, and I asked like six or seven different questions, and I knew I just had to get in. 

Before this, I was a shy kid – I wasn’t really outgoing or someone who would put myself out there. With KEYS, it quickly forces you to interact with one another. There were socials, there were events. I am a Tucson native, but I didn't have a car at the time. I would have had to take the bus to go back and forth between my house in Vail and the university, and it's a long way for a 17-year-old. I was offered a position at the dorms, where I lived with about 13 other interns. I loved it there - I made one of my best friends there. 

I loved working with Dr. Pascal Charest, my mentor at the time. I was looking at the role that PKA has on chemotaxis, which is a lot of complex words, but basically means, “Does this protein make the cell move more efficiently or does it interfere?” What I found was that it is absolutely necessary for normal cell movement. The grad student I was working with presented the findings and used some of my research to support her thesis. That was very cool. 

I loved being in KEYS as an intern and could not wait to come back as a KEYS Crew or RA in the future. 

We love having our KEYS interns come back and work for us. Tell us more about why you came back as a Crew member and RA - why was it important for you to return and why is it important in general for that near-peer mentorship in undergraduate education?

When I was in high school, I was writing a paper on women in STEM because that's something that I’m intimately familiar with given my gender identity. I knew that the biological field had a lot of improvements in gender representation. In fact, biology is one of the few areas in STEM that is that nearly half women and half men. When I was working with Dr. Charest, she was one of seven female biochemists here at the university out of 43. That's not necessarily great. I knew that her mentorship was really one of the things that pushed me to continue into STEM, pushed me to continue into research. I returned to her lab my freshman year before deciding wet lab maybe wasn’t for me, but her mentorship had a huge impact on me.  

I’ve also benefitted a lot from the women in KEYS as well: Brooke Kelle, Robin, they all gave me the confidence to come forward and say, “This is what I want to do. This is what I'm passionate about. I'm going to pursue this.” I wanted to give that to other students as well. I especially wanted to give them a good experience because we didn't have previous KEYS interns as our RAs when I was living in the dorms as an intern. In KEYS, the interns need a bit more personalized care because the program is so intense. I wanted to come back, provide that mentorship that was given to me and give it back and help them have a better dorm experience. 

I became a KEYS Crew kind of by accident last year when the COVID pandemic happened. KEYS very quickly had to pivot to an online model. Unfortunately, we were also in a hiring freeze. So all of the previous KEYS kids that currently worked at BOI5 became Crew members. I liked it so much more than I liked being an RA because I got to really know the students. I felt in my element when I was a near-peer mentor because it was more academic focused and helping them with their research. It was more about having the students rely on me for feedback and being there to support them emotionally when they were going through difficult times. That was really interesting to me, and that made me want to change my major. 

Now after college, I want to pursue STEM outreach. I want to teach people. I want to be able to communicate science effectively. And one way that I can do that is also by being a mentor. Everything circulates around this central topic, and KEYS is really the reason why I figured all of this out.

What else have you learned through your roles in KEYS? What have you gained as a mentor to these students? What have they taught you either about yourself or about science in general?

One thing that they've taught me about myself is that I'm a very competent person, and I can trust myself that when I think I know something, I probably do, so I should just say it and go forward with it. This is relating to the confidence and belief within myself. I know that I am a pretty good mentor. I'm not the best, but through those experiences, I have recognized in myself that I love helping others learn. I loved seeing that like light in their eyes when they discover something new, either about themselves or about the work that they're doing. That is one of the most satisfying things in the world to see. I love that it is helping them out and that it's truly a new thing that they're seeing. 

Last semester I wrote two different papers on near-peer mentorships. One of them was focusing specifically on women in STEM, but it also touched on underrepresented minorities. The other one was on near-peer mentoring as something that keeps students within the STEM pipeline. One thing that was touched on with near peer mentorship is the benefit to mentors. It's taught me so much about myself. With near-peer mentors, it might be the first time this person is being a to somebody who they are close in age to and can really relate to. They discover more about themselves and have increased self-efficacy. That's something that I experienced. 

What are you currently working on in Dr. Molly Bolger’s lab?

I'm going to be looking at how views of modeling in science change throughout time with inquiry-based laboratories, which are different from traditional lab experiences. We like to call traditional educational lab experiences “cookbook labs.” You're given a lab book and it says, “Do this protocol in this exact order, put down what you observe, and it should be one very specific thing.” Basically, you’re following the protocol’s protocol, step-by-step-by-step, and you're not thinking about it critically. They give you all the information, and you're just observing a phenomenon. 

