International Mentoring Month may be over, but we’re continuing to celebrate the powers of mentorship with another interview. Last month we talked to Ali Smith from Overleaf about his work with Code Your Future. Then we spoke to Cathy Holland who has over 10 years of experience in the STM publishing industry.

For this edition, we caught up with Aphra Bennett. Aphra is currently doing an undergraduate degree at the University of York in Physics with Philosophy. She is passionate about societal challenges such as the lack of engagement of women in STEM and climate change.

Can you talk about your journey over the past few years as a mentee?

I have previously only had one experience of being a mentee and this was in 2017 when Suze Kundu mentored me to a do public speech at Ada Lovelace Live. I was not aware that you could actually get mentored for public speaking, but I am extremely glad that I was. I had had only a few experiences of doing public speaking, but at the time this was the first instance in which I would be addressing such a large crowd concerning a topic of such importance. Having Suze as a mentor was truly invaluable – she helped me structure my speech, encouraged me to express and vocalise my initial ideas and supported me in reaching my full potential. She allowed me to pursue things and consider things that I would not have if I were to carry out the task by myself like using social media to reach a larger audience.

All in all, though my journey of being a mentee has not been a long one yet, it has been an extremely useful and rewarding one and has first and foremost encouraged me to ask for help, which is something that can easily be forgotten.

Who has helped you pursue your goals?

Many people have helped me pursue my goals depending on the environment I am in. For goals that have been more tailored to the public (e.g. public speaking), if I return back to my experience of speaking at Ada Lovelace Day Live, the list of people who helped me is quite long. The founders of the event (Suw and Lorna) played a huge role in accepting me as a public speaker for their wonderful event and for allowing me to feel more comfortable with the whole process by giving me time space to practise on the actual stage that the event was occurring on, searching for mentors on my behalf, looking over my PowerPoint slides that were to be presented. Also, my father played a huge role, not only for that particular example but for other life goals I may pursue as he gives great practical advice and sets me on the correct path so that this goal can actually be pursued. And of course, Suze Kundu who helped me pursue this goal of public speaking on a large platform by making the experience very enjoyable with the least amount of stress attached to it.

How would you define a good mentor?

To me, a good mentor is someone who reminds you of your strengths and makes a point of helping you improve on your weaker points. They point you in the right direction but they don’t necessarily hold your hand through the process because they realise that you need to be guided not necessarily given the whole path. A good mentor allows you to realise your potential when you may not have realised it or may have been holding yourself back i.e. they encourage you to dream big and not to restrict yourself. In informal terms, they ‘practise what they preach’ meaning that the advice they give they clearly use themselves because this is a sign that what they are telling me to do or what they are suggesting actually works.

A good mentor listens to what the mentee has to say and is willing to exchange ideas rather than do things in one set way.

Progress throughout a career – especially today – is a path that is not always straightforward. What can a good mentor do to make the journey a little more comfortable?

Something that I find to be useful is not only to give advice but to make sure that this advice is extremely practical. I think this because if you know your path is not really set in stone and cannot really be determined then when new issues come up that you may not know how to deal with, a practical next step can usually provide you with some ease. If there was a situation in your career where you decided that you wanted to acquire a higher position at work but were unsure as to how or whether you can handle it, a good mentor would guide you through this transition by advising you on the best practical steps to take, not in a way that seems like it’s imposing, but in a way so that you feel like you have options, even if it may feel like a restrictive or overwhelming situation.

Have you been, or would you consider being, a mentor for others? If so, what is it about this that attracts you?

I definitely would because not only have I personally benefited greatly from being a mentee but I really believe that in some cases there is no point in letting people struggle through something if it has already been done and a solution/easier method has been found. For example, I could have spent hours or days researching public speaking and how to captivate an audience but instead, I spent time talking to Suze – who had a great deal of experience in public speaking – which gave me more confidence in my abilities. I think what attracts me about being a mentor is that it’s important to use your experience(s) to help others because there are certain things that you may have had to go through that may have been unnecessary that they can simply avoid.

Furthermore, having a mentor is quite inspiring and motivating because to some extent you are working to be in their shoes and they are a constant reminder that what you are trying to achieve can actually be done. If I were a mentor, I would also like to serve as a reminder that so many things are attainable and within people’s reach.

How do you think that mentoring and / or outreach programmes helped you decide on a career to pursue?

Mentoring and outreach programmes have allowed me to realise that I had more choices and opportunities than I originally thought for what careers I wanted to pursue. After talking to Suze about her university experience and her career I felt very inspired and many things that I had not considered before suddenly seemed in my reach because I had actually spoken to someone who had gone through it.

Also, if I hadn’t attended many events for women in STEM with my father and other science-based events that were outreach programmes I probably would have a gap in my knowledge as to what careers were actually out there to pursue. Not only did I get great information from them but I had examples of these careers and what I could do to attain them.