Meet Christina Hull, ARMP Facilitator

How do faculty and staff become more effective mentors to their research trainees? One way is by participating in our Advancing Research Mentoring Practice (ARMP) training, which uses the evidence-based Entering Mentoring curriculum.

Facilitators like Christina Hull make these trainings possible. All facilitators are experienced mentors who have completed our Entering Mentoring Facilitator Training—and each person brings a unique perspective to the role. We asked Dr. Hull about her background and experience as an ARMP facilitator.

Tell us about your role and the work you do at UW–Madison.

I am a professor in the Departments of Biomolecular Chemistry and Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and Public Health. In my research, I am interested in how human fungal pathogens develop and how their development influences their ability to cause fatal disease in people. I am a medical mycologist, and I’m trying to develop interventions to help treat severe fungal disease. In my lab, we have graduate students, undergraduates, and postdocs. I usually run a research group of about eight people at any given time, and we’re interested in everything from basic biology to drug development.

At the same time, I have a long-standing interest in diversifying the face of science and making scientific research available to everyone who’s capable of doing it. And I think we’ve not done that very well, so I’ve really tried to push this idea throughout my career and ask, “What is the best way for us to continue to make science open to everybody?” And that is in part where Advancing Research Mentoring Practice comes in.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

A fun fact about me: I love 3D printing! In my lab, we study a fungus called Cryptococcus neoformans. About 15 years ago, my lab got some beautiful scanning electron micrographs, and my daughter took an electron micrograph of Cryptococcus and made a 3D print file. I now have glow-in-the-dark 3D-printed Cryptococcus spores 10,000 times actual size. Having something tactile is great for outreach, so I print hundreds of these spores. We take them to classes and conferences. We give them out to people at posters. Now people remember our work and they remember what they learned in a way that doesn’t happen as effectively otherwise.

A white 3D printed object representing a fungus spore with a flag on top that reads "Hull Lab" in red letters.
One of Dr. Hull’s 3D–printed spores

How long have you been facilitating ARMP?

I’ve only facilitated ARMP for two years, but I’ve used the CIMER Entering Mentoring curriculum for many years. I use it in my laboratory, so anybody who’s mentoring in the lab goes through this training and uses the feedback mechanisms that are in the basic curriculum.

I was also an NIH Training Grant director for about 10 years. In this role, I did a lot of professional development activities with trainees and used the Entering Mentoring curriculum with students. So when the opportunity came to use the curriculum with faculty, I felt pretty confident that I had facilitated enough with students to be able to do it with colleagues.

How did you first get started in mentoring?

The Entering Mentoring curriculum was used in a course in scientific management for junior faculty members in 2005, sponsored by HHMI and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. I was a Burroughs Wellcome Fund awardee at the time, and they offered our cohort this course facilitated by Jo Handelsman and Christine Pfund. So that mentoring-as-science intersection started really early in my faculty career.

One more recent opportunity that was really helpful was when one of my students was awarded an HHMI Gilliam Fellowship. HHMI has had these kinds of fellowships in different iterations for a long time. In the most recent iteration, they’ve done a really ingenious thing: the fellowship requires that the students’ mentors do a year-long course in culturally aware mentoring. If you want the funding for your student, you have to take the course. This is brilliant, because now the money is working to accomplish the goal of changing the way that people interface with trainees in the field.

This gave me an opportunity to take a year-long course from some of the best people in the field: Angela Byars-Winston and Christine Pfund from our campus, and Sherilynn Black from Duke. In addition to the course, I got a year-long tutorial in facilitation by watching and learning from their examples. I feel like being able to absorb their wisdom and strategies set me up really well to become a facilitator for ARMP.

As a facilitator, is working with faculty and staff different than with students? 

For any group, I try to give people a chance to work through things and talk. Faculty are really good at that. Students tend to have a harder time speaking up, whereas faculty tend to be a little less shy about sharing their thoughts. And I really have enjoyed that, because it’s more of a conversation and people sharing their ideas and problem-solving on the ground. That’s why I really like the curriculum—the more faculty are talking to each other, the more I think everybody’s getting out of it.

I want it to be value added. I don’t want this to be a checkbox for folks. I want to really get at some of the deeper challenges people are facing every day, and then get them to share those so that we can problem-solve around them.

