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Ask Dr. H: "What Role Does Mentoring Play in Preparing New Scientists?"

In this week’s "Ask the President's Science Advisor," Dr. Holdren tackles an e-mail question about mentoring from a PhD candidate.

[Ed. Note: In this week’s "Ask the President's Science Advisor," Dr. Holdren tackles an e-mail question about mentoring from a PhD candidate. To have your question considered for this feature, you can e-mail your short query to or tweet @whitehouseostp using the hashtag #AskDrH. The selected question will be posted in the blog with Dr. Holdren's answer. Dr. Holdren will be on travel next week, and this feature will return the following week.]

Dr. Holdren,

Mentoring is widely recognized as a necessity in developing Ph.D. scientists. Do you think mentoring is important in this context? What role do you believe that mentoring will play in preparing scientists that are able to help America tackle and answer the scientific challenges of our time?

Monica, Baton Rouge
Ph.D. Candidate

I wrote last week about some of the people who helped guide me and inspire me through my years of education and professional development. But you are right to raise the similarly great potential benefits of “formal” mentors who, studies have shown, can be very important in the preparation and training of our Nation’s scientists and engineers.

In addition to their valuable contributions in terms of preparing and assisting students academically, mentors are often the principal intermediaries through whom future scientists and engineers learn about the culture of science, including the importance of honesty, integrity, and objectivity in scientific research. Strong mentoring relationships are also key for recruiting and retaining diverse students in science and engineering—important to ensuring a diversity of ideas and approaches in these fields. Research indicates that formal faculty mentoring programs are more effective than informal programs for retaining female and minority faculty. Surveys have also found that female and minority assistant professors—who can be great role models for attracting and retaining underrepresented groups in the sciences—report spending more time mentoring students compared to other faculty. That’s one reason why I believe it is important that universities recognize mentoring as one of the many time-consuming demands on faculty time that should be taken into account when tenure and promotion decisions are made.

Outstanding mentoring by individuals and organizations is recognized by the administration through the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) program, which OSTP helps to administer.

Of course mentoring is also important in K-12 classrooms as well. Our science and mathematics teachers are often the first science role models that their students meet. This is why the President’s blueprint for revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes a great deal of emphasis on ensuring that great teachers and leaders are available to all students. The White House recognizes outstanding teaching and mentoring by K-12 science and mathematics educators through the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) program. Since 1983 over 4,000 outstanding K-12 science and mathematics educators have been recognized through the PAEMST program.

John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy