The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field is rich with opportunity and possibility, and mentoring relationships give young people greater freedom to explore this space. This month we are highlighting mentoring programs, mentors, and mentees that are integrating STEM programming into their relationships. This feature is about Raekwon Williams, Goldberg Scholar & Honors Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Biomedical and Health Science Engineering Major, class of 2024.
Tell me about your STEM mentoring experiences –
In high school, I was in a program called The Ingenuity Project where students are matched with mentors from 10th-12th grades to support them on specific research projects. I worked in Dr. Jelani Zarif’s lab at the Department of Oncology at the Bloomberg Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine on prostate cancer research.
Dr. Zarif was so supportive, and it went beyond the laboratory. I learned how to conduct cancer immunology research at the bench and a host of techniques that are relevant to my current research. I also went to events with the lab — seminar talks, lab meetings, birthday parties for lab members— it’s a really good group to bond with outside of Johns Hopkins. He always shared research articles and textbooks about cancer immunology, Pathology and Biochemistry with me. I’m still in touch with him. He and his wife sent me a holiday postcard last year.
Since high school, I’ve had some really helpful mentors, especially through the Goldberg Scholar program. When the pandemic hit, students were told to leave the dorms at UNC. I wanted to stay in North Carolina and find an apartment, but I had no notice and it was so hard to find a place in the area in a short amount of time. They were on the phone, helping me out. They helped me get an apartment in three days, and they knew people in the area, and they helped me move in. They were pivotal to me staying here, and it was so great.
Because of my experience with Dr. Zarif at Johns Hopkins, I know how important it is to have mentors in STEM. So, I reached out to the Director of the Lineberger Cancer Center, Dr. Shelley Earp, and asked him if he would be my mentor. I found out he was a graduate of my high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, in the 1970s, and then went to UNC for med school. I couldn’t believe it. He was excited that I reached out to him. Our mentoring relationship is pretty informal. I’m working with him on exploring a soluble protein that contributes to the progression of cancer; he discovered the receptor closely associated to this protein. It’s pretty cool.
Dr. Earp talks to me about his career in medicine, and the different paths there are, and how you don’t have to be fixed on just one path. It’s comforting for me to know that they are different paths to get to do cancer research than just med school – there are other routes.
If you had to describe mentoring in just a few words, what would you say?
Mentoring helps you get different perspectives, from different people, at different stages along your path.
What do you think you can do because of your mentors?
I can confidently make decisions, and I’m not afraid to reach out to people to ask for advice. Today, I’m meeting with a Harvard med school student, to talk about changing my major, maybe from Biomedical Engineering to Biochemistry. I’m excited to hear what he has to say about med school, too.
Check out these resources to learn more about mentoring in the STEM field.