Rage, Rage Against the Uniformity of Time

An Interview with Educational Psychologist Dr. Linlin Luo, Former Coordinator of Program Experience at Global Talent Mentoring

By Shiva Kazemi

A Tran­si­tion­ing Schol­ar Sit­ting Amidst Boxes:
My for­mer col­league at Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing, Dr. Lin­lin Luo, recent­ly start­ed a new post­doc­tor­al researcher posi­tion at Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty. Short­ly before she moved from Ger­many to the US for her new posi­tion, I had the chance to sit down with her—between mov­ing boxes—to dis­cuss some of her lat­est research find­ings on men­tor­ing and tal­ent devel­op­ment. Dr. Luo seem­ing­ly had no time. Yet she took time to speak with me and share thoughts based on her years of research­ing men­tor­ing and tal­ent devel­op­ment for Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing, which made me think about the delib­er­ate­ness of time use. Dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, Dr. Luo recalled a remark from an expert she inter­viewed: “Time is equal for every­one. There­fore, how indi­vid­u­als val­ue their time dic­tates what they do with it and then influ­ences their learn­ing process.” This point gets at the heart of what we are work­ing to achieve at Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing: help­ing those who show the most impres­sive ear­ly achieve­ments and evince the great­est deter­mi­na­tion to opti­mize their tal­ent development—despite the fun­da­men­tal con­straints of time and place to which all humans are beholden. 
You and Prof. Dr. Hei­drun Stoeger have recent­ly pub­lished an arti­cle about emi­nence in STEMM and the sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors in its devel­op­ment from the view­points of tal­ent devel­op­ment and STEMM experts. Where did this idea first come from and how do you relate this study to Glob­al Tal­ent Mentoring?
This study was con­duct­ed dur­ing the prepara­to­ry stage of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing. The ini­tial rea­son dri­ving this idea for a study was the struc­ture of the pro­gram itself. When we were prepar­ing for a research-based project we want­ed to know what exact­ly it takes for a promis­ing youth to even­tu­al­ly become a leader, inno­va­tor, or great sci­en­tist in a STEMM field. More­over, Prof. Dr. Stoeger and I were won­der­ing whether tal­ent devel­op­ment mod­els hold true for STEMM devel­op­ment since none of the tal­ent devel­op­ment mod­els is specif­i­cal­ly geared towards STEMM tal­ent devel­op­ment.

Mean­while, we were very inter­est­ed in com­par­ing two groups of experts: tal­ent devel­op­ment experts and STEMM experts such as physi­cists, math­e­mati­cians, and engi­neers. We decid­ed to study emi­nence in STEMM and the sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors in its devel­op­ment from both per­spec­tives, that is, tal­ent devel­op­ment experts who use all their research time to study extreme­ly tal­ent­ed peo­ple and come up with the­o­ries and prac­tices, and STEMM experts who actu­al­ly reach emi­nence in STEMM areas. Prof. Dr. Stoeger and I found the study find­ings help­ful for Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing. The fea­tures and fac­tors both groups of peo­ple com­mon­ly shared were built into the pro­gram lat­er to bet­ter facil­i­tate the tal­ent devel­op­ment of the youth who par­tic­i­pate in the program. 
Your find­ings sug­gest that both envi­ron­men­tal and indi­vid­ual fac­tors (or “edu­ca­tion­al cap­i­tal” and “learn­ing cap­i­tal,” as you call them in the arti­cle) play impor­tant roles in how a STEMM-tal­ent­ed per­son trans­forms them­self into an emi­nent sci­en­tist, engi­neer, or inno­va­tor. Can you tell us a bit about the con­cept of edu­ca­tion­al and learn­ing cap­i­tal you used in the study?
Sure! The edu­ca­tion­al and learn­ing cap­i­tal frame­work is a frame­work or sys­tem com­ing out of the actiotope mod­el of gift­ed­ness (AMG), which is a mod­el of tal­ent devel­op­ment that Prof. Drs. Albert Ziegler and Prof. Dr. Hei­drun Stoeger have been devel­op­ing since the ear­ly 2000s. Besides look­ing at an indi­vid­ual, the AMG also con­sid­ers an individual’s socio­cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment and the sys­temic nature of individual–environment inter­ac­tions. In oth­er words, the mod­el con­sid­ers what is spe­cial about tal­ent­ed indi­vid­u­als togeth­er with all the envi­ron­men­tal ele­ments that facil­i­tate or hin­der their tal­ent devel­op­ment.

