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By Jen Lindwall
Over three years ago, Mirah Scharer joined the first cohort of BUILD EXITO Scholars as a student at Chemeketa Community College, in Salem, Oregon. After her first year in the program, she transferred to Portland State University. Her research interests have centered around sexual and reproductive health, particularly in youth and disabled adult populations. Scharer developed these interests after receiving low-quality health education through her small town school system and from listening to the lived experiences of disabled adults during her research learning community placement in EXITO. She was placed with Dora Raymaker, Ph.D., to work in the Academic Autistic Spectrum Partnership In Research and Education (AASPIRE) lab, which brings together the academic and the autistic communities to develop and perform research projects relevant to the needs of adults on the autism spectrum. The AASPIRE lab adheres to the principles of Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) which engages academics and community members to serve as equal partners throughout the research process.
Within the lab there is a large and complex web of mentoring relationships including “generations” of mentoring that exist within the research setting. Christina Nicolaidis, M.D.,M.P.H., is the co-founder of AASPIRE with Raymaker, and she serves as a mentor to Raymaker. Both provide Scholars with intentional mentoring relationships that are unique to each undergraduate student working in the lab. The lab staff and students often joke that their mentoring roles are like roles in a family. Now that subsequent cohorts have joined the lab, Mirah serves as a mentor to new EXITO Scholars by supporting their onboarding process and providing encouragement as they adjust to work in a hands-on research setting.
“Laurie Powers [the most senior researcher involved] is ‘research great-grandma’ as Christina’s mentor. Christina is ‘research grandma’ and Dora is ‘research mom’ and I am ‘research big sister,’” Scharer said.
“In terms of my grandma role I love seeing how excited Dora gets every time Mirah reaches a new milestone and how rewarding Dora finds her mentoring interactions,” Nicolaidis said. “Mentoring has always been such an important part of my career and my identity - it's wonderful to watch my mentees reach the stage in their own careers where they get to have the joy of mentoring others.”
In May 2018, Scharer attended the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) conference in the Netherlands.
“I had never been on a plane before and Christina was very chill and cool about the whole experience—In the airport she gave me clear and calm instructions without ever getting even slightly anxious,” Scharer said. “Meanwhile, Christina is getting texts from an anxious and very excited Dora asking about how things were going, how I was doing, etc. It was very cute and very ‘mom’ and ‘grandma.’”
“I was so proud of Mirah throughout our trip. It was her first time on an airplane, let alone at an international conference,” Nicolaidis said. “The conference organizers had arranged a van to take all the keynote speakers from the regional meeting to the full meeting and Mirah rode with us. She was quiet at first, but when the conversation turned to gender identity in autism, she joined in with really interesting and insightful comments from her knowledge of the child development literature. It was so much fun to see these big wigs appreciating her comments and learning from her!”
CBPR isn’t just an approach used in research studies at the AASPIRE lab, it impacts how the lab members work together.
“CBPR puts everyone at the same table (community members, academics, advocates, etc.) and we all give each other equal respect and space to voice opinions and experiences,” Scharer explained. “This approach impacts how [Raymaker and Nicolaidis] manage their team. We all have a voice. Even as a Scholar my opinion, life experience, questions, and thoughts are welcomed and encouraged.”
Raymaker approaches mentoring with two lenses. She first considers what the mentee wants out of the mentoring experience and then which experiences she can give that will help prepare them for future success.
“The BUILD EXITO program has an additional mentorship lens, in that the Scholars I mentor are, like me, from populations that are underrepresented in NIH fields,” Raymaker said. “So I also try to provide information and support that isn’t typically given from mentors who haven’t had to deal with that extra burden of marginalization."
This approach and focus has proved valuable for Scholars. Scharer described how much she gained from these relationships.
“Not only have they endowed me with priceless experiences, they have taught me about research, the academy, disability rights, activism, feminism, overcoming my conditioning as a privileged person, and so much more,” Scharer said.
These relationships are not only beneficial for EXITO Scholars but also for their faculty mentors. Raymaker shared that in addition to contributing practical help to the lab, the Scholars have also taught her valuable lessons.
“Some of the best things I gain are about paying it forward. I never would have gotten into the position of being a mentor at all without the kindness, patience, and ongoing (multi-decade and multi-generational) support of my own mentors,” Raymaker said. “I get joy and satisfaction from being able to pass on the opportunities I was given on to others, and from the hope that comes of thinking they may pass those opportunities, in turn, on to their future mentees.”
This multifaceted and intentional mentoring focus in the lab has implications for the research they conduct and how they work together as a team.
“We work together fluidly with a common goal. I think we would all agree that if we could make a positive impact in one person’s life, through our research, we would be satisfied,“ Scharer said.
In June 2018, Scharer graduated with a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the Honors College at Portland State University. For Raymaker, a favorite memory was, “seeing Mirah up on stage last year at her BUILD EXITO graduation. There’s not enough room here–possibly anywhere–to describe how proud I am of her.” In August 2018, Scharer was hired on at PSU, working for the research lab she was placed in several years ago. She is currently working on five active projects, four of which are in a data collection phase. She continues learning and to make important contributions to the lab and the field of autism research.
The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.