The development of future generations of scientists cannot be left to chance
Dr Assan Jaye is the Head of Research Training and Career Development at the Medical Research Council The Gambia Unit (MRCG) of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), a Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and a mentor on the AAS Mentorship Scheme. The Mentorship Scheme is designed to enable African early career researchers to find mentors who are experts in different fields to guide them to articulate their career and life goals, pursue them, and reflect upon their growth and impact. In this blog, Dr Jaye reflects on the benefits of such a programme.
In 2019, when I was invited to become a mentor on the AAS Mentorship Scheme, I was pleased to get associated with the program. Having gained 25 years’ experience in viral immunology, and recognition through awards such as the Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) International Leadership Award (2007); MRCG Director’s Award for Inspirational Research Leader (2013); and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Science and Technology Award for outstanding contribution in the field of viral immunology and research training (2017), I feel it’s my turn to give back and develop the younger generation.
Why mentorship is important
Africa’s scientific development is dependent on sustaining a pipeline of researchers to generate and contribute knowledge for its development and to better the lives of its people. This pipeline encompasses early career, mid-career and senior scientists. For early career scientists to progress they need training and mentorship. Mentors provide purposeful guidance to develop promising young scientists into research leaders. A good mentor will guide the individual to grow their skills, confidence and to generate and develop ideas into R&D products. The mentors on the AAS Mentorship Scheme, for example, are experts from different fields, which allows for an early career researcher to gain varying skills that include communication, grant writing and public speaking.
The culture of mentorship for scientific growth in African institutions is not given prominence. Mentorship can be enhanced in Africa through enacting policies within universities and research institutions that institutionalise mentorship to identify and build competent leaders so this is not left to chance. This talent development process will then replace any opportunistic and nepotism that is currently noted in some institutions where Principal Investigators and senior scientists do not competitively select talent but favour the individual they know.
Africa needs to accelerate competitive and quality scientific research and to build a critical mass of African talents. To enable this, we must guide and motivate the very best of our young scientists to produce impactful results.
It is these challenges that inspired and propelled me to become a mentor. I recognise the mentorship gap and want to contribute in closing it. In my lifetime, I have lent my skills to 22 masters, PhD and postdoctoral researchers combined, who I have trained in grant writing and viral immunology.
This has been mostly face-to- face and on-sight mentoring. The AAS Mentorship scheme is innovatively providing distance-mentorship, which I am excited about as it offers me the opportunity to extend my reach to more younger scientists throughout the continent.
One of my mentees from the AAS Mentorship Scheme (Dr Thobakgale-Tshabalala of University of the Witwatersrand) has successfully applied for an EDCTP-funded senior fellowship programme and has been accepted into phase 1 of the South Africa Future Professor Programme through my support. The AAS also offers us an opportunity to also meet face-to-face once a year at the ‘Connecting Minds and Masterclass’ meeting, which enables us to share ideas and best practices for mentoring.
Tips for mentors and mentees
The mentorship experience has been rewarding and offers me an opportunity to share lessons. For example, in a distance-mentorship scheme where the mentor would not have had a working relationship with a mentee, it is important to discuss and define expectations and a structured and task-oriented process to build the confidence of the mentee and to map a growth plan with set targets and timelines. I encourage postdoctoral fellows to prioritise winning grants and writing manuscript in their growth plans.
Guidance should not be only limited to growing the academic talents of the early career scientists. It should also allow the mentee to develop soft skills that are important for his/her professional self-actualisation: strategic thinking, communication and confidence, giving and receiving feedbacks, stakeholder engagement, time management and work-life balance.
Most importantly, mentorship should evaluate these growth plans to ensure goals are being met.
I am glad to be part of this AAS process and look forward to sharing my expertise with more early career scientists.
Here are resources to help would be mentors and mentees.
How to be a good mentor
How to be a good mentee