On Mentorship, Lab Environments, and Job Applicant Disclosure: An Interview with Chemistry Professor Jen Heemstra

Editorial Board Member John Caldora recently had the chance to correspond with Dr. Jen Heemstra, who runs Heemstra Lab at Emory University in Georgia.

Jen Heemstra received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of California, Irvine, in 2000. At Irvine, she performed undergraduate research with Prof. James Nowick investigating the folding of synthetic beta-sheet mimics, which instilled in her a love of supramolecular chemistry. Jen then moved to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she completed her Ph.D. with Prof. Jeffrey Moore in 2005 studying the reactivity of pyridine-functionalized phenylene ethynylene cavitands. After a brief stint in industry as a medicinal chemist, she moved to Harvard University to pursue postdoctoral research with Prof. David Liu exploring mechanisms for templated nucleic acid synthesis. In 2010, Jen began her independent career in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah, and was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2016.  In 2017, Jen and her research group moved to the Department of Chemistry at Emory University. Research in the Heemstra lab is focused on harnessing the molecular recognition and self-assembly properties of nucleic acids for applications in biosensing and bioimaging. Jen can be found on Twitter @jenheemstra.

Their discussion includes considerations for autistic students about disclosing as a job applicant and the social expectations in the lab environment. One thing that really stands out from this exchange is the importance of finding a mentor who will champion you and support your academic and professional success. Thank you for speaking with us, Jen!

Q: What should someone look for in a mentor or advisor in a STEM field? Are there particular areas where compatibility is especially important?

Compatibility of research interests is critically important. Beyond that, I think the most important thing to look for is someone who cares about you and your future career. Great mentors want to see you succeed, are committed to helping you throughout your career, and want to see you live out your own career aspirations, not just replicate theirs.

It is also important to make sure that their expectations match what you want from your experience. For example, if you want the freedom to explore your own ideas, don’t choose a mentor who will want to micromanage you and your project. When seeking out information about expectations, ask both the advisor and current or former members of their lab. The lab members will often give you a more accurate picture of what it is like to work in that lab.

Q: As we are in an era where news of the mistreatment and harassment of graduate students in STEM fields makes the news (such as Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle of Higher Education) on an almost daily basis, what are some things that autistic students, female and male, who are particularly vulnerable to such harassment, can do to protect themselves?

In STEM fields, a student’s experience is largely determined by their research advisor, so choosing a mentor who is supportive and respects the uniqueness of each individual is a key step to having a positive experience. Students can also seek out departments and universities that are mindful of inclusiveness and have systems in place to address harassment. As an example, many universities or programs have a designated ombudsperson who students can go to for help if they are in a dispute with their advisor or are being mistreated.

Q: What is a typical STEM lab environment like in terms of social interaction? Do colleagues become friends? Are they expected to engage with each other outside of work? Conversely, is it a more competitive environment, where you are expected to do what is necessary to make sure you, as an individual, succeed?

Laboratory environments vary widely, and this is another important factor to consider when choosing a program and research lab. In some labs, group members are highly focused on their own projects and interact minimally with their colleagues. Other groups are highly collaborative and group members talk with each other multiple times a day. Graduate school is stressful, so it is common for students to form friendships either with their lab-mates or with colleagues from another lab, as this support network can be helpful for persisting through the difficult times. This often leads to social interactions outside of work, but these interactions are not viewed as expected or required. It’s also important to note that there is a wide variety of formats for social interactions – while parties are common, it’s also common to go to the gym together for a more individual activity such as swimming laps. Thus, there are ways to connect with others that fit with a variety of social styles and preferences.
Graduate school can be viewed as competitive, as securing a job afterward is largely dependent on what you accomplish and are able to put on your CV or resume. However, I would argue that collaborating and helping others often makes everyone more successful, and thus competitiveness and collegiality are not mutually exclusive. In competing for jobs, you will be competing against everyone in the world, and so working together with your lab-mates or other students in your program can be greatly to your overall benefit.

Q: When on the job search in a STEM field, do you think it is to an autistic job seeker’s benefit to disclose their status or not? How can they tell?

