Last autumn, I won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). I was humbled and surprised, as I've never viewed mentoring as an activity separate from my work.

I was fortunate to have several good mentors when I was a student. My undergraduate and dissertation supervisors encouraged me both to follow my scientific curiosity and to focus on my intellectual strengths, even when the two did not match up perfectly. They tolerated my insecurities and helped me to stay on track, mindful of funding and deadlines. Perhaps most importantly, I saw how they enjoyed their families and maintained some balance in their lives. They encouraged me to set my own hours and priorities, holding me accountable for my research without micromanaging the process. They taught me that the adviser's job is to help the student professionally — a student's publications should not be a means of bolstering the adviser's reputation.

I typically mentor students in classes, research internships or graduate programmes. One-to-one interaction is crucial for some, who lack confidence or focus. Many of my students are women, and we often discuss the climate in academia, the difficulties of balancing children with a career, and the challenges facing dual-career couples. I don't have any magical advice, as I struggle with these questions myself, but I do know it's important to communicate openly.

In a forthcoming 'white paper', my fellow award recipients and I argue that mentoring is crucial to improving technical and scientific literacy. I have recently been involved in a 'mentoring' partnership between Pennsylvania State University and Jackson State University (JSU) in Mississippi. Funded by the NSF, this 'pipeline project' aims to recruit and retain more students from ethnic minorities in the sciences, particularly in the many sub-fields of the geosciences. We're collaborating on research and developing an undergraduate programme in Earth-system science at JSU, including topics such as the long-term climate of Africa.

JSU now plans to hire two new faculty members in the geosciences. It's a start. As with one-to-one mentoring, the key has been to listen carefully to our JSU colleagues to help them achieve their goals.