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Mentoring and Training

Research Environment

Mentors tend to establish the research environment. Some may emphasize competition and others may emphasize cooperation. No matter what their style mentors should:

  • Provide equal treatment.
  • Maintain a professional atmosphere.
  • Train and educate in the responsible conduct of research.

Many fine resources exist on issues that arise related to unrepresented groups in the laboratory. Most of the resources focus on women and ethnic minorities born in the United States . The Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has an outstanding site http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu . Though the primary focus is women, the extensive bibliography includes materials on all U.S. underrepresented groups. Diversity training benefits even the professor who is most certain of his or her open-minded views and egalitarian approach. Research shows that all of us unwittingly discriminate.

Increasing globalization is creating new issues. Fewer materials are currently available on working with foreign nationals. Certainly, many aspects of current diversity training can be generalized and applied to foreign born scholars. Empathy, mutual respect, and genuine interest in others contribute to interpersonal success in any setting. But just as developing an awareness of the unique issues facing a woman or Hispanic can aid in treating her with more deference. Developing a broader cultural awareness can make you a better mentor to foreign born scholars.


“Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of Ph.D. scientists and engineers employed in the United States who were born abroad has increased from 24% to 37%. The current percentage of Ph.D. physicists is about 45%; for engineers, the figure is over 50%. One fourth of the engineering faculty members at U.S. universities were born abroad. Between 1990 and 2004, over one third of Nobel Prizes in the United States were awarded to foreign-born scientists. One third of all U.S. Ph.D.s in science and engineering are now awarded to foreign born graduate students. We have been skimming the best and brightest minds from across the globe, and prospering because of it; we need these new Americans even more now as other countries become more technologically capable.

Top-notch students and teachers from abroad help make U.S. colleges and universities global centers of excellence and diversity. Highly skilled workers and world-class business leaders who come to work with or for U.S.-based companies help keep our economy growing – an amazing fraction of new Silicon Valley start-up companies are headed by individuals born abroad, for example.”

(From a statement by William A. Wulf, Ph.D. President, National Academy of Engineering, The National Academies before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims Committee on the Judiciary in the U.S. House of Representatives , 15 September 2005)


The National Science Board in its report “The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential” recognizes, like Wulf, that foreign born scholars are important to America 's success. They propose ways the federal government can contribute to attracting these scholars while maintaining national security. On a personal level, mentors can implement policies and training that make their labs welcoming places for scholars of all races and nations.

In interviewing college international program personnel, common themes emerged.

  • Don't assume that a trainee's level of proficiency in English is equivalent to their level of cultural adaptation. Some learn English well before ever coming to the U.S.
  • Be aware of the extra stress they may be facing learning a new language, a new culture, a new institution, a new job, new laws, immigration issues, etc.---all without their normal social support networks.
  • Be aware of services your campus provides to aid international students and faculty in their cultural adaptation.
  • Before addressing a frustrating behavior or habit, ask yourself (and them) what part culture plays in this.

How do I help my trainee with immigration issues?

Don't. Refer them to those who specialize in immigration on your campus or an immigration attorney. Immigration laws change and are complex. Do be aware of their immigration status and qualification standards on any grants or awards your lab has received.

My trainee's English skills are poor. Should I have them record their data in their native language?

It is generally agreed that it is best to record data in English. Others in the lab will need to access the data. It will also help your trainee become more proficient in English.

I have trouble with my trainee's accent. How can I mentor someone I can barely understand?

Be patient. The more time you spend talking with them, the more you will understand their accent and the more they will learn English. Make use of written communication especially to summarize things that are essential to lab procedures and ethics.

I have trainees from three different countries in my lab. How do I learn all their cultures so I can understand how to help them?

Interestingly, developing a keener awareness of your own culture can help you be more sensitive to other cultures. Peace Corp volunteers are armed with surveys about their own culture. They are then encouraged to dialogue with people in the countries they are entering to compare and contrast the two cultures. You can take a similar approach with your trainees.

Are there some general cultural categories I can consider?

Yes. Below are some categories and trends in the way American view these subjects. Obviously, these trends do not apply to every American but can be a starting point in discussing culture with someone else.

  • Formality vs. Informality
    • Americans tend to be informal in their dress and lifestyle
    • Americans are egalitarian in their approach to relationships between people of different ages or socio-economic status.
    • Americans are quick to open their homes to acquaintances.
    • Americans are generally polite, using “please” and “thank you” even in response to service for which they are paying.
    • Americans are protective of their own property and privacy.
      • They knock before entering a room with a closed door
      • There are subjects that are generally not discussed such as personal finances, how much money one makes or one's weight or age.
  • Punctuality
    • It is important to be on time to events, meetings and appointments.
    • If you are going to be late, you call to let someone know.
    • Americans can be abrupt and impatient because time is highly valued.
  • Dealing with Conflict
    • Americans tend to deal with conflict directly.
    • Being straightforward and honest is valued.
    • Saving “face” is not as valued in America as in some other cultures.
  • The Concept of Fate and Destiny
    • Americans believe in self-determinism.
    • Children are told they can be anything they want to be.
  • Approach to Change
    • Americans see change as progress.
    • Traditions are important but not better than innovation and improvement.
  • Approach to Risk
    • Americans encourage risk taking.
    • Failure is not viewed as final. It is often viewed as a necessary step toward success.
    • Experimentation, trial and error are ways to learn to improve.
  • Hygiene
    • Americans place a great deal of importance on personal hygiene.
    • Americans generally bathe and change clothes daily.
    • Others can view Americans as overly vigilant in personal cleanliness.
  • View of Happiness
    • Americans do whatever they can to be happy.
    • Since you are in control of your own destiny, you can control your emotions.
    • American value optimism.
  • Attitude toward Accomplishment
    • Americans value someone who can get things done.
    • “Words are cheap.” “Show me the money.”
    • Practicality is favored over beauty.