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  • Writer's pictureMicrobigals

Building Your Mentorship Network With Binning Singletons!

We've all heard about why mentorship is important, but how much do you really know about mentorship? Honestly, how good is your mentorship network right now? Or are you like me and are like what? A network? I thought it was just one person. Well, we have just the thing! Joe James recently gave a talk at one of the biggest microbe conferences, The World Microbe Forum, all about mentorship. I had the opportunity to chat with him afterwards to learn a little bit more about creating a mentorship network and what his organization, Binning Singletons, is all about. If you are interested have a listen or check out the rest of the blog for more details!

Who is Joe James? Binning Singletons?

Joe James work in Microbiology stems back to his undergraduate years where he worked with a microbiologist over the summer. He worked with a particularly strange kind of microbe known as an Oomycete, particularly one called Lagenidium callinectes. This is a fascinating and diabolical microbe, in a way similar to the diabolical nature of Yersinia pestis by starving its host to spread more progeny! Lagenidium callinectes replaces the muscle fibers in crustaceans, eventually forming sacs full of zoospores. Eventually, these sacs explode and out bursts the tiny zoospores to infect more shrimp and crabs, told you it was pretty diabolical.

So this was Joe's first entry into microbiology and where he started to form his microbial mentorship network. He'd go onto to teach high school chemistry for a year, which he really enjoyed but eventually decided the office politics wasn't for him. He ventured into a Microbology Ph.D. program where he learned another valuable mentorship lesson. Your academic "mentor" isn't always a good fit and doesn't always have your best interest at heart. Joe knew that the work-life balance he needed in his life was not what his PI "mentor" had in mind, and so he switched to a Master's program, and his mentorship network brought him back to the same government agency he worked at as an undergrad! He's been working there for 20 years now!

For Joe, a sense of community is really important and he found his community at the American Society of Microbiology's (ASM) annual conference. This is a HUGE conference is where thousands of researchers come together to present their work. Each year the location changes to a different city and this is basically the only vacations PhDs, postdocs and most professors get every year!

However, this community was hard to create. Joe's been going to ASM for years and, in the beginning, it was difficult to make connections. It's can seemed that everyone already had their people and without a mentorship network, newcomers can feel unwelcomed or overwhelmed.

But sometimes all you need is one person, one act of kindness, one bold move to go from feeling like an outsider to an insider. For Joe, this happened when he approached someone who was live Tweeting during one of the sessions. He asked for a 15-minute conversation and ended up with a free cup of coffee, an hour of unforgettable advice, and an invite to a tweet-up lunch where he met his microbiology community (not the ones in his gut, he already knew those ones). And so from this, he went on to build Binning Singletons, the microbiology mentorship network!

What Is Binning Singletons And Why Is Mentorship Important?

Binning Singletons aims to teach people how to "meeting". It hopes to give people a foundation to a mentorship network, a cohort of other newcomers, a safe place for introverts to feel like they are a part of the community.

But like Microbigals, Binning Singletons are wicked science nerds, or as they like to say "too weird to be credible". Binning Singletons name is a term we use in bioinformatics and the 5 pillars of the organization also make for a really excellent crash course in microbiology!

5 Pillars of Binnings Singletons

  1. Identify The Singletons: in some DNA analysis pipelines, especially when looking at 16S data (major gene we look at for bacteria identification), a sequence that appears only once is called a Singleton. Most of the time we throw out the singletons to get rid of the noise and any potential errors, but just because a sequence shows up once, it doesn't mean it is an error. It could be really important, yet it is cast aside. The analogy to someone coming to a meeting alone is a pretty short leap. Of course, we also wanted to include people who were coming to a meeting for the first time or felt isolated for any reason.

  2. Bin The Singletons: Microbial sequences can be messy and hard to differentiate. A common practice is to bin sequences based on criteria such as similarity. So the next part of Binning Singletons is to take all the singletons and bin or group them together based on similar fields. Each group could consist of some post-docs, some PhDs and some Undergrads. Each group is then given a mentor to act as a meeting coach. This then becomes a cohort at the meetings. These cohorts can go grab a coffee, talk to vendors, find all the free swag or cool talks that are related to their interest!

  3. Horizontal Transfer: Remember when I said microbial sequences are messy, well horizontal gene transfer is the reason why. Bacteria can swap genes across species. This exchange of information can be really difficult when you are trying to identify a certain microbe; however, sharing information can be a great way for conference participants to learn.

  4. Quorum Sensing: In the simplest terms, quorum sensing is how microbes communicate with each other. In bacteria, this occurs when bacterial cells regulate gene expression in response to changes in cell density. For the purposes of the Binning Singletons program, it describes getting all the different bins of singletons together at a mixer. This helps the participants feel like part of something bigger, to start really forming their mentorship network and helps with imposter syndrome. Mentors introduce their singletons to other mentors and provide even more connections to grow a professional network. The groups now have a bigger pool of people to socialize with, an incredibly important part of these meetings.

  5. Exponential Growth: This one seems self-explanatory. When a singleton becomes part of a larger network they have a supportive mentor or the foundation of a mentorship network and they will feel less anxious and more confident. This will help each singleton to exponentially grow into their best self!

Mentorship Vs. Coaching

There are actually three different kinds of mentors and you should have all of them within your mentorship network: traditional mentors, coaches and sponsors.

Let's start with traditional mentors. This is probably the kind of mentor you picture when you hear the word 'mentor'. These types of mentors are typical with you for an extended period of time. They can provide a lot of formal guidance and are typically in a place in their careers where they have a lot of experience to pass on in a lot of different areas. Traditional mentors maybe your PI, guidance committee, or your boss. But you can find mentors for all aspects of your life other than work!

So if we look at mentorship vs. coaching, what differences do we see? Well think of a coach you had growing up, maybe it was on a youth sports team. This coach taught you a specific skill like soccer or basketball. They were with you for a short period of time like a season. Coaches are mentors whose relationships are not meant to be long-lasting but can be really important. In Academia this might be a post-doc that taught you how to extract DNA; that relationship may not have been long but wasn't it important?

Mentorship Vs. Sponsorship

Next, let's look at Mentorship Vs. Sponsorship. When people think of sponsorship they often think of money, but this is not the only form of sponsorship. Someone can also provide support of connection, this is what a sponsorship mentor does. They are people who will champion you and recommend you to others. They are committed to seeing you succeed and are willing to use their influence and network to advocate for your success.

So in each instance mentorship vs. sponsorship and mentorship vs coaching, we can not only see a string of similarities but also differences, mostly in an objective, communication, and time frame. One person can not be your coach, your sponsor, and your mentor this is why you need a mentorship network.

Creating A Mentorship Network

So how do you create this mentorship network? I'm sure you won't be surprised if we tell you it's all in the communication and hard work. As a mentee, you must know what you want and how to communicate what you want. On a good mentor, Joe says,

"a good mentor is committed to helping the mentee best achieve the mentee’s goals and aspirations, not to turning their mentee into another version of themselves"

You also have to be willing to throw yourself out there. If a mentor recommends something that seems strange, maybe give it a shot. They may have more experience in that subject than you know. If a mentor suggests someone to go talk to, well go talk to them this will only grow your mentorship network. One mentor can not possibly give you everything you need. You need to create a mentorship network and be able to articulate your wants and needs.

For more advice on mentorship or for more information on Binning Singletons check out the full podcast.

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