Faculty Mentor Tips and Best Practices

In an effort to collect, share, disseminate information regarding undergraduate research and mentors, a workshop was recently held during UTK’s Research Week. Dr. Gregory Reed, Associate Vice Chancellor of Research and Engagement, noted that undergraduate research is one element of UTK’s strategic plan impacting retention and graduation. Noting that undergraduate research helps students who want to be successful, Dr. Reed says that the initiative is becoming more systematic with programs like this workshop.

Several undergraduate research faculty mentors shared their best practices and tips when they answered the main question presented during the workshop: What would you suggest to other faculty?

Tom Handler, Professor, Physics – Physics works with approximately 10 undergraduate research students at a time. They learn how to operate equipment and how to write programs, and they come to departmental group meetings to get a handle on the big picture. They learn to think outside the box.

Paul Ayers, Professor, Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science – He has worked with 91 undergraduate researchers over the years. His program is very hands-on, and he has a list of projects that students can choose from. He likes to hire high school students, who work in his lab during the summer before their freshman year. By the time they graduation, they often know more than his graduate students. He focuses giving the students the “5Rs” – resources, responsibility, respect, reward and recognition. Students are paid well ($10-12/hr.) and a lot is expected of them. He spends a great deal of time with students on summer projects, and takes 7-8 students on a trip for work with the U.S. Army.

Hollie Raynor, Associate Professor, Nutrition – She works with 3-6 undergraduate researchers per semester. They participate in two ways. The first is to receive course credit, and she expects students to make a two-semester commitment to research. They generally get involved in faculty or graduate student research projects. They have a Journal Club weekly, where they discuss articles related to the field and sometimes postdocs’ thesis defenses. In addition, they read grant proposals (if they don’t understand them, then they’re clearly not written well). If things go well, then they are invited to transition to summer projects with funding and/or develop their own research project. She meets with them once a week to plan out their project, as she does with grad students. Students can submit to conferences as first authors. Her department encourages students’ to pursue research experiences, starting by researching faculty members’ research interests on their websites.

Yuri Kamyshkov, Professor, Physics – (transparencies attached)  The most effective way to reach students is to tell them about undergraduate research in lectures, explaining why they need to participate. Advantages include: gain experience/learn new things, learn about the field, publish findings (sometimes), develop ties with faculty (references), gain recognition with rewards, be paid (rare), attain 1-3 credit hours, and have fun!  He spends about one hr./wk. per student and works with several engineering students, delegating tasks to grad students and Postdocs as appropriate. He currently has no option to pay students. He has found that individual research topics for each student help them feel identified as researchers. In his department’s faculty evaluation process, mentoring undergraduate researchers is perceived as a service without any teaching credit.

Jenny Macfie, Associate Professor, Psychology – She currently works with a small number of students in undergraduate research. Previously, when she had a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, she worked with 20-25 at a time. She views undergraduate research assistants as junior colleagues, and shows them both the big picture, in addition to the task they need to accomplish. She likes to pay for a project manager and data manager, with course credit via 489 Independent Studies for the others. All undergraduate research assistants work approximately 9 hrs./wk. She finds a lab manual helpful with so many students working at the same time for only a few hours with a relatively high turnover rate. Requirements to apply include at least a 3.5 GPA, a one-year commitment, and an interview. A weekly lab meeting, in addition to smaller group meetings, is helpful. After a year of research, students often present posters at national conferences. She provides mentorship, especially as students apply for graduate school and study for the GRE. LSAT, MCAT etc. She also supports students’ applications for fellowships and internships, and helps them with their applications to graduate school.

Lou Gross, Distinguished Professor and Evolutionary Biology – He focuses on interdisciplinary research, i.e., biology/agriculture with quantitative disciplines such as math and computer science. The goal is to collaborate and learn from each other. He pays up to $15/hr. (students with computational experience are paid the most). His students can choose projects from a list or create their own, with many being involved in collaborative projects with undergraduate, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from different disciplines. He notes that this experience is potentially different from the Research Experience for Undergraduates summer programs since students have been able to develop their own research projects rather than having the topic assigned to them. An objective is to help strengthen students’ organizational skills through developing their own research projects in addition to enhancing their research skills.

Robert Heller, Professor, Journalism/Electronic Media – He focuses on creative achievement, as opposed to scholarly research, which presents a perspective from the other panelists. He notes that these students have a need for mentoring and encouragement and for their work to be seen, exhibited and published. EUReCA is a good venue for that exposure. He taps students to be photo lab assistants who also work on in-depth projects beyond class assignments, such as “Eyes on LaFollete,” a project that has existed for 17 years. These students’ work must be juried, and his department encourages students to participate in regional and national competitions. He typically works with a small core of 5-6 talented students at a time.

James Plank, Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science – He typically finds undergraduate researchers by approaching top students in his courses and asking them to work during the summer. He typically works with five students at a time, and he meets three times a week with the group. He says the communal approach helps students feel invested in the project. He gets “parental” with his students and often takes them to meetings with him. His one Ph.D. student started out this way. He also takes students to conferences, which he says opens their eyes and makes them work harder. Students work in teams and build off each other. He works with undergraduate researchers only during the summer, and pays them for 40 hrs./wk. His goal is to get the students emotionally invested in research.