Professor Gillian Hayes looks for creativity and responsibility in the undergraduate students she mentors. Her passion for mentoring these students is driven by the realization that she is unlikely to transform the world by herself. Instead, Professor Hayes passes on her knowledge and experience to the next generation of researchers, hoping to influence future researchers’ great successes. UROP celebrates Professor Hayes’ present dedication to the next generation of researchers.

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

I first got started in research as an undergraduate—studying the genetics of fruit fly ears. Needless to say, I didn't stay a biologist, but I kept the feeling with me that undergraduates can both benefit from and be benefits to research projects. As a graduate student, I had the privilege of working with some really bright undergraduate students. So, it was a natural transition when I arrived here at UCI to engage with not only graduate but also undergraduate student researchers. I was lucky enough to have encountered the UROP and SURP programs here, which meant that I had a way to partially fund many undergraduate students, as well as a great forcing function to get them ready to show off their work—the Undergraduate Research Symposium at the end of each year. Deep down, what really drives me, though, is that I know there is only a small chance that I personally will invent, discover, or understand something in some unique way that will really directly transform the world. By teaching students, by engaging them in research, I spread that influence much more widely, and it becomes much more likely that someone I have influenced somewhere along the line will do that truly transformative research. After all, today's undergraduates are the Nobel prize winners of the future.

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

I look for creativity and responsibility ahead of almost anything else. I expect UCI students to be bright and capable. I know that their grades may or may not always reflect how good they really are. What I want, and what I think are more unique, are students who can be both creative and independent—and yes, sometimes disagree with me—while being diligent and responsible. When you find a student who can do all that at once, you've got someone really special. The rest, all the skills and knowledge needed for research, can be taught.

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

I really love working with undergraduate students, and so I meet with them all at least once a week. I can't be in the lab with them every day though, and so I also rely on my group as a whole to bolster each other. I am lucky to work with both graduate students and undergraduates who really put the team first. When there is a paper deadline or a demo to be had, everyone can be seen in the lab working together and giving each other feedback. It is the group then that really mentors everyone, not just me.

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

I think the most important thing that can happen is to take students who aren't that engaged in their major or who have never thought they want to go to graduate school and help them find something that inspires them. When I see that light turn on for a student, that is when I know we have them, that they are dedicated to this work for a long time. I have been most honored by the students who have told me that they didn't care much for their courses or their majors but now are going to graduate school simply because of something they experienced when working with me. I am not so egotistical to think it was all about my influence, but I appreciate how something about the experience of our group, our research, and so on has turned on a fire in that student that wasn't there before.

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

In many ways this is the simplest question to answer and in others it can be the hardest. Obviously, undergraduate students are great, because they are smart, skilled, and work hard. They build software. They conduct interviews. They enter and analyze data. In short, they make great research assistants, and work from undergraduates has helped me to write papers, get grants, and more. What is more complicated to explain and much more important however, is their impact on me personally. I find the energy and excitement of our students—both graduate and undergraduate—to be infectious. It reminds me why I got into research and into academia in the first place. There is nothing more likely to make me work hard myself than seeing the students working hard, bringing me their ideas and results, and just generally being the creative, bright, and wonderful people they are.

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

Don't worry so much! It is surprising how many students I encounter are worried that the research won't turn out just right or the software they build won't be perfect. Research in general is a learning experience. If we knew the answers we wouldn't be doing it. Even more, however, as undergraduates, this is the time to get in there, be bold, and make mistakes occasionally. That is not to say that I think students should be careless. Of course, everyone should do their best at completing their research projects, but even more than that, I like to see students take risks. Research should be fun and exciting and sometimes all-consuming. It's hard to succeed when too much energy is caught up in worrying.

Research Interests: Ubiquitous computing, Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Human Computer Interaction, Assistive Technology, Educational Technology, Medical Informatics

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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