Be a Mentor at GSA 2016: Supporting Future Leaders in the Geosciences

Mentorship is one of the most critical yet under-compensated aspects of the physical sciences. I came from the world of small oil and gas companies where the transfer of institutional knowledge and norms will be critical for continued safety and success through the “Great Shift Change,” but often becomes secondary to the pressing needs of operating the nation’s energy supply. In government mentorship is easier, but often geologist find themselves isolated. Our academic traditions were founded on the traditions of direct mentorship between the master and the apprentice, but modern academic institutions treat mentorship between faculty and students as necessary and expected, but rarely include this in criteria for promotion and tenure.

I volunteered as a mentor for the On to The Future (OTF) Program ( at the 2015 Geological Society of America (GSA) Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. At first I was a little bit nervous about being matched with an undergrad for the meeting. GSA is a busy time for me, and I wanted to make sure that I had enough time to devote to a student. However, I decided that helping a student from an underrepresented group to become part of the GSA community was part of the point of being at meetings like this one. The GSA Connected Community was partly about bringing together people with new ideas and new approaches to problems. OTF was designed to increase the diversity of our community by supporting first-time attendees from underrepresented voices, the next generation of new voices, ideas, and approaches.

I underestimated how much institutional knowledge I had about professional meetings, and how easy it was to improve the experience of my undergraduate mentee. The Annual Meeting is a beast of technical sessions, alumni receptions, business meetings, social mingling, and beer/posters (the best part). Knowing how to approach this is a skill we have all developed, but can seem overwhelming. I was able to help my mentee to develop an approach to technical sessions that fit his needs for the meeting. I tend to run from talk to talk while he elected to stay in a technical session for the entire program. This made sense, as he had selected the area he wanted to study for a master’s degree, and we were looking to become more familiar with the research and researchers in that field. I was also able to help him to know that it was okay to attend his university’s alumni reception even though he was not an alumnus yet, that the Division awards ceremony was a great place to meet people in his future field and get a few free beers, and that it was acceptable to invite perspective advisers to stop by his poster. Much of this seems obvious to those of us who have been attending meetings over a career, but is gold to a first-timer.

I was also able to easily act as an advocate to drive traffic to the student’s research poster. It was outside my field, but I was surprised to realize that I knew plenty of people that were interested. I had my own poster while his was up, but I was still able to support him just by remembering his poster time and location as I socialized at the meeting. I found my experiences as an OTF mentor extremely rewarding. It did not take much time from my meeting, but provided further depth to my experiences.

As a first-time attendee to GSA, I had the extreme good fortune to have Dr. Kathy Benison, my current Ph.D. adviser, and Dr. Brenda Beitler Bowen as my guides. They took the considerable time to allow my best friend (Dr. Elliot Jagniecki) and I to follow them around at our first meeting in Salt Lake City. The people she introduced me to at that meeting have become lifelong friends. One of those people, Dr. Elizabeth (Beth) Gierlowski-Kordesch, passed away in May. Beth could not help dispensing advice to students, and I will be forever grateful to her for helping me develop as a scientist and a member of this community. I will always remember what she told me about being a OTF mentor at last year’s GSA. She thought being an OTF mentor was a great idea; I just had to work harder to convert my mentee into studying lakes. Last year I was not successful, but perhaps this year I can be a better lake evangelist.

I encourage others to strongly consider mentoring an On To the Future student at GSA’s Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, 25-28 September 2016. The experience is rewarding for you and your mentee.

Johnathan Knapp, 2015 OTF Mentor

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