February 10

The importance of mentorship in theory and practice – By Ellen Johannesen


My PhD journey began in November 2019. As I joined the World Maritime University to study gender in marine science as part of the Empowering Women for the Ocean Decade Programme, I was blissfully unaware of the looming pandemic threat. I never imagined that most of my learning would be done from behind a computer screen. As an employee at ICES Secretariat in Copenhagen, I envisaged/anticipated leveraging my access to the many experts that travel to meetings at my workplace, to conduct face-to-face interviews. While the experience has been more solitary than expected, one unforeseen benefit is the opportunity to connect with many more people than if the world had not collectively shifted to greater acceptance and comfort with online communication tools.

I’ve finally reached the data collection phase where I’m conducting interviews with experts from ICES community. So far, my interviews have focused on women but I also plan to talk with men to help me understand the role of gender in the practice of international marine science through the experiences of people working in the field. Although I’m at the stage of my PhD study where endurance and resilience are critical factors, I’m grateful to be surrounded by a community of scientists who are generously participating in my study. Listening to their experiences is fascinating and helps me further understand and apply the theory I’ve read in the literature. Mentorship is an important strategy that has long been recognized as a tool for the empowerment of women – a theme that has also emerged in the interviews I’ve conducted so far.

I’ve been reflecting on mentorship a lot in the past few weeks, how it has shaped my own career path and development. I have been lucky to have had many mentors in my professional and academic career, across the gender spectrum. What I’ve learned from my mentors is not something you can teach in a classroom, or gain from conducting research. Having people in senior positions who show you how – how to help others, how to lead with empathy, how to encourage with directness, how to navigate informal work culture – and who have set the bar high and expect you to deliver at your best, that has been critical for my development and growth.

My field work requires that I interview scientists. I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to talk with women who have willingly – and generously – shared their perspectives and experiences. While I still have quite a few more people to talk with, I am struck by their passion for science and their commitment to the work. In my view, there is an under-appreciation of the contributions they have made to the scientific community. It isn’t easy to be the first, to struggle to be heard, to find ways to balance professional and family responsibilities in a system not designed for people with caring responsibilities. We need to be able to bring our whole selves to work. Representation at the highest levels of marine science needs to change to ensure leadership reflects the diverse community. And even more importantly, an inclusive culture needs to be fostered – one that embraces diverse perspectives and recognizes the strength and credibility that diversity brings to our science.

Over time, mentors come and go: projects end, terms end, fellowships complete. Sometimes, mentors can be lost quite suddenly. I’ve had to learn that losing mentors is also part of growing. A time to reflect on what they have taught you and what you will take forward.

One of my mentors recently passed away, rather suddenly. In our last conversation, she helped me pilot my interview questions and then reflected back on her own career, sharing with me her achievements, highlights, and disappointments. Reflecting now, this was an especially poignant final conversation that has left me with so many insights about how to approach my research. Most importantly, she set an example of how to encourage early career researchers; and demonstrated that bravely revealing things you discover about yourself to your colleagues can help move the conversation and make change towards a more inclusive culture.

Don’t forget to appreciate your mentors, to thank them – especially when they challenge you. Their lessons help us grow, and empower us. Thank you, Sarah Kraak, your professional guidance made an impression on me. Rest in Peace

You may also like