MSU ASCEND: A Positive Mentoring Relationship is Vital for Students

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By Christine Hohmann, PhD

A positive mentoring relationship can play a central role in supporting undergraduate students’ research endeavors, while also teaching mentors valuable lessons about collaboration and introducing new ways to look at their own research. Mentorship is an integral part of the Morgan State University (MSU) ASCEND research training program. Although the program’s format has evolved over the years, the mentoring goals remain the same: providing students and mentors with beneficial and positive experiences, and fostering the growth of undergraduate researchers.

MSU Scott Thompson Lab Outing
A summer outing with the Scott Thompson lab group,
including ​​Andreas Wulff (back row, right) and Emmanuela  
Kodjo (middle of the front row).


During their two years in the MSU ASCEND research training program, the ASCEND Scholars participate in a series of courses that guide them through the steps of developing and implementing a research proposal. This course structure has, in part, replaced the ASCEND BUILD I Summer Research Institute (SRI) experience, while maintaining some of the major elements that made the SRI attractive to students. One important element of the SRI was that, in addition to research training, it also exposed students to a host of possible mentors from MSU as well as from research partner institutions, like the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

Converting the SRI into a university-approved course structure was necessary to institutionalize the ASCEND entrepreneurial training model and ensure sustainability. However, the changed training structure made it more difficult to introduce students to mentors at partner institutions. To address this, in 2020, UMSOM’s Bret Hassel, PhD, collaborated with the ASCEND team to recruit individuals from his campus to be embedded into MSU’s foundational SCIE 200 class. 

In this class, students start developing their research ideas and questions. The five mentors from UMSOM were graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and a faculty member. They introduced MSU  students to their respective research interests in short presentations; students then chose a mentor based on shared interests, and the mentor worked with the student(s) during the semester to help shape a research proposal based on the student’s interest. Ideally, some of the student-mentor dyads (or triads, as some mentors worked with multiple students) would form strong partnerships and students would continue to work with their mentors beyond the course and conduct their ASCEND research projects. 

Based on the success of the 2020 fall pilot, the mentorship has been extended to include graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from Johns Hopkins University for fall 2021 and future class offerings are planned. 

Despite COVID-19-induced problems and restrictions, MSU ASCEND Scholar–UMSOM mentor dyads continued their research over the past year. One of the mentor dyads was Chyna Rogers, a senior psychology major at MSU, and her mentor, Melanie Bennett, PhD, an associate professor, highly published researcher, and division director for the UMSOM Division of Psychiatric Research Services.  

“Dr. Bennett has helped me realize my passion for research on substance use, specifically pertaining to the Black community,” Rogers said. 

She presented her research project, “Functioning and Quality of Life During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Differences Between Heavy and Non-heavy Drinkers,” at the Annual Biomedical Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). Rogers presented a poster and gave a brief oral presentation, for which she won an award.

“I’ve enjoyed everything about working with my mentor. Not only has she helped me develop my skills as a researcher, but she has also helped me develop as a person overall. She has pushed me to take on tasks that I have found scary or shied away from doing—for example, presenting at ABRCMS would not have been possible without her help,”Rogers said.

Bennett’s research focus covers a range of topics, including “serious mental illness, substance use disorders, community functioning, [and] negative symptoms.” For Bennett, mentoring undergraduates is rewarding, and she views mentorship to be an important aspect in getting students on the research pathway. 

MSU Student Chyna Rogers
Chyna Rogers, a senior psychology major at MSU   

“Working with undergraduate students, getting them involved in the research process, and helping them design and carry out research, is essential for getting young people involved in research-related careers. I also enjoy the way that undergraduate students are open to learning and can take their ideas in many directions – everything seems interesting and important!” she said.

Bennett and Rogers have overcome the difficulties of working mostly remotely with each other this past year by setting “a regular meeting schedule and planning a semester’s worth of goals at the start to keep on track.” 

