New Connections Speed-Mentoring Event Supports Young Scholars

    • September 9, 2009

Senior health researcher Catie Willging, Ph.D., found herself sitting alone at a table for two at the start of the inaugural speed-mentoring event, conducted by New Connections, a national program designed to enhance diversity in health and health care.

Then in walked junior health scholar Janice Johnson Dias, Ph.D., and lightning struck: it was mutual intellectual interest at first sight.

The pair struck up a conversation about Johnson Dias’ work on the links between poverty and childhood obesity and, by the end of their 15-minute encounter, had formed a bond that has helped launch Johnson Dias into new professional opportunities.

Over the past year, Willging, a program director at the New Mexico office of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, has helped Johnson Dias, an assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York/John Jay College of Criminal Justice, craft and refine a grant proposal to explore the relationship between low-income black mothers’ perceptions of safety levels in their neighborhoods and their daughters’ levels of physical activity.

Willging’s help paid off: Johnson Dias recently received an Active Living Research-New Connections grant to explore the topic and is now in the process of collecting data and writing proposals for related grants. “It could not and would not have happened without Catie,” Johnson Dias says.

A Jamaican-born black American who was the first in her family to attend college, Johnson Dias is one of dozens of junior scholars from historically underrepresented communities who have benefited from the speed-mentoring event.

“We came to the realization that what was really missing for junior investigators was access to senior researchers who have insights and advice and experience that they could share,” says Debra Perez, Ph.D., M.P.A., M.A., national program director of New Connections, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “This event really provides a space and a place for junior investigators to have one-on-one conversations with as many senior investigators as possible.”

‘Speed-Mentoring’ Modeled After ‘Speed-Dating’

Modeled after the popular “speed-dating” ritual, the speed-mentoring event provides grantees a chance to form the kind of professional relationships that can help propel junior scholars into senior professional positions.

During the event, low lights, white table cloths and long-stemmed roses set the mood. The light atmosphere provides a unique opportunity for young scholars to get to know leaders in their field in a non-threatening environment. “It really opens up avenues for future conversations down the road,” Willging says. “It allows people to ask those questions they might not otherwise ask.”

Despite all of the romantic trappings, the process is strictly professional. About two dozen volunteer mentors—all leaders in their fields—spend 15 minutes each with up to six junior scholars discussing their professional goals and interests. The mentors have been paired in advance with like-minded junior scholars and arrive at the event prepared to have well-informed and thoughtful conversations with their assigned mentees.

The matches, in other words, are more like set-ups than blind dates.

Now in its second year, the speed-mentoring component has become a signature event of the New Connections Symposium, an annual meeting that has been held in Washington, D.C., and at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., where grantees gather to network and share information about methodological research.

It was dreamed up by Perez, who wanted to provide more mentoring opportunities to young scholars from diverse backgrounds to help them navigate the maze of scientific research.

Young scholars from diverse backgrounds, Perez notes, often suffer from a sense of professional and academic isolation at the predominantly white institutions where many work. Studies show that limited mentoring opportunities and a lack of institutional support have prevented minority scholars from keeping pace with their peers in completing doctoral programs or breaking into well-resourced research careers.

The speed-mentoring event is designed to help young scholars from historically underrepresented groups—such as racial or ethnic minorities, people from low-income communities and first-generation college graduates—overcome these challenges.

Ultimately, the hope is that the New Connections mentoring activities will help scholars from these groups advance more quickly in their fields, and in so doing diversify health and health care scholarship. That, Perez and others believe, will help improve the nation’s health and create a high-performing health care system for all.

The speed-mentoring event is just one of the many opportunities made available by the New Connections program. In addition to honing research skills at the annual symposium, grantees also learn professional development skills and the ins and outs of the academic publishing industry during coaching clinics.

Created in 2005, New Connections provides grants of up to $75,000 to junior investigators and senior consultants to conduct research and evaluation intended to support RWJF program teams. As head of the program, Perez has already established a network of more than 500 actively engaged researchers from historically underrepresented groups; she hopes to expand that list to 1,000 by the spring of 2012.