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Guest Post 4! Don’t Just Assume You Should Know: How To Be An Excellent Mentor

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Of course, latin-american foreigners are minorities in Pittsburgh. And that is totally fine. Yes, it can be challenging but also rewarding and awesome. I am originally from Colombia, where I did my undergrad. Back then, in my early 20’s I decided to go abroad. So, in 2008 I moved to Pittsburgh and I have found that obvious things are not obvious anymore when you need to adapt to a different language, a different country, a different city, a different neighborhood and a different career with different people. ‘Of course’ starts becoming an obsolete term in your own vocabulary.

I remember back in Colombia being for six years totally passionate about math, electronics, controls and image processing. My undergrad was on electronics engineering and I took a concentration in math. I remember in my last two years of college getting into nanoelectronics. I remember specially one night: my best friend, our advisor and I met at 8pm, cooked some dinner and designed an exhibition for an upcoming event on nanoelectronics. We were there, at 2 in the morning making drawings and models of nanorobots with playdough. I was supposed to be studying for my final exam of probability, which was scheduled for next day at 7am. That didn’t happen obviously, and I barely passed. What beats that power to the -9? Nothing, at least for that day.

Anyways, I moved from that Playdough world to the Steel world (Pittsburgh is known for the now gone Steel industry), to pursue a Masters of International Development. I had no expectations when I first arrived to Pittsburgh, just a bunch of advices in my head on not to go. Not because of the steel, but because of my shift in academic disciplines. People back home telling me: “why don’t you go to Delaware or RPI where you can get a masters and eventually a PhD in Electronics? Or going to Turin (Italy) to work on Controls? Why do you want the change of context? And what are you going to do afterwards? You might fail, and that will have high emotional, economical and professional costs. Be smart: do something that falls under the engineering context. Going out of context can be very challenging and time-demanding.” I had no answer because I had nowhere to reach, I just had a desire in my heart. A desire for change.

My first encounter with the American reality was in the airport. I was supposed to call from the airport a girl I met through the mailing list of new incoming students. Her name was Paola, from the Dominican Republic. Well, I had some quarters (that were kind of a souvenir of a trip that my mom did to the U.S. some years ago) and tried to call her from a public phone when I got my luggage, but the call did not go through. I had no option but to ask a girl that looked nice if I could use her phone so I could meet with Paola. The girl really did not understand, and after my question stopped looking nice to me. I am sure she was thinking: ‘is she really asking me to use my phone?’ I replied, with a shy english: ‘yes, exactly that. Please. I need to use your phone’. For her face and shocked reaction, I realized my request was absolutely out of any social rule but I didn’t care. I was totally out of context but my instinct made me choose not to care. I made the phone call and I got the information I needed to get to Paola.

My second and subsequent encounters didn’t take long. In Colombia it is socially acceptable (actually, it is the rule) to be 5 to 10 minutes late to any meeting/class/event. There is not a class that starts at the time it is scheduled. It just doesn’t happen. The first day of class at Pit I arrived 9.05 am, very proud to myself to be on time. Well, I entered the room and I was confused, thinking that there was a previous class that did not finished on time because the room was full and everyone had their laptops on. Two seconds after, by the look of the professor I understood I was out of context again: 9.05 is not on time in the U.S. Also, later in that class, the professor started talking about ‘The Syllabus’ -I had no idea what he was referring to, I just knew it was ‘The’, ‘The key’, ‘The Master’. ‘The Syllabus’. He kept pointing to ‘The Syllabus’ and by the time I understood it was kind of an agenda of the topics of the course, he was already talking about week number 6 (or maybe we were already in week 6!). I remembered thinking: it would be helpful if he explains that in American Colleges and Universities you usually have a syllabus, and that all the information about the course is already there. Why does he assume we all know this? I had almost no time to check my courses while I was in Colombia and about to leave to Pittsburgh: I was busy organizing visas, tickets, accommodation, funding and finishing my undergrad and other things. And this morning I was busy figuring out how to get to school. Should I know there was something called ‘The Syllabus’? Maybe not. Maybe a bit of context in his explanation would have made me better organize my expectations and time devoted to the course. I understood I was out of context for a while (for some weeks, until me and Mr. Syllabus had a talk), and that the professor did not realize it. Moreover, he assumed obvious what was simple to him: a syllabus. Maybe I should have asked, maybe I was too shy. That taught me that simple is not obvious, that what is obvious to me is certainly not necessarily obvious to others, and that simple things can make such a big difference.

And the anecdotes go on and on.