In inquiry-based learning, you observe a phenomenon and therefore create an experiment. Now, you can still be given protocols for techniques gel electrophoresis, but they won't tell you what you should be looking for. It's basically a miniaturized research lab experience, since many undergraduate students don't get to do work in a lab at a lot of other universities. 

Modeling is something that is crucial in that area because you have all this data and this information, but you must figure out what it means. You could write a 10-page paper about it, but that's boring. It can be fun to see what people are learning, but if you have a diagram or a model, it is instantly understood. It is easy to comprehend, and it is easy to put your ideas on and to share it and to collaborate with other groups because collaboration in science is so important. 

I'm looking at how that modeling process or how that view of modeling changes from students who have never done inquiry-based research or laboratory experiences through the semester. This is done through coding, which is basically a coding guide, and it asks how many times they mention certain words, like “experiment” or “mechanism.” Those are different given different weights based on how deep into inquiry-based thinking they are and how far away from a textbook model they are. 

I'm looking at it from both the student and the TA perspective. A lot of the TAs have not taught inquiry-based thinking - they've only taught cookbook labs. You have to look at how the teacher's preconceptions of modeling affect students' conceptions of modeling, and then understand how they both morph and change through teaching the curriculum.

In addition to your role with KEYS, you also work on our staff at the BIO5 Institute. Can you tell us more about your role as a student employee here, specifically with the BIO5 Ambassadors program? 

I started working at the BIO5 in 2019. I applied because I was looking for a job because I needed money. I knew of BIO5 because of the work that I had done with KEYS the previous two years. I applied, interviewed with my current boss, Amy, and I got the job!

Working at BIO5 is like being thrown into the deep end of a pool. They say, “This is up to you. You're going to do what you want.” This isn't a traditional student experience where you're being told what to do. You get to pick the projects you work on and what areas you emphasize in. I'm not a kind of person who's good with being thrown into the deep end of a pool. I quickly searched for the edge of the pool to get myself out of there, but over time, I figured out what I'm doing. 

One of the things that I started working on were our events. I set up a marketing list for different schools, clubs, and programs around the Arizona area and Tucson area, specifically for marketing the Women in STEM event. Now I’ve been the opening speaker for that two years in a row. It’s been terrifying, but the most terrifying things are often the most rewarding things.

Something else that I started working on with my co-facilitator for this year, Lily Andress, was BIO5 Ambassadors, which has the tagline, “the business side of science.” What does that mean? It's basically what BIO5 does. Our researchers and faculty do the science side of things, where they're coming up with different medications or different therapies for things like herpes simplex virus, or maybe they're working with Zika, or maybe they're looking at ovarian cancer and imaging technologies. That’s more the science side, but how do they get that money? How do they get the different equipment? How did they get the lab space? How do we get information out about their projects? How did we go through and discuss that? 

That’s what BIO5 Ambassadors tries to bring to undergraduate students here at the university. We take typically about three interns, and we pair them up with a staff member from BIO5. This year, we had Jorey Cohen, who worked with Dr. Brittany Uhlorn on science communication projects. Jennifer Scott worked with Amy Randall-Barber and Elena Rodriquez on alumni projects and events. Anish Raju has worked with Brooke Moreno and Kelle Hyland on KEYS recruitment. 

We also have professional development workshops that teach the interns and other BIO5 students and staff about a number of soft and hard professional development skills, such as how to go through and set up a resume or how to decide what career you want to do and how to make that decision. 

Tell us a little bit what it's been like for you as someone who identifies as a woman to pursue this career in STEM, and why it's important for all of us to uplift anyone who wishes to pursue the STEM field, regardless of identity.

If you look at the research, it has been shown repeatedly that if you have a successful mentor that looks like you, that identifies as along the same lines as you, you are more likely to stay inside of the career field that you are currently in. It is incredibly important in STEM to keep discovering new things and figuring out new solutions to the world’s challenges. The only way that we're going to get creative and innovative new ideas is by bringing in people from different backgrounds. 

We have had a very homogenous group of researchers throughout most of scientific history with a lot of exceptions along the way, but not rules. We need to make science and STEM in general just more inclusive. Increasing our representation as women and for underrepresented minorities is very important. In addition, other studies have shown that if you increase the diversity of the staff that you're working in, including people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, from different gender identities that can go through and help to increase different ideas because people have different experiences and different ways of looking at the world. Those perspectives help STEM to keep moving forward. 

STEM is for everyone.