Op-Ed: Mentorship Always Matters, Especially for Black Faculty in Academia

Nov. 8, 2022
Headshot of Nikesha Gilmore, Ph.D.
Nikesha Gilmore, Ph.D

The unique challenges faced by Black faculty in academia are mainly due to systemic failures, and this leads to an ever-shrinking pipeline. Finding a suitable mentor may aid in circumventing some of these challenges, said Nikesha Gilmore, Ph.D., a Wilmot Cancer Institute faculty member.

Gilmore and two national colleagues, Shakira Grant, MBBS, at the University of North Carolina, and Charity Oyedeji, M.D., at Duke University, discussed this topic in a guest editorial for The Hematologist, a publication of the American Society of Hematology (ASH).

Mentorship is a powerful part of the solution, Gilmore believes.

“It can keep people from saying — ‘I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore.’” Gilmore said. “You need a mentor to say, ‘I have faith in you. You can do this.’  

Not only are fewer Black individuals entering medical school and graduate school as researchers, but the percentage of people who make it up the ladder to associate professor is also miniscule. Only about 1% of Black faculty hold leadership positions at cancer centers, she said.

She also emphasized the distinct time crunch faced by some Black leaders in academia: Underrepresented faculty are often drafted to serve on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committees at universities, which is a worthy opportunity, she said — but it often results in no credit and takes extra time on top of clinical, research, teaching, and other professional responsibilities.

Gilmore, who studied immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, credits her mentors for her success to this point. First, Jacques Robert, Ph.D., vice chair of Microbiology and Immunology at URMC, helped her through the doctoral years, and later Michelle Janelsins, Ph.D., and Supriya Mohile, M.D., scientific leaders at Wilmot’s Cancer Prevention and Control (CPC) research program, have been guiding her as a junior faculty member. Mohile is also vice chair of academic affairs for the department of Medicine.

“They are very supportive of everything that I do,” Gilmore said.

Good mentors don’t have to share the same life experiences, she said, they just need to be there for their mentees.

Now, as an assistant professor in the department of Surgery, division of Supportive Care in Cancer, Gilmore is paying it forward. She launched an immersive student enrichment program called EmREACh, in collaboration with a handful of peers at Wilmot and the CPC. The goal is to remove barriers for underrepresented undergraduate students who are interested in science in medicine by pairing them with mentors, teaching them how to write manuscripts, and introducing them to clinical research and professional development opportunities, for example.

“This is how I got here through the challenges I faced along the way and how I overcame those challenges,” she said.