What are some mentoring successes you’ve had or a memorable mentoring experience?

I had an experience where I had developed a relationship with a trainee who wasn’t in my lab. One time, she came to talk to me about something very pro forma, and we were having a conversation about how things were going. She was talking to me, and I was able to say, “I don’t think the words coming out of your mouth are matching you. I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re saying, because it doesn’t seem like things are great, even though you’re saying that they are.” You know, just to be able to say that to someone was powerful, and to have that person be able to bring their whole self in and say, “Actually, things are terrible. I’m thinking about harming myself. I’m not okay and I don’t know what to do,” was huge. Then I was able to provide some resources for her to get the help she needed.

As a mentor, it’s pretty amazing to be able to open up space for that. To have the science happening in this amazing way by this amazing person, and to make sure that gets to keep happening. And I got a thank you note from her family for getting her the help she needed. That was pretty amazing.

Do I think every PI needs to have that kind of relationship with their mentees? I don’t. But I do think that having enough mentors around to create space like that for mentees is really valuable. We can keep folks in the field who have so much to contribute, when they might not have been able to persist before because there wasn’t room to bring complex challenges to the table and get help.

What are some ways that you apply the skills and knowledge from ARMP into your mentoring practice?

I’ve facilitated some of the CIMER curriculum with my own laboratory. One of the activities is doing an identity box, or a culture box, where you bring in items that you think are representative of an identity that you hold, and then you can share that with the group. Watching that was very satisfying as a mentor because there were things that people shared that made interesting connections that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred before. I have an undergraduate who is a first-generation college student from an economically disadvantaged background, and she shared that as her identity. She shared a book that was basically about going to college when you don’t have anybody to help you, and she said, “This is my bible.” I have a senior graduate student in the lab who is also from a first-generation, economically disadvantaged background. It’s not something that either of them had ever shared.

And when they shared that, it forged a connection that I think has made it easier for the undergraduate to persist in the space, and easier for the senior graduate student to see his role in mentoring the next generation of scientists. I don’t know that this would have come up otherwise. So that was pretty cool. Those are the things I find really satisfying.

What do you enjoy most about facilitating ARMP?

The stories that people bring to the table about mentees and their experiences. Sharing people’s experiences and hearing all the creative problem-solving that goes on, and how much people are trying to do a good job. Most of them are really trying, and that’s heartening.

It’s great to have a forum for people to talk about their challenges and what has or hasn’t worked for them. So for example, a very senior person saying, you know, I’ve mentored for 40 years, and here’s something I still struggle with. And that person being able to have a bit of a lightbulb moment when hearing other perspectives. I think that’s pretty valuable.

And it’s nice to be able to explain the research and share examples rather than just saying, “You must have written expectations. You must put this on your website.” It doesn’t have to be that way, and I think telling faculty that is important. They still get to mentor how they mentor, but here are some things that might be helpful. That’s one of my favorite things, being able to give people the information.

I appreciate having opportunities for new perspectives. I learned from someone while discussing imposter syndrome. The way we usually talk about imposter syndrome is, “Everybody has it, it’s common, and it’s irrational, because you deserve to be in the space and you are capable of doing this.” And I had a faculty member say, “Wait a minute, it’s not irrational. If you’re in a space as a person of color, and the messaging you get from everyone around you is that you don’t belong in that space, it’s not irrational to feel imposter syndrome. You’re gaslighting people by saying that.” I hadn’t considered it that way. Now we’ve started to have a conversation around this, and I’ve realized that I can improve how I talk about imposter phenomena. Those moments for me are absolutely awesome because it’s not often that we have opportunities to fully share and learn new perspectives.

What do you consider to be the biggest benefits of ARMP?

Everything we are doing with this is going toward the same goal: how are we going to change the face of science? How are we going to make science more accessible? We’re going to do that by changing the environment and culture, and by mentoring the whole trainee so that people can see themselves in this space and stay in the space. Mentors are going to be the ones who do that. ARMP workshops are going to do it by giving mentors tools to engage with their mentees in a way that is open, welcoming, comfortable, and safe for everybody, while still meeting the rigorous demands of science and doing outstanding science training. Just being able to watch my peer mentors do that has been invaluable. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been here in the middle of it.

Learn more about ARMP and how you can get involved.