If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably heard of Emory University chemistry professor Jen Heemstra (@jenheemstra), who has gained a cult following for her mentoring style. Learn more about her in this inaugural column, and send her your questions at cenm.ag/officehours.
What experiences in your life have helped shape who you are and your style of mentoring?
It’s no secret to those who have met me that I’m a positive and enthusiastic person, but what many people don’t know is the reason why—that the most influential experiences in my life are the times I’ve failed big or faced adversity: losing my Dad and best friend in my last year of grad school; walking into work every day at a company where I endured discrimination and harassment; thinking I could never have an academic career, then achieving my dream only to confront the possibility of losing it. These experiences were painful to walk through, but the unexpected benefit was the clarity and courage that they generated. Dealing with adversity pushes me into a survival mode where there’s simply no margin left for things like worrying about what people think about me, and the moment you stop caring what other people think about you is when you really find your voice and gain the courage to start using it. I’ve come out of each experience more fearless than ever, feeling empowered to speak up and refusing to be controlled by my insecurities.
These experiences have also made me more thankful for the good things in my life, like the people who are consistently there to offer encouragement and mentoring. I view it as a privilege and a priority to pay that forward with the people whom I mentor. It’s been rewarding to expand this network over the past year by becoming active on social media, and my Twitter presence is inspired by a desire to help others who may not have access to the same level of mentoring and support that I’ve benefited from.
If you could change one thing about the typical chemistry grad school experience, what would it be and why?
I’m going to cheat and talk about two things. Sorry, I’m normally a rule follower. First and foremost, all students deserve to have research advisers who respect them as people, support them in whatever career paths they aim to pursue, and are genuinely cheering for their success in grad school and beyond. While many students do have this type of adviser, I also hear from many who do not, and that’s not OK. Grad school is a training experience, and we as faculty are responsible for providing students with high-quality mentoring as a part of that.
I would also love to change the academic culture to make it easier for everyone—students, postdocs, faculty, and staff—to be candid in sharing our struggles. It turns out that many of us are facing the same challenges: lack of motivation, failure, depression. But because we don’t talk about it, we all feel alone and isolated. For example, despite having an amazing PhD mentor, I still battled depression during graduate school. I remember thinking that everyone around me was living this happy, perfect life and that I must not belong in grad school if I felt so broken and aimless. A positive aspect of social media is that it’s now easier than ever to engage in dialogue around these important topics. I see that catalyzing more openness in real-life interactions as well. Just the simple knowledge that we’re not alone can help us cope with the struggle and recognize that it doesn’t disqualify us from being where we are.
What do you hope to accomplish with C&EN’s Office Hours, and how do you want readers to engage with you?
Office Hours is motivated by the idea that no matter where we are on the career path, we never hit a point where we have it all figured out. The good news is that we’re all in this together, and we all benefit from creating a supportive community where we can learn from each other’s experiences.
I’ll use the monthly column to share some of the advice and wisdom I’ve picked up over the years, but the real goal is to serve as a hub for dialogue in our community around important topics that impact our research and careers—things like mental health, self-doubt, creativity, and mentorship. I invite you to contribute questions and topic ideas; the monthly columns are simply conversation starters for a broader dialogue. These topics affect us all, and everyone has something to contribute to the conversation on how to approach them.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.
Want to hear Jen talk more about why she's passionate about mentoring? Check out this episode of C&EN's podcast, Stereo Chemistry.