BioSci at 60: Mentorship, Then & Now

A look back, and ahead, at student support.

Pictured left to right: Stu Brody, Willie Brown, Sonya Neal ’07, and Don Helinski.

Mentorship means a lot to Willie Brown—the professor emeritus of cell and developmental biology credits his life’s path to a series of pivotal mentors throughout his journey, starting in the days of segregation. He paid this help forward in his career, serving as a devoted and longstanding mentor to generations of UC San Diego students.

The same goes today for Sonya Neal ’07—mentorship was critical to her success as a UC San Diego student and recently in joining the faculty in biology. She too is compelled to help others, as uncertainty and strife in 2020 prompted her to launch a bold new mentorship program that aims to shape scores of students’ lives.

As the Division of Biological Sciences celebrates its 60th anniversary, Brown and Neal discuss mentorship as a foundation of strength in their lives and a force to support students through the next 60 years.

What did mentorship look like when you were students?

Brown: My mentors set very strong examples for scholarship—they were clear about expectations, and they were good human beings as well. This was during the time of segregation and it was rough to go forward and get a job, and they knew that. But if you were serious, your professors took a lot of interest in you and made sure that you stayed on the right track. I have found over the years mentorship often comes down to three things—access, advocacy, and personal support—that make the most difference for a student.

Neal: I was a first-generation URM (underrepresented minority) student of mixed race—Black and Japanese. Just from sheer background alone, I was already at a disadvantage compared to a lot of my peers. I came here unprepared, but through some chance encounters and the right outreach programs, my mentors involved me in research and told me about grad school. I wouldn’t have taken that path without such guidance.

I was a single parent through grad school, helped very much by my mentor. Then, as a post-doc applying to become faculty, imposter syndrome was just bleeding inside me. Without my mentor, Professor Randy Hampton, I don’t think I’d have overcome that feeling. I just started building out a luminary team of mentors. To this day, I still use that resource.

Sonya, you and graduate student Tara Spencer launched the new Biology Undergraduate and Master’s Mentorship Program, or BUMMP. How did that start?

Neal: It stemmed from recent events, the racial unrest and the pandemic on top of that. I remember the day this past June—I came into the lab to put away an unsuccessful experiment and felt like I needed to talk to someone right then.
Tara happened to message me saying the same thing. It was coincidental, but essential. We talked about our frustrations, stresses in our research, and honestly, just being tired.

I said we need some type of program to help students in this same way but on a wider scale, and that hopefully could help improve the URM experience we both knew well. We envisioned a mentoring program within our division, and the administration and Dean Kit Pogliano were really enthusiastic about it. She and BioSci Development quickly helped us secure funding for the program.

By September, we had about 80 faculty signed up, 80 post-doc and grad students, and about 150 URM undergrad students and master’s students who have signed up as well. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that BUMMP would start off so strongly.

Willie, what are your thoughts?

Brown: I think it’s fantastic because that wasn’t really going on when I was around—such an emphasis on mentorship. In my day, and like Sonya said, these sort of relationships were coincidental, you had to stand out somehow. It’s great to see broad support like this made a priority. Where I helped students discover their potential and attract the attention of professors, programs like this could make such connections consistent and accessible.

What do you envision for mentorship and academia in the next 60 years?

Neal: I would love to see a shift in academic culture. To really address diversity and inclusion, we must change the way in which academic institutions are viewed as elitist and exclusionary. I hope our BUMMP program can be the start of that shift, and that 60 years from now, the notion of inclusion and support isn’t just coming from programs and initiatives but instilled in the broader academic culture, so folks from all different backgrounds can have access, find support, and thrive, thanks to the very nature of academia itself.

Some of professor Willie Brown’s early teaching mentors were also founding faculty—we talked to Stu Brody, Don Helinski, and Mel Simon about the early days of BioSci.