A Mentor to Many

Biology professor Michael Romero wins a presidential award for mentoring students underrepresented in science

When Michael Romero started as an undergraduate at Swarthmore in 1984, one of only a handful of Hispanic Americans there, he was majoring in philosophy, with law school in his future. But his first mentor there, a young biology professor, took Romero under his wing, put him to work on a lab project—and the rest is history, said Romero, a professor of biology who has been teaching at Tufts since 1996.

He never forgot that lesson, and made it his goal to help students—especially women and those from minority groups underrepresented in science fields. Recently, in recognition of his work, Romero received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Administered by the National Science Foundation, the awards program recognizes exceptional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) mentoring of groups historically underrepresented in STEM sectors and the STEM workforce.

Earlier in the summer Romero headed down to Washington for the awards ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery, meeting with the National Science Foundation director and the deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Tufts Now recently talked with Romero about mentoring both undergraduates and graduate students, and why it is so important to him.

Tufts Now: Can you talk about your experience as an undergraduate at Swarthmore being mentored by a biology professor—and how important that was to your career?

Michael Romero: My first mentor, Gregory Florant, a young professor in biology, changed my life. During freshman year he reached out to me personally, took me under his wing, and encouraged me to pursue a career in research. He helped kindle a fire that lasts to this day.

Did that experience make mentoring an important goal for you as you became an academic?

Florant firmly believed that the way to instill a love of science is to do science. As I often tell my own advisees, there is little fundamental difference between most science classes and history classes. Whether you are learning about the Mongol invasions of Asia or the alpha-helical structure of DNA, you are learning about what other people did in the past.  So, an important goal of mine when I arrived at Tufts was to get students doing science.

What are your goals as a mentor?

I want the students to take ownership of their research, so that it will result in publishable papers. Publications are the sine qua non of scientific research and the best way to show that students are prepared for the next step in their careers. I try to strike the proper balance between guidance and independence. I don’t want to “spoon-feed” a project to my students, but I also don’t want them to struggle with too little support.

I try to get undergraduates into the lab and doing projects as early as possible, and for as extended a time as possible. My goal is to get them into graduate or professional school rather than provide a one-semester “research experience” that has little long-term impact on the STEM pipeline. In this way I hope to mentor students who will become tomorrow’s STEM leaders.

Is mentoring graduate students similar?

My mentoring philosophy for graduate students is significantly different. Most graduate students who come to my lab have the goal of being a college or university professor. It has always struck me that ours is a strange profession. We reward a faculty position to those who master essentially three skills: the ability to generate and analyze novel data; the ability to synthesize those data to write papers published in high-impact journals; and the ability to showcase those accomplishments in a fifty-minute scientific seminar. 

In contrast, once attaining the coveted faculty position, the three most important skills become the ability to teach, the ability to obtain funding, and the ability to manage and mentor people. Until recently, the last three skills were rarely taught. My goal as a mentor has been to provide my graduate students with all six of these skills prior to graduation.

Do you think mentoring is especially important for students who might not have the background to easily succeed on their own—such as being underrepresented minorities and/or not having the socioeconomic advantages of some of their classmates?

Yes, mentoring is especially important for them. Students from families with a history of higher education often can succeed with only the support they get from their families—although even for them, quality mentoring can make an important difference. In contrast, mentoring can be vital to encouraging and promoting successful STEM careers for students who lack that family support.

Is it rewarding for you when the students you mentor succeed?

Mentoring is incredibly satisfying. It’s terrific to see my former students start careers of their own. I stay in touch with many of them. I could never have achieved the award without them, and I am forever grateful and honored that they chose to work in my lab.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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