NCCU & Duke Students Learn Mentor-Mentee Communication Skills

March 19, 2019
By: Julie Poucher Harbin, Writer, DCI

NCCU graduate student Hassan Shehata, MSc, who’s researching inflammatory breast cancer, said the opportunity to attend an AACR Health Disparities conference in New Orleans last fall with other C-REP students made a particular impression on him. It gave him “a better understanding of health disparities from an academic perspective.”On Wednesday, February 27, a cohort of six graduate students from Duke and six from North Carolina Central University plus one postdoctoral fellow from each school — gathered for a mentor-mentee communications workshop — the third in a series of trainings designed to engage underrepresented minorities from both universities in cancer research. 

The workshop, held at NCCU, was part of the Cancer Research and Education Program (C-REP), the education piece of a $2 million, four-year, National Cancer Institute P20 Translational Cancer Disparities Research Partnership grant jointly awarded to Duke Cancer Institute and NCCU in 2017 for lab-based translational research projects on the molecular aspects underlying the increased lethality of prostate and inflammatory breast cancer in African Americans.      

The C-REP sessions cover professional development, translational cancer disparities research, clinical research operations and community engagement.

Carla Oldham, PhD, an assistant research professor with the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) at NCCU co-directs C-REP with Nadine Barrett, PhD, an assistant research professor in the department of Family Medicine & Community Health and associate director of community engagement and stakeholder strategy for Duke Cancer Institute.

One cohort of under-represented minority students has already passed through the program and the second cohort is going through the program now. 

Mark Dewhirst, DVM, PhD, a mentor of mentors over his 30-year career in radiation oncology and comparative oncology, led the communications workshop with these words: “The core of the mentor-mentee relationship is having good communication such that you can trust each other on both sides of the aisle.”  

Directing the students to surveys they filled out that revealed their individual communication styles, he continued: “It’s important for you to learn the personality of your mentor or mentee, so you can communicate better with that person; otherwise you can have tremendous conflicts.” 
Some found they were “action people.” Some “process people.” Others “idea people.” A few, “people people.”   

Dewhirst, with workshop co-facilitator endocrinologist Leonor Corsino, MD, FACE, MHS, the vice director of the mentoring program — assured the students that all people types were vital for lab work. 

“Because we’re different we can actually do things together as a group that we couldn’t do by ourselves,” he explained. “You have to have all kinds of people in science to be able to move it forward.”

The students spent most of the session working in small groups analyzing a series of hypothetical, often difficult, workplace communication scenarios involving mentors and mentees. Then each group selected a speaker to present, to the room, their critiques as well as their suggestions for making communications better. 

Tyler Allen, PhD, (right) a post-doctoral fellow at Duke and 15-year Durham resident became interested in studying African American prostate cancer because it was “relatable as an African American male myself” and also because he lives in a city and region where he says racial disparities are part of life. He aims to be a professor who incorporates public science communication into the job.The communications workshop, not surprisingly, turned out to be a bonding as well as a learning experience.

“I think the thing I found most helpful in this specific workshop was the survey that showed my communication style and type,” said Tyler Allen, PhD, a first-year post-doctoral fellow at Duke, working on RNA splicing and its relationship to health disparities in prostate cancer.

“Knowing how you differ from someone else or how you might be similar in your communication styles is very important when you’re working with a mentor,” said the “process-driven” communicator. “In our lab, I’m always interacting with Steve (Patierno) and Jenny (Freedman). Our communication is really pivotal to how I do research experiments.” 

Second-year NCCU graduate student Hassan Shehata, a pharmacist from Egypt, earned an MSc from NCCU focused on diabetes and stem cell research before deciding to pursue a PhD in biomedical science and drug discovery focused on inflammatory breast cancer.

While he’s already being mentored by NCCU pharmacologist Kevin Williams (a co-principal investigator of the overall NCI P20 grant with deputy director of DCI Steven Patierno, PhD), Shehata, who wants to be a professor, has been working with Oldham and Barrett to identify a mentor at Duke. Each student is encouraged to have two mentors — one from each school. 

“Through the program you can get a mentor from Duke so you get to see another perspective from another university,” said Shehata. “We’re going to start most of our training this semester and through the summer so that’s something I’m looking forward to.” 

This summer the C-REP students will participate in the Translational Immersion Experience (TIE); an opportunity to rotate through both institutions and learn about clinical research operations including data management, the regulatory environment, protocols for clinical trials and high-throughput laboratory skills. There’s one more year left on the grant but the leadership team is working on additional grant proposals and creative solutions for sustainability of this already nationally-recognized program.