In 2010 I decided to pursue a PhD and bring back to my professional life part of my engineering background. I started a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), under the CMU-Portugal Program. As part of the requisites of my PhD, I needed to live in Portugal for two years. And so, in August of that year I was in Lisbon Airport looking for nice girls that I could ask to borrow their phones so I could call my Paola. I’m just kidding, that didn’t happen again. Other cultural and funny things happened, and many times I felt out of context. Nevertheless, somehow, I was getting used to be an outsider, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the space “to make mistakes” or to be a little non-“socially acceptable” with the excuse of being a foreigner and not knowing. I felt the Portuguese were able to teach a lot about their own context, and in many circumstances understood that others would not necessarily know about what is obvious in their reality. Many other times of course, I had to explain that I was not following, and that for me it was not obvious what seemed so normal.

Then in 2011 I moved back to Pittsburgh again, as part of my PhD. Again in the U.S., already familiar with the city. Right?…. Maybe. Maybe, because this time it became clearer to me how it is harder somehow to get an explanation of some things here. Of simple and obvious things. Sometimes, I admit, I wanted to say very politely: “well, this is not the only country in the world, and the rest of the world is not just the rest of the world. People can (and in fact do) think different than you do, believe in different things than you do and pursue different goals than you do. Your preferences are yours, and do not necessarily match others’. Culture is a matter of history and geography, and both have a lot of randomness embedded. What is obvious to you is not to me, so please do not assume that”.

Then, I met my Mentor. He is to me a real mentor, because he does not assume things to be obvious. He has a sense of the world that is hard to find, and his intelligence and wisdom are quite noticeable. I remember once in a class, we needed to estimate the economic losses from a meteorite hitting Buenos Aires. The groups presented estimates of impact that assumed the price of land in Buenos Aires was very, very low. I remember how, after all groups presented their estimates he was emphatic and said: “come on people. Haven’t you seen a picture of Buenos Aires? It is a city, a beautiful and big city, where land is very expensive”. And he passed on his laptop, where he had googled images of the city. He gave context and explained a bit of the economy of the city, and we were all ashamed for the one order of magnitude error in our estimates. He always gives context, which allows you to ask the obvious, which allows you not to know. For instance, when he talks about a fellowship, an institution or just an idea, he mentions some general details and puts you in context. Thanks to him I know that Scientific American is different from Science. Thanks to him I know what it means to do a ‘double major’. Thanks to him I know that research and innovation in the U.S. had a big boost during the World Wars, how the National Academy of Science was born, and that ‘Federal’ and ‘State’ can have such different implications for science funding. It is likely that I would have found out about these things afterwards, but probably I would have missed part of what he intended to communicate at that moment in the first place. But most importantly, thanks to him I know that I am not supposed to know many details that are obvious in American Academia environment, and that I am allowed to ask.


(Figure 1. Buenos Aires at night. Source)

I believe that interdisciplinarity is key to get new perspectives about old problems, and to tackle new problems, those that are not anymore in the domain of a sole discipline. I believe that creativity boosts from interdisciplinarity, and that interdisciplinarity itself is enhanced by open, honest and simple communication between disciplines. Asking about the obvious should be the rule. Because what is obvious is what gives context, and with no context there is only swallow dialogue. But more importantly, I believe that our more flexible and globalized world can take many shapes if we are allowed not to know the obvious, if we are allowed to erase that word from the dictionary. We can cross boundaries, redefine them or just erase them. We can connect with people by asking for an explanation. We can recognize our limitations (that which we don’t know) and in that way know our assets (that which we have).

I believe a real mentor does not only give context in his/her communications, s/he also allows others to be out of context, to ask for explanation. Maybe they are crossing a frontier and bringing a new perspective on how things are done differently, or maybe they are just wondering how to fit in or understand the space you already are in.

I believe that having that freedom to cross cultural and academic boundaries with no shame of being out of context is very powerful. Because we will be playing with playdough at 2 in the morning, shaping ideas just to have fun.

Ivonne Peña is a Doctoral Candidate at the Engineering and Public Policy Department at Carnegie Mellon University and the Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal. As a member of the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making Center (CEDM), she works on wind power diffusion and integration in the E.U. She holds a Master of International Development from the University of Pittsburgh and a Bachelor in Electronics Engineering from Javeriana University, Bogotá, Colombia. She is passionate about health, writing and infrographics. Someday she would like to communicate issues related with climate change, nutrition and health, positive psychology and electronics to the Spanish-speaking audience. You can follow her on twitter at @ivonn3_pena or read her blogs here: ivonnepena.tumblr.com and ivonnepena.worldpress.com.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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