Edu­ca­tion­al and learn­ing cap­i­tal are used with­in the AMG con­cep­tu­al frame­work. Edu­ca­tion­al cap­i­tal refers to the dif­fer­ent fac­tors sit­u­at­ed in the envi­ron­ment. There are var­i­ous types of edu­ca­tion­al cap­i­tal. It includes, for exam­ple, infra­struc­tur­al cap­i­tal such as hav­ing access to good books, clubs, or local libraries. Cul­tur­al cap­i­tal cap­tures how being tal­ent­ed in STEMM is viewed in a cul­ture: Is it high­ly encour­aged for both gen­ders or it is viewed as more appro­pri­ate only for boys? These are some ele­ments that are out­side of a per­son but can influ­ence their tal­ent devel­op­ment.

Then there is learn­ing cap­i­tal, which refers to the indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics and fac­tors with­in the per­son that help deter­mine tal­ent devel­op­ment. For exam­ple, does an indi­vid­ual have the atten­tion span and resources need­ed to focus on one goal for an extend­ed peri­od of time? Or, does an indi­vid­ual have the right amount of knowl­edge and also know how to apply this knowl­edge? All in all, edu­ca­tion­al and learn­ing cap­i­tal each con­sists of five types. With my exam­ples, I only described a few of the types. In our study, we used the dif­fer­ent types of edu­ca­tion­al and learn­ing cap­i­tal as the frame­work for inves­ti­gat­ing whether experts in STEMM and tal­ent devel­op­ment men­tioned these com­po­nents in the interviews. 
Time is equal for every­one. There­fore, how they val­ue time dic­tates what they do with it and then influ­ences their learn­ing process.
Can you iden­ti­fy one or two of the most inter­est­ing fac­tors among those that inter­vie­wees men­tioned as impor­tant for reach­ing emi­nence in STEMM?
Cer­tain­ly! In the realm of learn­ing cap­i­tal, which is about the fac­tors with­in each indi­vid­ual, pas­sion was men­tioned most fre­quent­ly by both groups of inter­vie­wees. This fac­tor demon­strates the inter­nal dri­ve of the indi­vid­u­als who can­not help but invest as much time and thought as pos­si­ble toward push­ing them­selves ever fur­ther into the field. Their enthu­si­asm for learn­ing did not spring from know­ing their par­ents want­ed them to excel or because they knew theirs was a pop­u­lar field. It also wasn’t about their desire to earn a lot of mon­ey one day. Rather, it was because they were fas­ci­nat­ed about their field and they just want­ed to absorb infor­ma­tion. Ear­ly on, this often hap­pened via books and arti­cles. Lat­er on, they were learn­ing from their super­vi­sors and peers.

The sec­ond fac­tor that both groups men­tioned is the enjoy­ment of and long­ing for solv­ing prob­lems. Besides the pure pas­sion for the sub­ject, there needs to be a gen­uine enjoy­ment relat­ed to solv­ing prob­lems, it seems.

The third fac­tor the inter­vie­wees men­tioned is hav­ing domain-spe­cif­ic knowl­edge before becom­ing emi­nent. The mas­tery not only of a field of knowl­edge but also skills relat­ed to doing aca­d­e­m­ic research such as syn­the­siz­ing lit­er­a­ture, con­duct­ing data analy­sis, or pre­sent­ing ideas to a wider audi­ence are deci­sive towards emi­nence, we learned.

