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Mentoring During COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we interact with each other, so it’s also going to affect the way we conduct science and mentor our trainees. These recommendations and ideas were compiled from a panel for faculty in July 2020. Special thanks to Joyce Besheer, PhD, Miriam Braunstein, PhD, Hector L. Franco, PhD, Jeff Sekelsky, PhD, Alisa Wolberg, PhD, and the other faculty who contributed to the discussion. If you have tips or resources that you’d like to see added to this page, email them to Dave McDonald, PhD (

For reference, the current BBSP rotation schedule can be found on the program’s website.

As noted in Science this month, graduate students are experiencing more mental health issues this year compared to other years. While we’ve seen students demonstrating a lot of resilience, we shouldn’t assume that everything is fine underneath the surface. Faculty mentors can help by asking how students are managing the current working and learning conditions. Even if they say things are fine, you can let them know how you’re supporting your trainees during these strange times (encouraging use of campus resources, taking time away from lab for an exam, an occasional mental health day, etc.). Also provide some encouragement – for example, point out the ways you’ve seen them do well in the rotation so far.
Expectations for a lab rotation should center on figuring out if there is a good fit for the student, the PI, and the lab. Students should be expected to understand an experimental question and methods used to address it.

A lab rotation should not be expected to generate data or complete a project. Most rotations last 10 to 12 weeks, which is a very short time to learn new science, master techniques, overcome setbacks, and generate publication-quality figures. Plus, students feel a pressure to produce data, either from a drive to impress their rotation lab and mentor or from covert or overt signals they receive from faculty or their peers.

So set your bar for “productivity” lower than you may first expect. Talk through your expectations for the student regularly, especially at the beginning of the rotation. Students can achieve a sense of accomplishment in more ways than just successful experiments: a good literature review, designing experiments, and receiving feedback from others on what they do well and how they can improve.

Like last spring, it may be worth adjusting the focus of your interactions with students on understanding the literature, asking scientific questions, generating hypotheses, analyzing data, and interpreting results. For bench skills, focus on introducing techniques rather than collecting data. Consider what the usual hallmarks are that you look for in a student who wants to join your lab, and make sure you are providing some equivalent opportunities for them to succeed. Some faculty in our discussion mentioned having more meetings than usual with rotation students to keep lines of communication open and make sure they feel supported. A few students have shared with us that they’re concerned they’re not “doing enough” for their rotations, even if their time is maxed out, so make sure you have a conversation with them so they know how they’re doing compared to your expectations.

Rotations projects can be a tricky balance between achievable and overly simple. Engage your rotation students in designing a project together, and bring in others from the lab as well to give a sense of collaboration. Here are some ideas to consider when designing a rotation project, particularly for a pandemic and social distancing. Try combining multiple of these activities for a fulfilling rotation project.

  • Read the relevant literature on your research. Discuss particular papers with the student. Ask them to share their screen in a Zoom call so you can see how they’ve marked up their pdf of the paper.
  • Conduct a literature review on a narrow topic relevant to the lab, and seek feedback from others in the lab
  • Design rigorous and reproducible experiments to answer a scientific question, potentially starting to carry them out
  • Develop aims for an NSF or other fellowship proposal
  • Present a journal club article or their own research results to the lab (especially good for seeing a student’s thought process)
  • Help the student to develop a clear story to tell about their project. BBSP’s First Year Group asks students to practice their communication skills, so having a project or even data to share is key.
One of the biggest frustrations that students report to BBSP are when their rotation mentors are unavailable. For a 10- to 12-week rotation, the number of opportunities you have to talk with a student are finite and limited. We recommend meeting with your rotation students at least weekly. And more time spent meeting with them at the beginning of the rotation to establish expectations and good work practices pays dividends later. For example, at the outset you can emphasize that they are joining a team and your expectations for the team are respect, being open to the ideas of others and to suggestions, and not being afraid to ask for help when they need it.

Let the student lead the meeting and take ownership of their project. Show enthusiasm for the student’s project (your enthusiasm can make the student more enthusiastic and confident), and frequently discuss their progress. Ask what roadblocks the student is facing (either in techniques, resources, personal life, or even class and exam schedules), and see if there are ways you can help them succeed. And be sure to discuss non-science topics to get to know them as a whole person.

Ask students for feedback on how the lab is doing with current working conditions. Are there any improvements you or your lab could make?

UNC Campus Health recommends that all members of your lab use this checklist every day before coming to campus:

  • Do you have new muscle aches not related to another medical condition or another specific activity (e.g. due to physical exercise)?
  • Do you feel like you may have a temperature of greater than 100.0°F?
  • Do you have sore throat, runny nose and/or congestion not related to another medical condition (e.g. allergies)?
  • Do you have a new or worsening cough that is not related to another medical condition?
  • Do you have shortness of breath that is not attributable to another medical condition?
  • Do you have recent (<5 days) loss of smell and taste?
  • Do you have new onset of vomiting or diarrhea not related to another medical condition?
  • Have you had recent close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?

