One Lab, Three Takes on Mentoring

Graduate student Ryan Van Hoveln and undergraduate researcher Gabriel Le Gros work in the Chemistry Instrument Center's NMR facility
Graduate student mentor Ryan Van Hoveln (left) works with undergraduate researcher Gabriel Le Gros (right) in the Chemistry Instrument Center’s NMR facility.

The Graduate Student

Ryan Van Hoveln might be busy with his own research, but he’s not too busy to come and see how his three Chem 346 (Intermediate Organic Chemistry Laboratory) mentees are faring at their first poster session. As they’ve worked on independent projects involving multi-step synthetic processes, the three students have spent 6 weeks of the fall semester getting their first tastes of research. The general consensus is that the students find the steps and problem solving involved in these projects interesting but also sometimes frustrating.

A fifth-year chemistry graduate student working with Assistant Professor Jennifer Schomaker, Van Hoveln divides his time among research, working as a teaching assistant, and mentoring undergraduate researchers like the three at the poster session. And the mentoring is no small task. To date, he’s mentored eight undergraduates.

“Most people go through grad school with one or two undergrads,” Van Hoveln says. “Eight is a little on the fringes, if you will.”

These days, most of Van Hoveln’s satisfaction comes from mentoring and teaching. In order to continue focusing on those areas, he hopes to become a professor at a liberal arts college. As an undergraduate at Bradley University, Van Hoveln took note of how his mentor, Professor Brad Andersh, cultivated his and other students’ scientific skills. Andersh had him repeat reactions over and over until he felt comfortable. Then, Andersh would push him to try something slightly harder.

Van Hoveln has adopted this same approach with his own mentees. Experiments designed for undergraduate teaching labs have a set outcome and a defined path to that outcome. Doing real research projects in a chemistry lab is entirely different. Van Hoveln primes his mentees to expect only the occasional success as they work through tricky processes in the lab.

“Research chemistry is a complete crapshoot,” Van Hoveln says. “You have no idea if it’s going to work ahead of time or not.”

The Undergraduate Researcher

You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find UW Marching Band trombonist Gabriel Le Gros (x’15) in a chemistry research lab. You see, he’s a senior biology major, and he will be going to dental school at the University of Michigan upon graduating. But biology majors are required to take three organic chemistry classes, Chem 343 (Introductory Organic Chemistry), 344 (Introductory Organic Chemistry Lab), and 345 (Intermediate Organic Chemistry). In 2013, as a student in Chem 344, Le Gros had Van Holveln as his teaching assistant.

“Ryan is the best teacher I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Le Gros says.

As he finished Chem 344, Le Gros began talking to Van Hoveln about getting involved in research on campus. He didn’t want to wash glassware, and his previous efforts to find a lab hadn’t been successful. Van Hoveln coached him through the process of finding a lab and recommended that Le Gros email his graduate adviser, Professor Jennifer Schomaker. Le Gros sent an email in spring 2013, Van Hoveln jumped at the chance to continue working with Le Gros, and the rest is history.

“Research helps me think in an entirely different way,” Le Gros says. “It’s taught me a lot beyond a textbook. It’s one thing to see something on paper and another thing to do it in real life.”

Since joining the Schomaker group, and with a bit of prodding and encouragement from his research mentors, Le Gros has taken a graduate-level advanced organic chemistry class. He excelled in the course.

“Three of my undergrads took the graduate synthesis course,” Schomaker says. “One of my grad students was No. 1 in the class, then the undergrads were No. 2,  No. 3, and No. 4.”

The Principal Investigator

Schomaker has a systematic approach to mentoring, but it doesn’t result in a one-size-fits-all solution. Her approach involves 1) asking what her graduate students want to get out of their graduate school experiences, 2) setting high expectations that are clear and specific, and 3) helping the students see when they’ve made progress toward their goals.

“I think the first thing I had to realize is that my students aren’t me,” Schomaker says. “The second thing that helped me become a better mentor was really trying to understand what they want out of the experience, because they all want different things.”

For some graduate students, the experience of being a mentor helps them hone existing skills or develop new skills like management and communication.

Schomaker asks her group members to identify students they click with when they’re working as teaching assistants. This approach helps the graduate students become invested in the process – it also results in the graduate students fully welcoming the undergraduates into their lab community. The undergraduates must really commit to their group. When they can, they’re expected to come in and work 20 hours a week in the lab. High expectations permeate the lab culture and trickle down from Schomaker to the graduate students and from the graduate student mentors to the undergraduate mentees.

“At least half of my group members are mentoring at any given time,” Schomaker says. “Ryan [Van Hoveln] is mentoring three students right now – he’s been really successful.”

Several mentors helped shape Schomaker’s own academic and career path along the way. She worked at Dow Chemical Company as a college student and also following college. Colleagues at Dow encouraged her to keep developing her teaching skills in anticipation that she might have a chance to pursue graduate studies down the road. Their confidence in her pushed her in that direction even when it wasn’t obvious that it would all work out in the end. Thankfully, it did work out, and she began graduate school several years later.

Then, as a postdoctoral fellow working with Professor Robert Bergman (Ph.D. ’66, Berson) at the University of California, Berkeley, Schomaker began paying close attention to Bergman’s mentoring methods.

“[Bergman] was always honest and direct, and it scared me at first,” Schomaker says. “He was very clear about the standards he expected me to meet, and he challenged me to think deeply about my experiments.”

Throughout her first five years as a professor, Schomaker has adopted and begun to hone that same approach to mentoring in her own lab.

Even though some of the undergraduates who walk through the lab’s doors aren’t chemistry majors when they set out, many become chemistry majors along the way or wind up wishing they weren’t too far along to become chemistry majors. It seems the Schomaker group’s approach to mentoring is working.

—Libby Dowdall