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For Many Health Science Professionals, Mentorship from Librarians Continues Beyond Penn Graduation

A librarian's intensive research support aids students during and after their academic careers.

Screen shot from the video "Literature Search for Systematic Review." Pictured in video windows at right, from top down: JoEllen McBride, Associate Director, Graduate Student Center; Melanie Cedrone, Collections Librarian & Biology Liaison, Penn Libraries; [headshot] Maylene Qiu, former Systematic Review Coordinator and Clinical Liaison Librarian, Penn Libraries.

The following blog post is a personal account of my experiences mentoring a select number of Master of Public Health (MPH) students who require additional assistance during and beyond their academic careers at Penn. The latter group request my participation following graduation and after finding positions in the public health professions.

After assisting many MPH students over several years who required help in finding appropriate literature for their Capstone projects, the final requirement for graduation, I was designated by the MPH faculty as a “methods mentor” to a select number. This title means that I work closely with these students over the remainder of their academic careers, offering more than the usual support in the form of advice on finding appropriate keywords and controlled vocabulary and creating effective search strategies in one or more databases based on a student’s research question or interest. With these students, a more intensive level of assistance is required as they and their faculty advisor have decided that their projects rise to the level of more than a basic literature review, and they wish to use multiple databases and grey literature (information produced outside of traditional publishing and distribution channels) as well as documenting the methods they used to do so. Often, they are hoping to produce a manuscript for publication along with finalizing their Capstones. Working with these students in this way is similar to working with faculty or other researchers who are members of teams who wish to publish a systematic review.

A common theme in our work together is the necessity to redefine search terms and strategies due to input from faculty that refines or changes a research question requiring a more nuanced (or sometimes completely different) approach. Throughout this process, my role includes educating the students to focus more on the details of term harvesting (creating a comprehensive list of relevant search terms) and strategy creation before searching can begin. To help them to understand these important steps in the search process, I suggest that they review videos on systematic reviews lectures offered by my former and current colleagues Maylene Qiu and Melanie Cedrone, respectively. Melanie’s in-depth demonstration of term gathering and searching is superb and could be a useful example for topics beyond the health sciences. These videos currently reside at the Graduate Student Center website; a PennKey login is required.

Next, we progress through frequent meetings to find the best terms to construct the best strategy across four or more databases. In addition, we work on web searches to find any appropriate grey literature. When students’ research topics include legal, economic, or other subject areas beyond the health sciences, I refer them to the appropriate colleagues at the appropriate area of the Penn Libraries.

Once searches are completed, students often require help in organizing citations for review. I suggest they use our subscribed citation management programs, RefWorks or Endnote, or the other tools listed in our Citation Management Tools guide. More recently, I have suggested using Covidence, which allows smooth title abstract reviewing and the automatic creation of PRISMA diagrams that show the student’s information flow during the review process, such as which articles were included or excluded, and why. I also suggest they review a video tutorial on the basics of using Covidence created by Frank Campbell.    

Ultimately, students can also require advice and support on the details of the methods used throughout the search and review process for incorporation into their Capstone papers and presentations prior to graduating with their MPH degrees. We work closely on this portion of the methods so that it will make their work transparent to others and will be available to students who may later choose to create a manuscript for publication.

In a few cases, I developed close working relationships with students that continue to extend beyond graduation. Most notably are the novice MPH graduates who continue working on their projects (along with their former faculty advisors) to publish articles and/or create presentations for professional organizations such as the American Public Health Association.  

One MPH graduate comes to mind with whom I am still engaged as they rewrite their research for publication. This student’s topic concerns the health of women who are incarcerated, focusing initially on childbirth and childcare issues while in prison. Extending beyond that focus the now-MPH professional is also considering more general health issues for these women, such as cancer screenings, addiction care, mental health problems such a postpartum depression, and overall health maintenance. They are hoping to submit the latest review to a journal soon, and have requested that I update search strategies for the additional topics and help with writing a description of the methods used to do so. I, along with their faculty advisor, will be coauthors.

A very recent example of post-MPH work by another former student is the successful acceptance for publication of an article on cervical cancer screenings for Haitian immigrant women living in Miami, Florida. This student’s faculty advisor and I have spent several years sporadically assisting them in updating citations and reviewing multiple manuscript drafts. This is a very positive outcome of our teamwork.

I believe that this blog post highlights the importance of in-depth assistance with a select number of graduate students who wish to complete intensive projects, often for publication.

Likewise, it illustrates the need for ongoing relationships with former students who have embarked on their new careers but are still in need of guidance and assistance from faculty and other mentors, such as librarians. This offers us the opportunity to extend the influence of academic expertise to the professional arenas in which these new public health professionals are now embedded. 



March 20, 2024