This year has been hard in many ways but I was very honored and grateful to receive the 2020 NCWIT Mentoring Award for Undergraduate Research. Numbers are not everything, but I’m really happy that 49% of students in my lab have been women, 70% people of color, and that the students have come from backgrounds ranging from computing to biology, math, and humanities. Including the new people who joined this spring, I’ve mentored (here “mentoring” refers to instruction and training outside of the classroom) 71 students, including eight from other universities.
Undergraduates are different from graduate students– oftentimes, writing a peer-reviewed academic paper or going to grad school (both things which would be hugely beneficial to me as a research professor) are not things they want to do. Some do end up participating in writing papers (11 publications, 4 with an undergrad as the lead author), but many just want to learn different skills, or be in a group that makes them feel socially connected.
One of the unique things about our lab is that most start with no knowledge or experience and come as volunteers, which is slightly different from other labs I’ve seen where skilled students are recruited and paid. If a student does really well their first semester, I find a way to pay them for subsequent semesters if they want to stay. I have spent many many hours writing grants and applying for even the smallest amount of money (like $200 grants) and recommending them for various scholarships to secure funding for students. Over the past five years I’ve received ten grants that helped support my undergrads. I think (especially for those that stay beyond a semester) they genuinely like doing research; I’ve stopped actively recruiting in the past few years because they keep bringing their friends and I don’t want to have more than 20 students a semester. That is always a good sign.
Being a professor has its ups and downs but interacting with undergrads in my lab is pure delight and makes me excited to go to work. I have traveled with these students to conference, gone to conventions with them, seen them mature as individuals and scholars, and it is so fulfilling to see how they help and inspire each other and grow together as a team. It is also great that the university is making a bigger effort to raise awareness of undergraduate research; now I have students joining in their first or second year, which means we have several years to work together. It is summer “break” but currently I am working with seven undergrads this summer on varied projects and they have already produced a video and helped submit three academic papers. It’s so exciting that sometimes I forget we are in the middle of a pandemic. I learn so much from them about what makes a good leader/mentor and look forward to learning more.