Fostering an inclusive mentoring culture at Harvard Chan School

Front of the Kresge building framed by flowering branches

New efforts aim to systematize training and support and increase awareness of the impact of identities in mentoring relationships.

June 3, 2024 — A good mentor has the power to transform a career by listening, offering constructive feedback, and giving a supportive push when it’s needed. To help foster a culture of consistent and high-quality mentoring at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, several new efforts are underway around training and building a community of practice.

“Our institution is not the bricks and mortar, it’s the relationships—and the relationships are what sets the culture,” said Erin Driver-Linn, dean for education. “We already have wonderful mentors across the School, in every department and program. With this additional training and support, we hope to make clear that effective mentoring is something we should all expect—just part of what we do for one another as a community.”

For students, advising and mentoring relationships can foster confidence and illuminate the path ahead, Driver-Linn said. Graduate school is an incredibly challenging experience that people embark on with a lot of hope, and a lot of fear. She said, “Having someone who is asking students clarifying questions about their goals and helping them navigate their time here is key to students finding meaning in their experience.”

Erin Driver-Linn
Erin Driver-Linn

Good mentors possess strong communication skills and are able to be responsive and set clear expectations with their advisees, Driver-Linn said. But truly transformative mentors go a step farther, she added, noting an experience from her own life. Earlier in her career at Harvard, Driver-Linn’s manager Clayton Spencer encouraged her to develop her ideas around teaching innovation and supported her for a leadership role in a new University-wide initiative on learning and teaching. “She both challenged me and opened doors for me,” Driver-Linn said. “She helped me see possibilities that I didn’t see for myself. It changed my life.”

Fostering a mentoring ecosystem

While some people are innately gifted mentors, most benefit from training and support, said Driver-Linn. To fill that need, several new efforts have emerged at the School. For example, the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences recently developed detailed mentoring guidelines that include expectations for mentors, mentees, and other key individuals who foster an effective mentoring ecosystem such as department chairs and administrators. The Office of Faculty Affairs also emphasizes a set of mentoring guidelines for faculty across the School in their onboarding and other support activities.

Also, faculty members including Karen Emmons, professor of social and behavioral sciences, Lindsay Frazier, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, and Brittany Charlton, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology have facilitated trainings for academic appointees using the curriculum of the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER). In February, Melissa McDaniels of CIMER led a workshop for academic leaders in the Longwood Medical Area that fostered productive discussions about engaging around mentorship across institutions and research areas.

Driver-Linn said that CIMER trainings at Harvard Chan School and Harvard Medical School have been offered this year and will become increasingly available by next academic year. The number of Longwood faculty who are now trained to offer support to others has increased significantly with these efforts.

Charlton and Driver-Linn are co-authors on an upcoming commentary in the American Journal of Epidemiology calling for a more systematic and inclusive approach to mentoring in public health academia, and outlining changes that can help make this possible. Their suggestions include building up a core of trained mentors and making mentorship a more formal part of the faculty promotion process.

Recognizing identities in mentoring relationships

Brittany Charlton
Brittany Charlton

Although Charlton is still relatively early in her career, she has already mentored more than 50 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and trainees. As a student interested in researching an understudied field—sexual and gender minority health—the opportunity to work with mentors with relevant experience and backgrounds was a big part of what drew her to Harvard Chan School and has kept her here, she said.

Charlton leads a number of mentoring initiatives, including the Harvard Sexual and Gender Minority Health Mentoring Program, which she founded. Piloted in 2022, the training program adapted case studies from CIMER and other curricula to include content relevant to the unique experience of LGBTQ+ academic mentees.

Identities matter in fostering feelings of belonging and support in mentoring relationships, Charlton said, and trainees tend to seek out mentors who share their lived experiences. But this can create challenges given that the pool of mid- and late-career faculty who are women, racial and ethnic minorities, and/or LGBTQ+ isn’t big enough to meet the need. As a result, highly sought-out faculty can become overburdened. Charlton hopes that with more faculty receiving training using curricula like the one she piloted, the pool of potential mentors that trainees from minoritized identities feel comfortable working with will increase and thereby reduce the burden on mentors who share these identities.

Ultimately, Charlton said, inclusive, high-quality mentoring is crucial to the field of public health not only to ensure that the next generation of researchers and practitioners is equipped with methodological expertise to tackle challenges, but also to champion public health values like integrity, inclusion, and justice.

Read about a mentoring program for staff at Harvard Chan School.

Amy Roeder