Anoth­er fac­tor that one of the tal­ent devel­op­ment experts men­tioned and stood out for me in these inter­views is time man­age­ment. She explained that any­one who can become that good in a field (i.e., emi­nent), has to know just how pre­cious time is. Time is equal for every­one. There­fore, how indi­vid­u­als val­ue time dic­tates what they do with it and then influ­ences their learn­ing process. I found this aspect remark­able, and very impor­tant for our pro­gram. Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is an extra-cur­ric­u­lar pro­gram, and stu­dents have to decide whether they want to spend time each week ben­e­fit­ing from the pro­gram by talk­ing with their men­tors or join­ing com­mu­ni­ty events.

From the edu­ca­tion­al-cap­i­tal side, two fac­tors stood out for me among the experts’ com­ments: first, cul­tur­al cap­i­tal (like the val­ues from a person’s fam­i­ly and soci­ety that are instilled in them) and sec­ond, social cap­i­tal (like the sup­port a per­son can have through­out the learn­ing process, which can be a very long and slow process). The inter­est­ing point here is the crit­i­cal role of a men­tor that pro­vides both types of cap­i­tal. Men­tors are role mod­els for stu­dents in many ways. They are role mod­els in how they val­ue their sub­ject or how they con­duct them­selves as an expert or as a per­son rep­re­sent­ing that sub­ject, for exam­ple. More­over, men­tors can intro­duce the mentee to even more experts or col­leagues in the field as they are at the cen­ter of excel­lence. Grow­ing social cap­i­tal and hav­ing access to spe­cial­ists for ask­ing ques­tions and bounc­ing off ideas are among the many ben­e­fits of being in this kind of rich environment. 
Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is an online men­tor­ing pro­gram. How is men­tor­ing oper­a­tional­ized in Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing? How does the expe­ri­ence dif­fer from just hav­ing a car­ing per­son to talk with via video chat?
In Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing, men­tor­ing is defined as a rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ship between a more knowl­edge­able person—the mentor—and a younger, less expe­ri­enced person—the pro­tégée or mentee—that gives the less expe­ri­enced per­son a chance to learn from the more expe­ri­enced per­son. Men­tors must care. How­ev­er, just car­ing isn’t enough for the type of tal­ent men­tor­ing we advo­cate in the pro­gram. Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing imple­ments goal-ori­ent­ed men­tor­ing, which encour­ages mentees and men­tors to set men­tor­ing goals based on the mentees’ STEMM learn­ing goals and progress, and struc­tures their men­tor­ing ses­sions to work on and achieve the men­tor­ing goals. A recent meta-analy­sis (Chris­tensen et al., 2020) showed that goal-ori­ent­ed men­tor­ing is more effec­tive than the friend­ship mod­el of men­tor­ing, which posits that mentees can ben­e­fit mere­ly by spend­ing time with the men­tor as a friend.

Goal-ori­ent­ed men­tor­ing has impli­ca­tions for var­i­ous aspects of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing. Let’s start with match­ing. Since the goal is to pro­mote STEMM tal­ent, it is very impor­tant that we match mentees and men­tors based on the mentee’s STEMM field of inter­est and the mentor’s STEMM field of exper­tise. The more spe­cif­ic the STEMM-field match the bet­ter, because only then can the men­tor and the mentee real­ly get into their con­tent area togeth­er.

