Back in 2009, Deb Agarwal, then a research scientist in Computing Sciences, was mulling over some very interesting information she had collected. Whenever she asked senior-level women in computer science about what made the biggest difference in their careers, the answer was always the same. Their mentors.
“I used to attend women’s mentorship workshops and came across many very successful women,” said Deb, now Department Head and Senior Scientist in the Computational Research Division. “All of them mentioned the mentorship they received as the single most important contributor to their success. I understood this to mean that mentorship is a key to success, not just for women but for everyone.”
And so Deb, along with colleagues Amy Chen, Marcia Ocon Leimer, Bernadette Cu-Todd, Daniel Peterson, Cecilia Aragon, Tina Declerck, and Jon Bashor, decided to create a mentorship program for the Computing Sciences Area at the Lab.
Deb knew that Lawrence Livermore National Lab already had a mentorship program, so the team went on a fact-finding mission. The team met with the Livermore Lab mentorship committee to learn from their practices.
The new CSA mentorship team adopted much from the Livermore Lab model. For example, the mentorship program was to be open to anyone in the Area, not just researchers and engineers. Those interested in being mentored could express interest in any topic, not just career-related topics or research. The mentor-mentee pair would meet for 90 minutes a month, for 10 months. They would identify goals and take the initiative to meet them. And the identity of mentees would be kept confidential.
But the Berkeley Lab team also chose to set aside some of the bells and whistles, such as the many social events, that the Livermore model offered.
“We thought it was important that the mentorship program was a sustainable one, that it wouldn’t be such a heavy lift that the organizers would lose their passion for the program over the years,” said Deb. “So we kept it simple.”
In fact, during the COVID-19 shelter in place restrictions, the CSA model has proven resilient. The mentorship program has continued without any interruptions. It has added a new activity, called “Meet the…” in which early career folks can meet with senior CSA members in a casual, small group (virtual) setting, which is even more important for junior researchers who no longer have the chance to meet CSA leadership in person.
“I’ve met with my mentees in previous years for a coffee, an early-morning walk, or to take in the dramatic views of the Bay from the top of building 88. Now, the only choice is Zoom,” said Rebecca Hartman-Baker, who now manages the CSA mentorship program with Ann Almgren and Susan Lucas. “But the most important aspect of the relationship, that human connection, still remains.”
An informal survey in early fall 2020 indicated that many of the mentors and mentees were happy with the program. One wrote, “I enjoy and always look forward to our mentoring sessions,” while another added, “My mentor is an amazing person … I learned a lot from him!”
Mentorship Programs in Other Areas
Many other Areas now have mentoring programs, though the areas of focus vary (such as focusing on new employees, for example). Some of the Areas are sharing ideas and in some cases, arranging for cross-area mentor/mentee teams.
In the Biosciences Area, there are two mentoring programs. The first runs on an annual basis for employees who seek mentorship for skills such as communications, networking, and leadership. Twenty percent of this year’s mentors are from outside Biosciences, which shows the Lab’s cultural commitment to mentorship and career growth. Participants run the whole gamut, including all types of operations personnel (e.g., facilities, safety, administrators, etc.) and from research associates to postdoctoral researchers to late career scientists. A postdoc who is a first time participant in the program commented, “I am truly excited for this opportunity and I look forward to this program.”
The second Biosciences mentoring program assigns an onboarding mentor to assist newly hired or transferred employees in charting a course for success during their first year of employment. These mentors can help new staff reduce uncertainty and become effective contributors by providing necessary skills and knowledge.
The Earth & Environmental Sciences Area’s (EESA) mentoring program was originally developed to provide professional development opportunities to early career, term, and postdoctoral scientific staff. However, after a successful first year, EESA expanded the mentorship program to include mid-career scientists, as well as technical and operations staff. The program now includes multiple mentors from outside of the Area and from a variety of divisions at the Lab (including Public Affairs, OCFO, and EH&S). EESA also recently started a “buddy program” through which a fellow EESA employee is paired with a new hire to assist in their onboarding, and support them in getting acclimated to EESA and Berkeley Lab. The buddy program, according to HR Division Partner for EESA Tracy Bigelow, has been particularly helpful to maintaining a positive work environment for new EESA hires during the pandemic, when remote work has kept most new employees from meeting their colleagues or team members in person.
“Over the past year, it’s become even more apparent how valuable our mentoring programs across Berkeley Lab are in helping foster the career development of employees at various stages of their professional lives,” said Tracy. “The programs are nimble enough to adapt to shifting priorities and workplace dynamics. We are thrilled to see so much interest from employees in being paired with a mentor, and are grateful for the willingness of so many employees to serve as mentors.”