If they answer yes to any of these questions, ask them to not come to campus for work or class. They should contact their medical provider through HealthyHeels or by calling either Campus Health at 919-966-2281 or University Employee Occupational Health at 919-966-9119.

UNC outlines our community health standards on this site. The CDC is not currently recommending widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals.

Trainees can work closer than 6ft apart if they wear a mask and a face shield (or a mask and goggles that overlap the mask and have side guards). UNC Occupational Health has said that the risk of spreading COVID-19 is low with this level of PPE. Multiple labs can buy face shields together.

Record protocols, lab tours, and lab safety info using cell phones or small cameras. Faculty recommend the GoPro Hero 7 (with the optional Neewer 50-in-1 accessory kit) or a more cost-effective Campark camera. Other cameras are available to attach to microscopes or animal behavior setups. Chest straps appear to work a bit better than headbands for these cameras as the headbands make the video move too much. NIH grants funds can be used for these purchases, and your business officer have a cost code for “emergencies” and COVID-19-related expenses. Ask students to review these video protocols before coming to lab.

Send students links to protocols on the Journal of Visual Experimentation (JoVE). Your lab’s protocols may be a bit different, but this can be a good starting point.

For analysis software (ex. flow cytometry, microscopes), Zoom and QuickTime can be used to teach students how to process the data or make images.

Use cell phones, tablets, or laptops for lab members to supervise rotation students’ techniques or walk them through a protocol. Hands-free phone holders, some with gooseneck attachments, can help. This option may not work for every lab, though, depending on the types of samples and reagents you work with.

Keep in mind that a student’s technical abilities during a rotation may not be strong indicator of their chances for success in your lab. Lab skills are more teachable than disposition.

Increase signage in the lab for new students. Put essential reagents in a specific place or container in case a bench mentor is not around.

Rotation students are counted for the current 50% capacity level for your lab/floor, but so do faculty and administrators who largely work from home. One possible option is to reduce in-lab rotations to short blocks, maybe once or twice per week. It can be helpful if you have a space where students can attend virtual classes without having to go home.

Computational biology and bioinformatics students may have more opportunities to conduct research away from campus, but faculty should give them options for projects and working space that fit their interests and preferences. If they decide to work mostly from home, make sure they have lots of opportunities to interact with people in the lab, either in-person or virtually.

Rotation students may not feel comfortable to voice concerns about the precautions being taken. Check in with them regularly to ask about their comfort level. PIs can set the tone with the whole lab by outlining their expectations (ex. requiring face shields and masks when working with rotation students).

It’s up to faculty, Centers, and Departments to set expectations for hosting more than one rotation student at a time. It is feasible for labs to have the space and lab members available to support multiple rotation students, but some labs may reduce the number of students they host at a time this year.

When choosing current lab members to work with rotation students on a daily basis, find someone who has an interest in mentoring as part of their professional development. Check in with the bench mentor and the student regularly (together or separately). Ask the bench mentor what’s going well, what may need improvement, and what steps they’re taking to help the rotation student be successful. And be sure to invite conversations with bench mentors about comfort in working with rotation students at the bench, even with distancing and PPE.

Given that schedules are more scattered than usual, it can be helpful to connect rotation students with multiple bench mentors to contribute different expertise to a project and to be more available when the student has questions.

We’re favoring the term “physical distancing” over “social distancing” since many of us need opportunities to socialize. Since the current working conditions can be so isolating, set up lots of opportunities for rotation students to meet other lab members, both one-on-one and in groups. PIs can give students prompts for approaching labmates to talk about their projects or other interests. Hosting a reunion with current and past lab members can also create a larger sense of community.

First-year students have indicated that they find it difficult to meet lab members, but this is an important part of determining “fit” of a student with the lab.
  • Instead of one bench mentor, assign a group of lab members to be that student’s regular support system
  • Intentionally connect first-years with others in the lab. It’s more intimidating now to reach out to people you don’t know, so faculty can fill some of that gap by directly connecting people to meet.
  • Don’t have the rotation student be the only one working from home all the time
A few ideas were mentioned in our conversation that could be helpful for your lab. A common theme here and in publications like the Harvard Business Review is that fostering connections through informal channels (text, Slack, etc.) can fill some of the social gap we’re missing. Here are some strategies UNC labs are using:
  • Microsoft Teams (part of Office 365) has a Shifts app for coordinating and communicating about shared space or equipment. Using the online version of this software as opposed to the desktop version seems to work better.
  • Set up clear curtains (e.g., shower curtains or Plexiglas barriers) so that lab members can have more in-person interactions while minimizing contact risk
  • Slack: Foster connections without using Zoom. Encourage lab members to direct message each other for work-related and non-work-related. Slack can also be used to sign in and out when working on-campus, especially helpful for coordinating with undergraduate researchers.
  • In-person socials outside: Offer these regularly with physical distancing and masks, but also acknowledge that not everyone will be able to participate.
  • Informal Zoom coffee chats: Daily or weekly, these are great for catching up about life outside the lab.
  • Coffee/lunch chat randomizer: On a regular basis, randomly pair members of the lab to have quick virtual meetings to catch up. Not surprisingly, there are apps for this!
  • Movie night: Host a movie night in a large, in-person auditorium on campus
  • Virtual games like Skribbl and, just be sure that games are approachable to students for whom English is a second language.
  • Celebrate birthdays, papers, and grants on Zoom
  • Host journal clubs or discussions about self-care

