Mentoring early career professionals in the society of environmental toxicology and chemistry North America

Authors

  • Christopher G. Ingersoll

    President
    1. SETAC North American Columbia Environmental Research Center U.S. Geological Survey 4200 New Haven Road Columbia, Missouri 65201
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From 1980 to 1998, membership in SETAC consistently increased each year by about 5 to 25%. However, from 1998 to 2003, membership in SETAC declined by about 25%. Reasons suggested for the decline in membership in SETAC include lack of time or financial resources, cost of membership, changing jobs or retirement, declining number of individuals in the field of environmental toxicology and chemistry, accessibility to journals and newsletters online, relevancy of SETAC, and poor membership services. Declining membership in professional societies is not unique to SETAC and may be more a reflection of societal changes in joining organized institutions than a structural problem with SETAC [1]. In fact, over the past two years, membership in SETAC has remained relatively stable, in part, due to increased efforts to encourage membership renewal through phone surveys, reduced cost of membership for students or early career professionals (i.e., recent graduates), and increased membership benefits (e.g., broadening the scope of SETAC with the new journal, Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management). Further evaluation of reasons for the decline in membership indicated that, though retention of student members has remained relatively constant, retention of early career professionals has declined over the past several years. Efforts are now underway to have SETAC members mentor young professionals more formally as they transition from school to a career in eenvironmental toxicology and chemistry.

The following definition of a mentor developed by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy [2] likely is applicable to the SETAC NA mentoring program: “A mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person to develop into a successful professional. A mentor can be a trusted counselor or guide. [A mentor] can serve as an important role model, adviser, teacher or friend as one prepares for and embarks on a career.” Based on this definition, SETAC historically has done an excellent job of mentoring students at our regional or international meetings with activities including networking mixers, travel awards for students and minorities, best student paper awards in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (ET&C), best student platform and poster presentations, and job placement services. An ad hoc SETAC NA committee also is addressing mentoring of women in SETAC. Over the past five years, students have been able to participate at SETAC workshops and to participate on the SETAC NA Board of Directors through the newly established SETAC NA Student Council. One of my most valued member benefits is the opportunity to visit with students and other members at the Sunday evening mixer and at the Monday evening student dinner at the SETAC NA annual meeting. These settings provide students with a great opportunity to attach a face and personality to a name of an individual that publishes in our journals and makes presentations at our meetings. Additionally, these settings provide students with excellent opportunities to gain valuable insight into the issues they may face and requirements they will need for successful transition into the various sectors representing SETAC.

The transition from being a student to an early career professional is an exciting and challenging time. Starting a new job after graduation provides an excellent opportunity to expand into new areas of research or management. However, during this transition, less support is available from a major professor or from fellow graduate students. I arrived at the laboratory in Columbia, Missouri, USA, in 1986 ready to continue research associated with my dissertation on the effects of acidification on fish populations only to find that my supervisor had another idea. On my first day of work, Paul Mehrle told me that several individuals at our laboratory already were conducting research related to the effects of acidification on fish populations and what he really wanted me to do was to develop a research program on contaminated sediments. The walk back to my office that day was a very long one. No longer did I have the comfort of knowing the literature and researchers in a particular field. I had to start over to determine the key issues, literature, and researchers associated with contaminated sediments. The SETAC journal, ET&C, books developed from workshops, and abstracts from the annual meeting all were useful resources. However, the most beneficial help that I received came from initial visits to individuals at laboratories conducting research on contaminated sediments, including Rick Swartz and Al Nebeker of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Peter Landrum of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, and Bill Adams (formerly of Monsanto). These individuals were important mentors and instrumental in helping our laboratory establish a new research program in contaminated sediments. Additional networking and mentoring opportunities over the past 20 years with members of SETAC have provided us invaluable resources in establishing and building our contaminated sediment research program.

It was in this spirit that the March 2005 long-range planning meeting of the SETAC NA Board of Directors focused on several potential new activities for mentoring early career professionals. Potential new mentoring activities of early career professionals at regional or international meetings of SETAC NA might include one or more of the following: A breakfast or evening mixer; lunch with an expert; a short course on mentoring; and individual mentoring before, during, or after a meeting. The interests of mentees may be quite varied; some may want guidance from mentors on networking or career goals. The mixers or lunch meetings at a meeting might be a great place for mentors to provide this type of guidance. Alternatively, there may be an interest in establishing a more formal relationship between a mentee and mentor(s) (Fig. 1). A critical step to the process is pairing similar interests. Recently, SETAC has developed a member profile (http://www.setac.org/, under member login, member profile). The profile provides members the opportunity to list areas of technical expertise and allows potential mentors or mentees to indicate an interest in participating in the mentoring program. If you have not yet completed your membership profile, please take a few minutes to do so. Not only will your profile be useful in identifying potential mentors and mentees, but information in the profile database also will be useful for identifying potential peer reviewers for manuscripts submitted to SETAC journals and targeting possible participants in workshops. Information in the database would be distributed to individuals outside of SETAC only with your permission (e.g., to educators seeking information on a particular topic).

Figure Fig. 1..

Illustration of two potential models for establishing interactions between mentors and mentees identified by the SETAC NA Board of Directors (courtesy of P. Sibley, University of Guelph, Guelph Ontario, and member of the SETAC NA Board of Directors).

Two models for establishing interactions between mentors and mentees were identified at the March 2005 long-range planning meeting of the SETAC NA Board of Directors: A one-on-one model (one mentor and one mentee) and an open model (one mentee and multiple mentors; Fig. 1). For the one-on-one model, a mentor would be paired with a mentee at the request of a mentee or by assignment from SETAC NA (based on information provided in the SETAC member profile). For the open model, there could be either a noninteractive option or an interactive option. The noninteractive option would be a website with a link to frequently asked questions with answers provided by SETAC members and also would provide links to web-based mentoring resources (e.g., books, mentoring websites). The interactive option would provide an opportunity for a mentee to post a question on the SETAC website or on a list server with the possibility of answers from all participating mentors (e.g., mentee interested in contacting academics relative to guidance on seeking tenure). We plan to have a pilot version of the one-on-one model available for mentees and mentors by the fall of 2005 and hope to develop the open model in 2006. The SETAC NA Mentor Committee currently is establishing a list of responsibilities and goals for both mentors and mentees. For either model to be successful, it will be important to obtain routine feedback from all participants and to set a time limit on the relationship (e.g., one-year program for the one-on-one model that could be renewed if both parties make the request).

We encourage all SETAC members to consider participating in the mentoring program [3]. Having or being a mentor can help you not only belong to SETAC, but belong to our profession. Interest in organizational participation is beginning to increase as people recognize the benefits and personal support that such groups provide [4]. The first step to participating in the mentoring program will be to complete your member profile located on the SETAC website. The second step will be to link mentors and mentees with common interests. The third step then will be up to the participants to make it happen. We also encourage members of SETAC to provide us with additional ideas on how to develop further the mentoring program within North America and within other geographic units in SETAC.

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgment—I would like to thank the members of the SETAC NA Board of Directors and the SETAC NA Mentoring Committee for identifying these new potential opportunities for mentoring early career professionals and would like thank A. Fairbrother, D. Freeman, P. Howard, K. Ingersoll, J. Oris, P. Sibley, and L. Webster for providing helpful review comments on this editorial.

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