The Secret to Mentoring: Take the Time to Care

By Lenina Mortimer

Steven Nicoll in the lab with undergraduate student Aniqua Rahman

Steven Nicoll in the lab with undergraduate student Aniqua Rahman

AS A STUDENT during her undergraduate days, Elana Cooper struggled academically. Today she’s a first-year Ph.D. student at one of
the top engineering schools in the country, and she is more surprised than anyone.

“I didn’t see this as a possibility. I was always tentative about approaching Ph.D. programs because of my academic background. But I received encouragement from my mentor,” says Cooper, who studied engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and later earned a master’s from City College. She had planned to become an architect but her academic and professional career took a different turn when she participated in a summer research mentorship program in the lab of then UPenn biomedical engineering professor Steven Nicoll.

Today Nicoll, an NSF CAREER Award winner, continues his mentorship program at CUNY. Nicoll joined the City College Biomedical Engineering Department in the fall of 2009 and established a research lab soon after. His research, that Nicoll refers to as tissue engineering, focuses on developing new materials to serve as soft tissue fillers for plastic surgery and as scaffolds to direct stem cells differentiation. His lab also develops materials that would help regenerate musculoskeletal tissue damaged by injury or disease.

Nicoll hired Cooper as a research engineer to help get his City College lab started. “I was familiar with all of the lab protocols. I came along to help teach the graduate students how to do different experiments and analyses,” says Cooper who worked in Nicoll’s UPenn lab for three years.

Reflecting on her fortuitous move from Philadelphia to New York, Cooper credits many of her academic accomplishments to Nicoll’s mentorship. “At the time, I didn’t have the foresight, but Dr. Nicoll did. I was just going along for the ride. But it was a great setup. I was able to get a master’s and that set me up in the position that I am now,” says Cooper, who earned a Master of Science in biomedical engineering at City College in 2012. She is currently enrolled in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the Mechanical Engineering School and Bioengineering School.

“I wouldn’t have brought her with me if I didn’t believe in her and by the same token, if she didn’t have a good experience with me at UPenn, she wouldn’t have come,” says Nicoll, who has run mentoring programs in his research labs for 10 years.

Nicoll’s mentorship program goes beyond guiding students with lab research. “I’ve edited applications for graduate schools. And in terms of career development, I help students apply for fellowships. Whatever it takes to get them where they need to be. That’s always been my philosophy,” says Nicoll, speaking of the assistance he’s given a current CCNY undergraduate student, Aniqua Rahman.

“[Nicoll] spent a lot of time with me going over colleges and where to apply and helped me with every step of the application process,” says the biomedical engineering major. “I got into Cornell because of him. He wrote me a recommendation letter, went over my resume and my personal statement,” says Rahman, a graduating senior who applied to 14 Ph.D. programs.

Rahman describes her experience in the lab as “lucky” because “not everyone is comfortable with allowing undergraduates to work in their labs because we don’t know that much. Dr. Nicoll thought that I should learn these skills if I wanted to go to grad school,” says Rahman, who was a co-author on an abstract focusing on injectable filler materials, a product of the research she performed in the lab.

Nicoll was inspired to run an internship program because he had a positive experience working in a research lab as an undergraduate student. “The hope is that students develop a passion and appreciation for doing research. And working with me, I try my best to provide the skill set they are going to need whether they work in the industry or go on to graduate school,” says Nicoll.

“I’ve seen students who haven’t had a good experience in the lab who weren’t mentored properly. And one thing I’ve learned is that everyone needs to be mentored differently. I always say, ‘It takes time to care.’ So I’ve always made it a point to keep a close eye on undergraduates and spend time with them.”