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Mentors at work

MentorNet offers remote support
Tech women and men mentors provide help and encouragement to women students via e-mail

By Abbi Perets Contributing Editor

“Study something you enjoy,” 3M’s Melissa Heaton advises her mentee.
“Study something you enjoy,” 3M’s Melissa Heaton advises her mentee.

‘I always felt a bit lost in college,” says Melissa (Missy) R. Heaton, a technical data analyst at 3M Pharmaceuticals (St. Paul, MN). “I signed up for mentors through various on-campus programs, but few had experience in math or statistical fields. I always felt like I was the only one who didn’t know what direction to go in. So once I was through school and out in the world, I wanted to be a mentor to someone else.”

Soon after Heaton started at 3M, in October 2002, she was browsing the company’s intranet and learned about MentorNet (www.mentornet.net). She signed up immediately.

MentorNet, an e-mentoring network for women in engineering and science, was founded in November 1997. What began as a campus-wide project at Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) with a total of 430 participants is now an international program with over 6,000 students and mentors.

The program encourages women students to pursue careers in engineering and science and pairs them with mentors – male and female – at about 1,000 global companies. This program is different from other mentoring programs because most pairs never meet in person – everything happens over e-mail.

3M’s James Endle: “MentorNet makes mentoring efficient.”
3M’s James Endle: “MentorNet makes mentoring efficient.”

“MentorNet makes mentoring efficient,” says James P. Endle, a mentor with the program and a senior process development engineer working in thin film deposition at 3M’s Austin, TX offices. “Communication via e-mail is easy, relatively fast and doesn’t interfere with busy schedules.”

His mentee, Dina Arafa Eldein, agrees. “I do all my work in front of the computer. It’s nice that I can fit this relationship into my day, and e-mail is much more convenient than playing phone tag.”

Eldein, born in Egypt, came to the U.S. when she was a year old so that her father could get a PhD in mechanical engineering. “I guess it’s in my blood – I’ve always liked math,” she says. Her father took her to his lab, and Eldein enjoyed watching engineers develop new things. “I knew I wanted to do technical things that would help people,” she says.

Dina Arafa Eldein graduated in May. Her mentor is helping her decide on the next step.
Dina Arafa Eldein graduated in May. Her mentor is helping her decide on the next step.

Eldein graduated in May 2003 from Michigan State University with a BS/MS in chemical engineering. Getting ready to take the next step made her seek out a mentor. “I saw a flier put up by the Society of Women Engineers,” she says. “I wanted to get a feel for what it’s really like to work in industry – to know what problems other people faced and how they made their decisions. I wanted feedback.”

She filled out the MentorNet application and received a list of fifteen possible mentors to choose from. She chose Endle because he had earned his PhD at the University of Texas, a school Eldein is considering for an eventual PhD.

“I’m getting exactly what I needed from this experience,” says Eldein. “James and I exchange e-mails weekly, and he’s answered all my questions about how he got his job – by networking – and what the PhD means in this field – not much money, but the possibility of research positions. He also gave me feedback on my resume.”

“I try to give her the benefit of my experience,” says Endle. “I don’t make Dina’s decisions for her, but I try to explain the pros and cons. I also try to give her as much information as I can on job interviews and school choices so that she can make educated decisions.”

Endle has been involved in mentoring programs since high school. “I’ve always enjoyed tutoring and mentoring students,” he says. “Getting involved with MentorNet is also a way to show that my company supports our community and higher learning.”

Endle did his undergraduate work in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, MN) and an internship at the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute (Minneapolis, MN) “studying liquid profiles under air-knife action.” He tells engineering students to find internships in areas they might want to study in graduate school. “Your boss or advisor will be a critical reference,” he says.

Nicole Roberson does work-study at MentorNet’s offices and is also a mentee.
Nicole Roberson does work-study at MentorNet’s offices and is also a mentee.

Melissa Heaton’s mentee is Nicole Roberson, an African American math major at San Jose State University (San Jose, CA). Roberson is scheduled to graduate in 2006. “I’ve been into math since the eighth grade,” says Roberson. “I went on a math and science Outward Bound summer program, and I got hooked.”

Her mother, says Roberson, knew exactly how to motivate her to keep her grades up. “She’d buy me new shoes if I did well on tests,” she says with a laugh.

When she arrived at San Jose State, Roberson found a work-study position at MentorNet’s offices. “I make coffee and copies,” she says, “but I get paid – and they also suggested that I sign up for the MentorNet program. My mentor is the greatest. She’s been absolutely fabulous.”

Heaton has given Roberson detailed information about a career in pharmacology. Her advice is heavy on practical details: Roberson wants to transfer to the University of California - Berkeley after her sophomore year, and Heaton is making sure that she will get credit for all her courses.

“When she doesn’t know the answer to something I ask her, she finds out,” says Roberson. “She’s never too busy to help me.” With Heaton’s guidance, Roberson is taking all the prerequisite courses she can so that she’ll be able to start Berkeley’s three-year pharmacology program when she transfers. Heaton also encouraged her mentee to take a summer job as a pharmacy technician at a major pharmacy chain so that she can learn the basics.

Roberson worked with tutors in Outward Bound, but Heaton is her first mentor. “I’ve never had so much one-on-one attention before,” she says. “I trust Missy, because she’s gone through these challenges and can offer real advice. I definitely want to be a mentor a few years from now, when I have more experience,” Roberson adds.

One of the things Heaton says she tries to convey to Roberson is the importance of studying something you enjoy. “Excelling in something and not enjoying it doesn’t make for a very satisfying career,” she says, something she learned the hard way.

Her original major at the University of Minnesota was engineering. But she switched to statistics because she thought it would help her land a job in quality engineering. Her course electives were related to engineering, not statistics, and because she was “very much a mediocre student,” she was never accepted for an internship.

After graduation, Heaton spent eighteen months at the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN) as a data analyst in the biostatistics division. “I learned how to program in SAS and got to apply statistics to real-world issues and research,” she says. She also realized for the first time that her true passion was the statistics side of her work. “I really wish I’d taken more stat electives – it would be much easier to earn my masters,” she says.

All four participants highly recommend the program. “The program is structured so that you can enter your criteria for a mentor and find someone who fits,” says Eldein. “The mentors have different specialties and work in large companies like 3M, IBM or Motorola, and they really know what they’re talking about.”

D/C

– Abbi Perets is a freelance writer based in Valley Village, CA.