Understanding the Need of Interdisciplinary Mentoring

By Ofelia Olivero, Ph.D., ATS

Mentors have been critical in the lives of many politicians, athletes, actors, scientists, writers, doctors, and musicians, to name just few. Today, mentoring is regarded as a practice that develops new leaders, enhances career development, promotes diversity, improves technical knowledge, and helps manage organizational knowledge. Mentoring is the tool employed by many successful companies to increase productivity and to generate a solid and interconnected workforce.

Science has evolved in a direction of crosstalk and is becoming more multidisciplinary. Scientific dilemmas are now approached with multifocal teams that conduct science in an interdisciplinary fashion. The new concept of mentoring should, therefore, gravitate around this concept: The interdisciplinary aspect of science. So this is an eye opener that seeks to generate awareness and to awaken scientist to think about Interdisciplinary Mentoring.

Interdisciplinary work and collaborations are the most predominant styles in modern research settings today. Contemporary scientific research is multidisciplinary and based on a large amount of cross-talk; hence, mentoring should follow that trend. Interdisciplinary mentoring is the mentoring of the future. It is the tool of scientists and administrators to produce synergy in groups and to generate multifocal ideas and complex solutions to complex challenges and the most novel approach to mentoring today.

Transitioning to team science should be perceived as a culture change that requires intensive commitment. Organizations need to identify their transformational leaders and foster multidisciplinary team development with their help.

It is usual to attribute to mentors qualities that are part of their nature, of their personality, and not learned or acquired by training. This is probably largely true. There are some individuals for whom communicating, listening, and caring are normal qualities of their lives; however, for others, those qualities have to be acquired, learned, and practiced often to make them a permanent part of their personalities.

Being a classical mentor is a good step to become an Interdisciplinary-mentor (I-Mentor); however, being a classical mentor may constitute an obstacle to learning new possibilities, views, and aspects of mentoring that uniquely identify the I-mentor.

5 Steps for Training I-Mentors

I have divided the journey of training I-Mentors into a series of steps.

Step 1: Introspection

Each individual has fears, unanswered questions, dilemmas, pending issues, dark thoughts, and more to deal with. It is desirable that these are explored to some extent before starting the training process or as part of the first step in training.

Step 2: Development of flexibility

A deep analysis of one’s psyche may help to bring different prospective to each I-Mentor in training. These challenges, explored after profound introspection, may bring substrate to elaborate more and more on personality issues. Once that is covered, individuals may need to elaborate on their beliefs and dogmas and start challenging them. In that way, openness and flexibility of thinking will be initiated and cultivated.

Step 3: Active listening

The I-mentor by this point acquired two superb qualities, inner connection and mind flexibility. The acquisition of the ability to challenge their own ideas without fear will make the I-Mentor ready to establish communication with others. Now is when active listening is essential. Active listening is a dynamic way to understand, comprehend, and be part of a dialogue, even when the information received contradicts the mentor’s own beliefs or does not align directly with their knowledge.

Step 4: Communication

Understanding other disciplines, methods, traditions, terminology, and underlying assumptions facilitates communication. Communication is often one of the most difficult aspects of relationships; communication in cross-disciplinary teams is even more complex. The role of the I-Mentor is of critical importance here because the outcome of the team depends directly on the ability of members to communicate, relate to each other, transfer ideas, new concepts, teach, and train. Personal assumptions need to be suppressed, and team members need to understand the assumptions of other disciplines so that the views of all members can be used to achieve the team’s objectives.

Step 5: Consensus building

Probably the most challenging aspect of the I-Mentor role is requiring individuals to be able to combine, accept, and blend opinions coming from diverse backgrounds and different schools of thought. Consensus building should start with a few I-Mentors first, perhaps those with an obvious scientific connection

The I-Mentor should be a figure who operates in different spaces and times and who accommodates the needs of individuals to focus all interests.

The concept of I-Mentor and I-Mentoring goes further than the individual. The generation of networks of I-Mentors with extremely good capacities and abilities could serve as a transferable tool from team to team. If such a possibility is exercised the reality of I-Mentoring and the establishment of real collaborative teams is just one step away.


About the Author: Ofelia Olivero

Ofelia Olivero, Ph.D., ATS, is the author of the book “Interdisciplinary Mentoring in Science: Strategies for Success”. Dr. Olivero is the recipient of the AWIS Bethesda Chapter’s Mentor of the Year Award and the National Cancer Institute Director’s Leading Diversity Award. She currently is a Senior Staff Scientist at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.