This is a very tough question with no straightforward answer. On one hand, disclosing too early could create bias that eliminates you from the competition. On the other hand, disclosing provides context that can help you have a more successful interaction with a future employer. The difference here is the attitude of the employer – whether they are looking to cut people who don’t “fit in” or if they are looking to create a diverse team that respects each individual and provides everyone with the environment they need to be successful. In the end, you really want to be in the latter type of group, and thus being cut from consideration because of your status could actually be saving you from a toxic situation. However, you also have to contend with the reality that this ideal environment may not be an immediate option, and you need to be savvy about securing the opportunities that you need to advance your career.

Thanks again to Jen for speaking with us.

If you have questions or comments about this exchange, please leave them below!

For more on mentorship and autistic students, see grad student Laura Gilmour’s audio interviews with her STEM mentor, part one here. For organizing your process for apply to grad school, check out Patrick Dwyer’s Problem-Focused Coping: Autism and Preparing for Graduate School in Research Fields. Faculty might also appreciate this incredibly insightful post from John: The Accommodations Process: A Primer for Faculty.

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John Caldora, M.Ed. is a case manager who works with students of concern at a large public university in the Southern United States. He is also a member of the autism spectrum. John draws on his personal experiences as well as his knowledge of Higher Education administration to help autistic students succeed. He has spent years presenting to higher education professionals regarding best practice interventions and encouraging self-advocacy in students.


  1. I’m wondering if there are resources for autistic grad students and professionals. A student came to me distressed because she doesn’t have access to resources she feels she needs to be successful as a student with autism. She’s leaving her PhD program with a master degree as a result. I had no resources for her nor do I know if this convo is being had in academia or outside.

  2. Hi Jessica, Thanks for your comment, and apologies for the slow reply! This is a tricky situation, in part because we often think about things like support, accommodations, and disclosure primarily in the context of the undergraduate experience, but they can be just as important and necessary for graduate students. I do think this conversation is getting more attention in academia, but how that translates (or if it does) to meaningful results for any one student is difficult to assess. One question I would have is what does the student understand to be the barrier: is it a skeptical or bullying advisor, an unhelpful Disabilities Services Office (DSO), a lack of official diagnosis, some combination? All of those might be addressed in different ways. If she has an official diagnosis, she is legally entitled to accommodations, though what’s “reasonable” in the eyes of the school in relation to any one student’s disability can vary. That said, the school cannot discriminate or deny services, and to do so is to open itself up to legal action.

    Two, I might suggest, while knowing very little of this particular situation, that the very best support she has is you. Is there an opportunity for you to write or speak on her behalf? You might reach out to the Department Chair or someone in Disability or Student Services: where on campus do you sense she might be connected with the kind of ally that can support her continued study at your institution? Where can you get a significant conversation started to address culture, policy, etc.? Outreach could also mean putting her in touch with your network or other scholars and researchers who you think might be a good match for her at other institutions. I appreciate that academia can be a complex place for faculty, that faculty often face burdensome workloads, and that not every professor or instructor may feel able to take those kinds of actions, assuming they’re welcomed by the student. However, if she has committed to leaving, working to support her success at an institution that would value her could be meaningful support.

    I also wonder to what extent she has sought out fellow autistic students. Is there any kind of club or network on campus? Is she on autistic twitter, FB, or other social media? Graduate school can be so difficult, and when students are dealing with added stressors from disability, things can be even more challenging. Having a community of peers to support you is integral, but I do believe such communities can be built across distances. Finally, I will post some links to articles below, which may help generate some ideas for you or your student, including some other STS posts, particularly those written by a couple of our grad student contributors. I am sure that if she were to reach out to them in the comments or forums, she could strike up some illuminating and useful conversations. I hope this helps, and let’s continue the conversation.

    https://www.aane.org/ – these first three may be especially helpful if your student is experiencing discrimination
    https://www.stairwaytostem.org/families/the-academic-world/ – geared toward undergrads, but may have some useful refreshers on the legal aspects of supports/accommodations/etc.
    https://www.stairwaytostem.org/stem-autism-and-building-professional-relationships-interview-with-a-mentor-part-one/ – so useful for students and educators
    https://www.stairwaytostem.org/problem-focused-coping-autism-and-preparing-for-graduate-school-in-research-fields/ – also some good insight into the question of whether to disclose to prospective advisors/programs

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