In this installment of the SSAR leadership profiles, Student Participation Committee member Allison Bogisich details the activities of the Mentorship Committee, with information provided by current chair Dr. Rob Denton and former chair Dr. Joe Mendelson.
The program was originally borne out of various discussions in 2010–2011 between Kristine Kaiser, Andrew Durso, Marion Preest, and Joe Mendelson. The program launched in 2012 at the World Congress of Herpetology in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada with Kris Kaiser as the Chair. At its inception, all of the basic elements of the program that persist today were in place, with the only real changes involved being refinements in logistics.
The primary purpose of the committee is to plan the mentorship program, ensuring that it happens every year at the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) and that it engages students attending their first JMIH meeting or academic conference.
Activities throughout the year, including at the annual meeting
Everyone in the mentorship program meets as a group near the beginning of JMIH. This meeting gives all mentors and mentees the chance to get to know each other, as well as providing an opportunity for the program organizers to give suggestions for making the most out of each mentorship interaction. After the initial meeting, mentor-mentee pairs can meet up whenever and however they so choose. Interactions often include attending poster sessions together, checking in over coffee, and/or talking over a meal. Mentors can help their mentees meet other senior researchers in their field, and they may also introduce their mentee to the rest of their lab group so the mentee can get a feel for another lab’s culture. These pairings give new attendees a friendly face right away, and provide someone who can help them navigate the rest of the conference.
Since this committee runs a program at the annual JMIH conference, their work is highly seasonal, ramping up in the few months prior to the meeting. Advertising the program sufficiently across multiple online platforms and communicating with the meeting organizers so information about the program is included on the registration site is critical leading up to the application deadline, typically around the first week of May. The Mentorship Committee works hard to encourage students to sign up for the program as mentees and to rally potential mentors. As chair, Denton is in charge of establishing the mentor and mentee pairs for the JMIH meeting, using surveys that mentees complete as part of the application. He begins by listing the prospective mentees by interest/discipline (e.g. evolution, ecology), then by taxonomic interest (e.g. salamanders, snakes). Then he finds the most suitable mentor match for each mentee. Ideally, pairs are made by matching mentees to a mentor who is usually one career stage ahead of them, e.g. undergrads with graduate students. In preparation for the mentorship meeting, the committee must also work out a budget for any food and supplies needed at JMIH.
Denton remarked that he was most happy about the initiative this year to expand the program in order to reach a wider diversity of student members. Mentee feedback has always been supportive of continuing the program due to connections made that were kept for many years afterward. Denton wants to promote just how well the mentorship program is functioning, as it’s ensuring that junior members at JMIH meet a career stage cohort and gets them quickly involved in respective societies. This is especially important for introducing first time attendees to the full diversity of individuals who make up JMIH.
This year the program included a record 42 mentorship pairings, and Denton is grateful for all those who helped suggest mentors or volunteered themselves. Also new to the committee mentorship program this year is the partnership with the Herpetologists’ League Diversity and Inclusion Committee, made in an effort to widen the available network of mentee and mentor applicants to professional societies beyond SSAR. In this way, the committee’s pairings are becoming less based upon immediate network connections from within the Mentorship Committee, which was a limiting factor and challenge in the past.
Interactions with other SSAR committees and leaders
Denton works collaboratively with the Herpetologists’ League’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee to help better promote diverse and inclusive pairings that will foster stronger collaborations between mentees and mentors, to enable both aspiring and established herpetologists to feel respected, supported, and valued. Additionally, the graduate students of SSAR’s Student Participation Committee have worked with Denton to better promote student engagement with the mentorship program, making students feel welcome at SSAR. The Mentorship Committee works with the SSAR president, in order to secure sufficient funding to hold the JMIH mentorship meeting.
Path to joining the Mentorship Committee
In 2015, while Denton was in the latter stages of his PhD program, former president Dr. Aaron M. Bauer contacted him about taking over for Dr. Joe Mendelson, who was stepping down from the role of chair. Denton accepted the nomination and has remained chair of the committee to the present.
In addition to the Mentorship Committee, Denton served on the SSAR Resolutions Committee from around 2012 to 2017, a role that involved standing up and reading SSAR resolutions and acknowledgments at the annual business meeting. He remarked that the visibility it gave him likely helped in garnering an invitation to chair the Mentorship Committee. Additionally, Denton has been an active member of Herpetologists’ League’s Conservation Committee since 2014. He cites his involvement in these two committees as ways that led to his getting more deeply involved and eventually taking on more responsibility as chair of the Mentorship Committee.
Denton remarked that he personally could not recall an instance when a student had approached either a central SSAR committee or the Mentorship Committee with interest in getting involved, who had not immediately been found a way to contribute. There is a society-wide desire for more junior scientist members working on these committees, and it’s often as simple as asking to get involved. He
recommends finding out what aspect of SSAR you’re most curious about (e.g. how the society is run, how people are recruited, how the journal is run). He recommends attending the annual business meeting if possible to get a broad idea of what the society is currently up to. Aside from signing up to be a mentor/mentee at JMIH via the Mentorship Committee, Denton says the grad students on the committee are heavily relied upon for their opinions and perspectives, as they are more proximate to many of the first-time attendees. The connections that the grad students have are valuable for developing many of the mentor-mentee pairings, and they often make the best mentors for younger students.
Future of the committee
Ideally, Denton says he hopes to see the continued expansion and growth of the program. At this year’s JMIH conference there were student mentees who discovered that they had missed out on prior registration for the program and applicants who were unable to be paired with an appropriate match. In other words, the total number of first time JMIH attendees is always larger than the number of mentee applicants. Getting a larger budget to assist the growing number of mentorship pairings and establishing other standardized mentorship events at JMIH are the most immediate goals for the committee.
How to get involved
Anyone interested in the committee may contact the current chair, Rob Denton, for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you want to be part of the program, either as a mentor or mentee, make sure to sign up when you register for the annual meeting. There should be a check box on the registration form.