For quicker daily communication, Slack and Microsoft Teams allow the lab to created themed channels for group discussions or one-on-one conversations. Be sure to offer channels for fun and non-science discussions.

In real life, labs can host lunches outdoors at nearby parks with appropriate distancing and masks as is viable.

A lab can be an intimidating place for a student who is new to grad school, new to UNC, and new to your lab. They may feel a pressure to seem like they know everything even when they’re just starting, so they may not be comfortable to ask “basic” questions. And not every student will be ready to jump into a group discussion from their first day.

Regularly invite quiet students to share their thoughts on projects, papers, discussions, etc. after a meeting is over and in a one-on-one setting. This can show them that their input is valued and give them confidence to chime in during meetings. Before a meeting, provide the student with some time and material to prepare for a discussion, and invite them to contribute a question or observation.

Talking with students about unmet expectations should happen early and often. There’s really no benefit to waiting as the student only has so much time in your lab. These conversations can seem intimidating at first, but you should give a student opportunities to improve for a fair chance to join your lab and for their own development as a scientist.

During your regular meetings, check in with the student. You can start with your observations of the situation, or you could frame it as a fictionalized past student (“I had a student that used to not ask questions when they weren’t sure of a protocol, and it let them to make a lot of mistakes and waste time and resources. I would have preferred that they ask our lab manager for a quick demonstration.”)

Students want feedback! BBSP asks that students summarize feedback meetings with their mentors, and a source of frustration is when their PI has no recommendations for how they can improve. They expect that everyone has room for improvement, and they’re looking for a mentor who can guide their growth.

Engage with students in a collaborative conversation about areas they can improve. Ask their thoughts on your feedback, and then brainstorm with them about steps they can take. Offer ways you can support them in their growth.

National events have raised awareness of the racism present in everyday life as well as science and academia. Students may not want to bring up the topic with you, or they may have tried in the past with other mentors and been shot down. Faculty and others in positions of relative power have to overtly talk about their interest in being an ally and invite open dialogue.

Some labs have started second lab meetings on anti-racism and social justice topics. Everyone can watch a TED talk on race together or read a paper on race in academia (examples on this page). Your lab can also host a Slack channel on topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to share ideas and media.

While you may not always feel equipped to have these conversations, what matters most is being earnest and listening to understand others’ experiences. (“I come from a background of white privilege, and I make mistakes, but I want to listen and help.”) Discussing the lab’s core values in a meeting can also be valuable for all trainees to see that they are welcome.

You want to foster a good environment for your trainees to do quality research, but in choosing graduate students to join your lab, how do you know if you’re not accidentally excluding certain types of people? As Jeff Sekelsky has said, “Every student is different, and none of them are you.”

Check in with your assumptions about how a student should demonstrate their interest in your research and their skill level. Is a student quiet/shy or are they uninterested? Is a student highly productive, or are they just good at communicating their achievements?

If you notice ways in which a student may not fit your mentorship style or lab, ask the student about their perceptions. You may be surprised that the student is a better fit than you thought based on your initial perceptions.

BBSP built some conversations into the rotation process for a couple of reasons. We wanted students to actively reflect on how the rotation was going and what they were learning about the type of lab/mentor they’re looking for. We also wanted to make sure students had an open dialogue with their rotation mentor(s) to give and receive feedback. Students have told us that they really appreciated this process and it gave them a lot of clarity. While the students are evaluating if that rotation is a good fit for them, BBSP is not currently evaluating faculty.
Since classes end earlier this year, the winter rotation potentially has more time that students can dedicate toward research activities. Since students may want to travel for the Thanksgiving or end-of-the-year holidays, and it’s especially important for them to connect with their support networks this year, we’re asking that they take into account the potential need to self-quarantine after returning to Chapel Hill. We’re encouraging faculty to communicate with students when agreeing to a rotation about your mutual plans and expectations during that time. Of note, as part of First Year Group this year, students will complete a literature review on their winter rotation project, so you can leverage that assignment as part of your conversations with students.