The goal-ori­ent­ed struc­ture also impacts the pro­gram expe­ri­ence and how we want mentees and men­tors to use their time togeth­er. Our goal-ori­ent­ed approach led us to design the plat­form in a way that par­tic­i­pants have a spe­cial area for goal setting—something like a work­bench for men­tors and mentees to work togeth­er on a goal and to see how far along they are in com­plet­ing a goal. Accord­ing­ly, we pro­vide par­tic­i­pants with train­ing mate­ri­als that explain not only what goal-ori­ent­ed men­tor­ing is about but also why it is impor­tant. We want our mentor–mentee dyads (the term we use for pair­ings of men­tors and mentees) to go far beyond friend­ly chats and check-ins and have sub­stan­tive, work­ing con­ver­sa­tions about the goals they are set­ting and work­ing on togeth­er to the end of has­ten­ing the mentee’s tal­ent devel­op­ment in a spe­cif­ic STEMM domain. More­over, we expect our men­tors to pro­vide their mentees with knowl­edge in their field and share with them insights about, for exam­ple, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and net­work­ing. In oth­er words, we want our men­tors to induct their mentees into their respec­tive STEMM fields. 
Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing con­tin­ues to use research and eval­u­a­tion results to opti­mize the pro­gram. Which research aspects have you exam­ined? Are there cer­tain aspects that appear to be par­tic­u­lar­ly cru­cial for the suc­cess of the program?
One of the ques­tions we want­ed to look into was how cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences may play a role in terms of devel­op­ing and main­tain­ing the men­tor­ing rela­tion­ship. To this end, we con­duct­ed qual­i­ta­tive stud­ies for which we iden­ti­fied dif­fer­ent types of cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences. For exam­ple, in some coun­tries, peo­ple val­ue hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures, that is, they afford spe­cial respect to more knowl­edge­able indi­vid­u­als. In such cul­tures, peo­ple are more open to tak­ing orders from more knowl­edge­able indi­vid­u­als. In oth­er coun­tries, peo­ple place more val­ue on notions of equi­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty. We won­dered how this cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence might influ­ence the mentor–mentee rela­tion­ships in the program.

In prac­tice, we saw that some of our dyads in the pro­gram were thriv­ing. The dyads were work­ing well togeth­er, and we could see that the mentee was pro­gress­ing. In a small­er num­ber of dyads, we could see that men­tor­ing was not thriv­ing, for var­i­ous rea­sons. Dif­fer­en­tial dyad out­comes involved var­i­ous fac­tors. I’ll just men­tion a few: mentor–mentee inter­ac­tion pat­terns and com­mu­ni­ca­tion pref­er­ences, time dif­fer­ences, or mentees going through tran­si­tions from school to uni­ver­si­ty. In these sorts of cas­es, our pro­gram rep­re­sen­ta­tives usu­al­ly inter­vene and pro­vide sup­port in order to resolve prob­lems. How­ev­er, since we fore­saw that such dif­fi­cul­ties might arise between men­tors and mentees, we includ­ed train­ing mate­ri­als on rel­e­vant top­ics and have con­tin­ued adding more relat­ed top­ics to the training. 
Are there also fac­tors that are espe­cial­ly impor­tant in light of the program’s online for­mat?
Ah, I’m glad you’ve final­ly asked this ques­tion! The sim­ple answer is, yes, and I real­ly enjoy dis­cussing the answer, because it pro­vides a lot of insight into what it means to care­ful­ly orches­trate a men­tor­ing pro­gram. From among the train­ing mate­ri­als that the pro­gram pro­vides for men­tors and mentees, the align­ment of expec­ta­tions between mentees and men­tors is a fac­tor I like to stress. For­mal­ly align­ing expec­ta­tions helps both par­ties to explic­it­ly state their expec­ta­tions and make sure the oth­er side under­stood what they meant. This point is always impor­tant. How­ev­er, it is even more impor­tant for an online men­tor­ing pro­gram. With com­put­er-medi­at­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion, peo­ple have less of an in-per­son chance to build a rela­tion­ship and read non­ver­bal cues. This affects all man­ner of con­sid­er­a­tions, from very ‘logis­ti­cal’ aspects such as the fre­quen­cy or length of meet­ings to more con­cep­tu­al aspects of the mentor–mentee rela­tion­ship such as the mentor’s role, the mentee’s spe­cif­ic STEMM inter­est, the dyad’s focus on either a project or acquir­ing more knowl­edge, the type of con­fer­ence the mentee should attend, or the mentor’s day-to-day job expe­ri­ence in a lab, just to name some exam­ples. As their expec­ta­tions can be very dif­fer­ent, men­tors and mentees can quick­ly and eas­i­ly get dis­ap­point­ed with the rela­tion­ship if the expec­ta­tions are nev­er spec­i­fied or discussed.

