Empowering Native STEM Scholars: The Role of Culture and Quality in Mentorship

Reference: Estrada, M., Young, G., Flores, L., Hernandez, P. R., Hosoda, K. K., & DeerInWater, K. (2022). Culture and quality matter in building effective mentorship relationships with native STEM scholars. BioScience, 72(10), 999-1006.

Summarized by: Ellen Parry Luff

About the Study

The underrepresentation of Native people in academia in the United States is a concerning issue, with Native people making up 2% of the population but only 0.01% of enrolled undergraduate students. Although there has been an increase in the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded to Native students, this has not translated into more Native faculty in STEM. Recent research has shown that Native scholars often face incongruence between their cultural identity and their academic pursuits. Quality mentorship, particularly from mentors who are knowledgeable about Native cultures, can play a crucial role in facilitating Native scholar integration into STEM career pathways. Through a 2 year quantitative longitudinal approach, the study aims to explore how measures of scientific integration, quality mentorship, and cultural knowledge impact the persistence of Native scholars in STEM fields.

Key Findings:

  • Results found that high-quality mentorship predicted mentees’ persistence in STEM fields a year later. However, this was not a unique predictor. As such high-quality mentoring did not have a significant relationship with anything other than cultural understanding through which the link to persistence in STEM is made.
  • Having mentors who shared knowledge of their culture, either through experience or shared heritage uniquely predicted the social integration and persistence of Native scholars. 
  • In particular, mentees whose mentors shared knowledge of their culture were more likely to identify as scientists and internalize the values of the scientific community which in turn is linked to greater persistence. 
  • Greater cultural understanding among mentors was the one mentorship variable with a direct significant link to the integration of scientific community values and identification as a scientist. This is important as the integration of scientific community values was the one integration factor with a significant and direct link to persistence in STEM.
  • Overall the study finds that the integration of their culture with their STEM discipline rather than assimilation into the dominant culture predicted better outcomes for mentees. With this it was found that cultural understanding was the key factor in successful mentoring relationships being both tied to quality mentoring and providing the pathway through which mentoring led to increased STEM integration factors and STEM persistence. 

Implications for Mentoring

This study shows just how important culturally component mentoring is, especially for Native students in STEM. Through their findings, the authors argue that mentorship programs should challenge the traditional approach of STEM mentoring and prioritize cultural understanding and the integration of Native cultures into STEM disciplines rather than mere assimilation. The authors also acknowledge that Native people in the United States are not a monolith and that there is a lot of variation in culture and context. Thus the authors call for future research looking at and taking more into account these differences. Still, overall, the study emphasizes the significance of mentorship programs in fostering the persistence of Native scholars in STEM and in particular highlights the need for mentors with a nuanced understanding of both Native and STEM communities.

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