“[Chyna’s] project examining relationships between early adversity and substance use among African American men will offer insight to the field of substance use research and treatment. I have learned a lot from her about what it’s like living as a young person during the pandemic and am impressed with her drive and dedication to her education,” Bennett said.

For Rogers, participating in the mentoring dyad has had benefits beyond improving her research skills.  

“I was surprised to genuinely have a connection with my mentor that is not strictly business or research. She has supplied me with great communication tools as well as presentation-giving tools that I will never forget,” she said. 

Emmanuela Kodjo, a senior medical technology major at MSU, picked Andreas Wulff as her mentor based on a shared interest in the brain, in particular, mental health disorders. Wulff is a senior PhD student in the laboratory of Scott Thompson, PhD, at UMSOM, where he conducts pre-clinical research pertaining to depression.

Kodjo remembers, “At first I was uncertain what to expect when my mentor emailed me regarding my first day in the lab. Andreas has a warm and welcoming nature that immediately relieved my uncertainty. He guided me through the lab, providing me with the same knowledge that other lab team members had. He also taught me skills for experiments. Andreas had, and continues to have, great insight for me as it relates to research, academics, and life in general.”

Kodjo has benefitted from working in the mentor dyad in many ways, including learning skills that will improve her research and lab work throughout her career. 

“One skill I picked up from him while working in the lab is optimizing my time,” Kodjo said. “Before starting our day in the lab, we identified the duration of each task, prioritized them, and found the most efficient process for completion before starting anything. I was able to transfer this skill to various aspects of my life, especially in my most recent academic semester.”

Under Wulff’s mentorship, Kodjo conducted and successfully presented her project, “Preclinical Studies on the Antidepressant Effects of Psilocybin: 5HT1B Receptor Activation and Antidepressant Mechanisms,” at the ABRCMS annual conference.

Wulff reflected on his enjoyment mentoring Kodjo: 

“I am drawn to mentoring because I get immense pleasure from helping others achieve their potential. Beyond that, I also find more selfish rewards in mentoring. Mentoring is an exploration that you go on with your mentee—you explore research topics and you explore the goals, ambitions, and plans of your mentee. While the focus, of course, is on the mentee, I find that I, too, am greatly rewarded by this exploration. I find new knowledge in areas I thought I had mastered. I find renewed passion for the sciences by looking at it with renewed eyes. I discover new aspects of myself through this exploration.”

MSU Dr. Melanie Bennett
Melanie Bennett, PhD, an associate
professor, highly published researcher,
and division director for the UMSOM
Division of Psychiatric Research Services  

This mentoring dyad also had to develop changes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; however, flexibility and safety measures helped them stay on track with their research. 

“Much of the [initial] mentoring had to be done remotely via Zoom, emails, and texts. We managed to develop research projects and talk about future plans, but it is hard to get to know someone over the computer. Thanks to vaccination and masking, Emmanuela was able to work at UMSOM over the summer and it was really exciting to work together in person. This finally allowed us to get to know each other better and greatly improved the mentoring experience,” Wulff said.

“I have been so impressed by Emmanuela’s independence and her courage to take initiative in unfamiliar situations. I remember one morning when we were getting ready to run experiments, I had to quickly take care of something before getting started and I told Emmanuela to go ahead to the lab. When I showed up she had already gotten started on the experiments and was doing a great job with them, too! It’s a big moment for a mentor when the mentee starts to work independently from you.” 

An aspect of the MSU ASCEND program is to encourage students who might not initially imagine themselves as scientists to pursue research careers. Sometimes students aren’t sure that they’ll find a good fit in research, or they need to feel supported in their field. For Kodjo, participating in the mentoring dyad helped her realize she can be a researcher and bring her own personality and goals to her work.

“I’ve always had a passion for research, but prior to joining the ASCEND program I had a narrow mindset [of research]. I believed that only certain personality types could fit in a research setting and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pursue research beyond undergraduate school. After working with Andreas and the lab team at UMSOM, I’ve gained a new perspective on research. Research has the potential to cultivate an equitable and innovative society. No one personality type fits because diversity optimizes that potential.”

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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