Professor A. J. Shaka looks to mentor undergraduate students who are enthusiastic and fearless, and who love science. He compares research to learning to swim, and his goal in mentoring undergraduates is to help them develop the experience they need not to drown in a sea of unanticipated challenges. His teaching has been successful; most of his students have gone on to pursue advanced degrees at top universities, and two have been published in the UCI Undergraduate Research Journal. UROP recognizes Professor Shaka for the success he has helped his undergraduate researchers achieve.

1. How did you develop an interest in mentoring undergraduate research or creative projects, and what type of projects have you directed?

I have enjoyed having undergraduates in my research group for most of my professional career. At UCI we have a large pool of talent to draw from, and the students contribute materially, including refereed publications, to our research effort. They also learn how research proceeds (in fits and starts) and how to troubleshoot unexpected difficulties. Most of my undergraduate research students have gone on to graduate school in chemistry (Yale, MIT, Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, Scripps, Penn, Cornell, Harvard) or medical school (UCI, UCSD, UCLA, etc.) and it is a real pleasure to watch them grow. My projects have ranged from software engineering for NMR data analysis to wet chemistry and organic synthesis.

2. What do you look for and what are your expectations of undergraduates you select to conduct research under your guidance?

Enthusiasm, fearlessness, and a love of science are the primary raw ingredients. Good grades are indicative of some of these qualities, and aptitude, but excellent book learning does not always translate into interesting research results. In research the questions and answers can both be a little vague, and one must be open to surprises and alert to the presence of factors that were not anticipated.

3. Describe your level of engagement and style in mentoring undergraduates.

In recent years I have partnered with Professor Nowick to provide students access to wet chemistry space, in addition to the NMR instrument time that they enjoy in our research group. We have weekly research meetings to assess progress and iron out bugs, and weekly group meetings with the graduate students, postdocs, sabbatical visitors, and interested third parties, to go over new results, the fundamentals of NMR, new kinds of synthetic methodology we might employ, and how to write grants to support scientific research. These aspects are important elements of training in which students have little or no experience. Students are free to try their own ideas, and some projects develop momentum in new directions based on particularly compelling or unexpected results. Undergraduate research requires a significant investment of time: students should not take it on unless they can devote themselves to the work.

4. In your experience, how have your students improved or benefited as a result of their undergraduate research experience?

Most students are smart, but “green”. That is, they can’t actually do anything useful on their own, and need constant guidance. Research is rather like learning to swim—at some point you are over your head and have to be able to at least tread water. Undergraduates with research experience don’t panic, and don’t drown. I am positive that the decision to go on to get more advanced training in science is spurred by direct experience with experimental science. It doesn’t take long to realize that you have to know more to do anything serious in science.

5. What have you learned or benefited from guiding undergraduate research or creative projects?

We have moved into new areas of research over time based in part on the hard work of the undergraduates in the group. Had you asked me six years ago whether I would be interested in solution chemistry of sugars I would have shrugged. Now we are planning to host a Sugar Data Bank, and the biology of these interesting glycans is turning out to be far more important than was previously thought. For example, the glycans in chimpanzees and humans differ far more than the DNA does.

6. What recommendations and advice would you give students embarking on undergraduate research or creative projects?

Plan to spend sufficient time. Do plenty of background research in the library to find out what has already been done in the field. There have been plenty of smart people who have gone before you. Benefit from their insights before embarking on your own research adventure. Have fun! Life is shorter than you now think.

Research Interests: High-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance, NMR methodology, new NMR pulse sequences, high-dimensional NMR, glycan structure determination, modern methods of spectral analysis, informatics methods in chemistry and spectroscopy, chemistry of aging, equity issues of women and minorities in science

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Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '09 Professor Donald D. Hoffman
Nov. '09 Professor Bruce Blumberg
Oct. '09 Professor A. J. Shaka
Sep. '09 Assistant Professor William M. Tomlinson
Aug. '09 Professor William C. Tang
Jul. '09 Professor Donald McKayle
Jun. '09 Assistant Professor Gillian R. Hayes
May. '09 Professor Jane O. Newman
Apr. '09 Associate Professor Mark P. Petracca
Mar. '09 Professor Richard T. Robertson