Anoth­er cru­cial fac­tor in the suc­cess of the pro­gram as an online pro­gram is the lev­el of sup­port pro­vid­ed to the par­tic­i­pants by the pro­gram itself (not only by the dyad part­ners). For each dyad, a ded­i­cat­ed team mem­ber (a pro­gram rep­re­sen­ta­tive) mon­i­tors the mentee’s and mentor’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions, activ­i­ties, and progress on a week­ly basis. The pro­gram rep­re­sen­ta­tives also sched­ule check-in meet­ings with the mentee and men­tor to under­stand whether the dyad needs cus­tom assis­tance or help. One of the most com­mon areas in which dyads need a lit­tle extra help is recon­nect­ing when com­mu­ni­ca­tion gets mixed up. I think this fea­ture is very impor­tant for an online pro­gram because some­times mentees can be very shy to start a con­ver­sa­tion. In some cul­tures, for exam­ple, mentees fre­quent­ly feel anx­ious if they aren’t cer­tain that they have a right to ini­ti­ate an inter­ac­tion with their men­tor, where­as some­times men­tors from oth­er cul­tures will then mis­in­ter­pret the mentee’s ret­i­cence in com­mu­ni­ca­tion as a sign that the mentee is not inter­est­ed in the men­tor­ing if the mentee doesn’t active­ly reach out to the men­tor. In these sorts of moments, the pro­gram rep­re­sen­ta­tives can help ‘reignite’ pro­duc­tive mentor–mentee com­mu­ni­ca­tion through check-in meet­ings. Fur­ther­more, the col­lec­tive infor­ma­tion the pro­gram rep­re­sen­ta­tives gain through such meet­ings informs the pro­gram and helps its optimization. 
Peo­ple who become the next gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers, inno­va­tors, or sci­en­tists have a lot of pow­er to shape soci­ety. Men­tors as role mod­els can show the next gen­er­a­tion of domain lead­ers research ethics and how to use their tal­ent for the com­mon good of human beings and society.
As an edu­ca­tion­al psy­chol­o­gist, how impor­tant do you see the role of men­tor­ing in the edu­ca­tion­al progress of young tal­ent­ed students?
I think it’s very impor­tant! Every per­son who aims to reach a high lev­el of under­stat­ing, com­pe­tence, and achieve­ment in a field has to be guid­ed by some­one who already has the knowl­edge, has trav­eled the same path, and basi­cal­ly has reached a high lev­el of achieve­ment. It is hard, per­haps even impos­si­ble to get the prop­er guid­ance from peers or school teach­ers. As I men­tioned ear­li­er, men­tors can play so many dif­fer­ent roles in mentees’ devel­op­men­tal stages. We know from tal­ent devel­op­ment research that when a per­son is devel­op­ing their tech­ni­cal skills, they need a men­tor who is an expert in the field to not only help them per­fect their knowl­edge and skills but also to have the nec­es­sary sup­port. The fur­ther an indi­vid­ual goes down a path of tal­ent devel­op­ment, the more chal­lenges that per­son will be fac­ing that many oth­er peo­ple have not expe­ri­enced before. Fur­ther­more, peo­ple who become the next gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers, inno­va­tors, or sci­en­tists have a lot of pow­er to shape soci­ety. Men­tors as role mod­els can show the next gen­er­a­tion of domain lead­ers research ethics and how to use their tal­ent for the com­mon good of human beings and soci­ety rather than just for their own gains and prof­it. There­fore, I believe men­tors play a sig­nif­i­cant role in many ways. 

Chris­tensen, K. M., Hagler, M. A., Stams, G. J., Raposa, E. B., Bur­ton, S., & Rhodes, J. E. (2020). Non-spe­cif­ic ver­sus tar­get­ed approach­es to youth men­tor­ing: A fol­low-up meta-analy­sis. Jour­nal of Youth and Ado­les­cence, 49(5), 959–972. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-020–01233‑x

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