As a graduate student, Professor William Tomlinson realized that undergraduates can do research at as high a level as graduate students, if they are given the opportunity. As a professor, he is committed to giving them that opportunity. Eleven students under his mentorship have co-authored papers with Professor Tomlinson, and many have gone on to prestigious graduate schools. He credits a large part of his success to the work that undergraduate researchers have done in his lab. UROP commends Professor Tomlinson for his dedication to undergraduate research.

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

When I was a graduate student at MIT, I worked with several really great undergraduates. MIT has a strong undergraduate research program; a high percentage of undergraduates there engage in research at some point. During this time, I realized that undergraduates can do research at as high a level as graduate students, if they are given the opportunity. When I came to UCI, I found out about the SURP program when putting together a research group for my first summer as a professor. The UROP office helped support several students, the students did a great job, and from then on I've always had several undergraduates working with me. Students have worked on projects involving programming (graphics, AI, software engineering, Web), animation, sound design, ecology, education, evaluation, and a range of other topics. For more information on our past projects, please see:

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

I generally look for students who are enthusiastic about the idea of the project we will be working on. I prefer students with good grades, but one of my best undergraduates (an animator) had a 2.7 GPA, so I'm willing to make exceptions if the student is really talented and engaged. I expect students to try their hardest to make the projects we're working on great. Technically, students are supposed to work ~10 hours/week during the school year, and ~40 hours a week during the summer, but I'm much more interested in building great projects, regardless of how long it takes. If you're excited about the research project, 10 or 40 hours can go by very quickly.

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

My style of mentoring depends on the student, and how long they've been with our group. Usually in the first couple quarters students are working on a subset of some existing project, and we're in pretty frequent contact. After a student has been with our group for several quarters, though, they are usually leading their own projects, and have more autonomy. We still check in regularly, though, about how the project is proceeding.

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

I think a lot of good things have come out of students' involvement in undergraduate research. First, they've had a chance to work on really interesting research projects. It's exciting to realize that there are projects happening at the university that are completely new, rather than just the same problem sets and homework assignments that other classes have already done dozens of times. In addition, students have had a chance to have their work published in major journals and exhibited at top conferences. Eleven undergraduates have co-authored papers with me over the last six years, and four of them have had multiple publications with our group. Experience with research and publications are really helpful for graduate admissions. Recently one of my old undergraduates from UCI was featured on MIT's front Web page for the graduate research he's doing there.

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

I've learned a great deal from the undergraduates I've worked with over the past several years. They've worked with me to build some really exciting projects, and helped think through the ideas for a book I'm writing. I just submitted my tenure case and, if I get tenure, it'll be due in large part to the great work that undergraduates have done in our group.

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

To get involved with research, students should search the Web (or think about the classes they've taken) for faculty who are interesting to them, read some of their papers, think up a few projects that would be of mutual interest, and then go to the professor's office hours. Most professors have a lot going on, so they appreciate (pleasant) persistence. One of the challenges that professors find when working with undergraduates is that they can sometimes be less responsible than graduate students, so you need to demonstrate that you're reliable and self motivated. If you already have some project that you're really fired up to make, go find a professor who might be interested in it and tell him or her about it. If you're both interested in the same things, it may be that you'd be good collaborators. Also, be sure to check in with the UROP office—they're great people, and have lots of information about sources of funding and other resources.

As a final pitch—any undergraduates interested in doing research about environmental issues and information technology should drop me a note. We have projects right now that involve building a better carbon footprint calculator, studying the environmental impacts of different software packages, and creating a web site that lets people vote on which environmental projects are most important. Students studying environmental science, engineering, or design, or those with experience in computer programming, are particularly encouraged, but enthusiastic and smart students with other skill sets are encouraged to contact me as well.

Good luck!

Research Interests: Green IT, Human-Computer Interaction, Multi-Agent Systems, Computer Supported Learning

Faculty Profile:


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