Representation, retention and hope – how a mentorship scheme is helping to fix research’s broken pipeline

At the recent Black in Cancer conference, we heard inspiring tales of community support and encouragement for Black researchers. This is something enshrined in the mentorship programme set-up by Black in Cancer to match students with a mentor scientist. We hear from mentor-mentee paring Melville and Jamie about the importance of representation, retention and hope…   

“It has given me, a girl from Zimbabwe, a girl from Luton, the chance to not only see representation for scientists in cancer research, but also hope that I can become one too.”

Melville Nyatondo, Black in Cancer (BiC) mentorship programme mentee

I am Melville, a final-year Personalised Medicine student at Ulster University.

BiC recently had their inaugural conference; a common theme was the concept of addressing and strengthening the broken pipeline and empowering the next generation of Black students. This is exactly what being part of the mentorship programme was like. I joined having some idea of my career aspirations and different interests but not knowing how to get there. One of those interests is cancer immunotherapy, so being paired up with a mentor, Jamie, who is working in that field has been invaluable.

“I received insight into what life as a researcher involves and how to balance work and life. In addition, I have gained clarity in pursuing a PhD, which I was unsure about when the year started.”

Having a mentor who has been through an academic journey share their experiences, and tips and tricks they have picked up along the way, will help me navigate my own. I have been able to get support in setting short and long-term goals, focusing on academic CVs, personal statements, reflective writing, and PhD application processes. I have received insight into what life as a researcher involves and how to balance work and life. In addition, I have gained clarity in pursuing a PhD, which I was unsure about when the year started. Now, as application season begins, I am aware of the different projects of interest and feel more confident in pursuing that route.

I’ve been able to look at the process in a more holistic approach, which I certainly would not have done before. Jamie often highlighted the importance of doing a PhD in an environment you enjoy and considering factors other than the project. With guidance from the BiC mentorship team, I have also been connected to students from different institutes that I am considering applying to. Additionally, I gained work experience during a summer internship at CRUK Cambridge Institute. The opportunity has allowed me to further build networks and learn lots of new techniques.

The mentorship program was great for getting tailored advice beyond what universities provide. Schemes like this bridge the gap in helping Black students level with their counterparts. It has given me, a girl from Zimbabwe, a girl from Luton, the chance to not only see representation for scientists in cancer research, but also hope that I can become one too.

The opportunity to attend conferences at undergraduate level provides exposure and access to see advances in cancer research and integrates that with patient advocacy. Mentorship schemes like this are so important; they remove barriers that hinder Black undergraduate students from progressing into postgraduate studies, academia, industry, or entrepreneurship.

What started as an intimidating mountain with obstacles and hurdles now seems like a hill I am equipped to climb.

Melville is currently undertaking a BSc in personalised medicine at Ulster University

“For me, I also saw it very much as a two-way street, that whilst I could bring my knowledge and experience to help my mentee, it was also an opportunity for me to learn from them.”

Dr Jamie Honeychurch, mentor

I have just finished my first year as a mentor for the BiC Mentorship Programme and it has been a hugely rewarding and positive experience.

As an academic living and working in Manchester it is all too clear that the cultural diversity seen in our city is not translated to the academic environment. I could probably count the number of Black students and academics I know on one hand, which highlights the lack of diversity in higher education and cancer research in general. For me, the opportunity to be involved in the mentoring programme and try in some small way to begin to address this issue, was one that I was extremely keen to be involved in.

Initially, I was a little apprehensive about how the mentoring would work. The mentorship programme is open to Black students in both the UK and US studying a wide range of STEM subjects and I was a little concerned about how relevant my own experience would be. However, the programme did a fantastic job in matching me with a mentee who was interested in my own field of expertise.

My mentee, Mel, was enthusiastic, passionate, engaging and clearly motivated to pursue a career in cancer research. Over the course of our discussions, I felt that I was able to provide a lot of advice, help and support across a whole range of different issues – from what it is like to do a PhD, to writing a CV, to building networks. We adopted a fairly relaxed and informal style, and spent a lot of time initially just talking, finding out about our different backgrounds and experiences and defining what we wanted from the mentoring programme. It was really organic and dynamic, evolving as we got to know each other. In terms of commitment, I left it to Mel to decide how often we met, which was typically every two or three weeks.

For me, I also saw it very much as a two-way street, that whilst I could bring my knowledge and experience to help my mentee, it was also an opportunity for me to learn from them. In fact, this was one of the main drivers for my wanting to take part in the programme, to increase my own awareness of some of the challenges and barriers that contribute to the lack of retention of Black students and scientists within cancer research. By increasing my own knowledge around some of these issues, hopefully it makes me better armed to affect change in future.

Overall, this has been an amazing experience and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in mentoring to apply. It is a tremendous opportunity to get involved in the Black in Cancer programme and help empower future generations of Black scientists. I have already signed up to the next mentoring cycle and will keep in contact with Mel beyond the programme, to continue to provide help and support wherever possible. I am also really looking forward to seeing where Mel’s research journey goes next!

Jamie is a Senior Lecturer in Cancer Immunology, within the Division of Cancer Sciences, at the University of Manchester

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