Professor Gregory Weiss was introduced to research through an internship following his freshman year of college. His experience taught him the importance of an early exposure to research, even for complete beginners. Professor Weiss has taken that lesson to heart, offering undergraduates the opportunity to participate fully in his work. He expects undergraduates in his lab to start slowly, but get up to speed quickly as they gain skills and confidence. Undergraduates mentored by Professor Weiss have gone on to great success in top graduate schools, a tangible indicator of the quality of his guidance. UROP thanks Professor Weiss for his dedication and commitment 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?

Following my freshman year of college, my first introduction to research came from an internship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a large DOE lab managed by the University of California. I was given a fascinating, challenging project aimed at using very rudimentary computational modeling (this was back in the ’80s!) to understand chemicals found in plasmas and explosions. I loved the experience, and knew then that I’d always give undergraduates, even completely green beginners like myself, chances to participate in whatever research I found myself pursuing. Today, undergraduates play key roles in my lab’s research. In general, undergraduates are paired with either a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow to work on the full range of the lab’s projects. For example, recent projects with undergraduates contributing key advances include protein engineering campaigns aimed at developing new inhibitors to the development of soluble versions of otherwise intractable membrane proteins.

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

I look for three things, which I consider the keys to successful undergraduate research: tenacity, a good work ethic, and drive. I invite a small number of applicants to interview, picking students who seem to demonstrate such qualities in their applications and who appear competitive for admission to top graduate programs (based on good grades and other criteria). Additionally, I think it’s very important for students to work well with the rest of the team, and so ask undergraduates to interview with lab members before agreeing to admit them to the lab. I set very high expectations for undergraduates in my lab. For example, I tell new students joining the lab that they should work as hard as the graduate students during the summers and between quarter breaks (often more than 60 hours per week), and a minimum of 20 hours per week during the school year. I realize, of course, that undergraduates are just getting started in research. So, my initial expectations start off quite low, but then zoom upward as students acquire the experience necessary to pursue increasingly independent ideas.

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

Managing research requires a tricky balance between too much guidance, which stifles creativity, and too little advice, which leads to frustration. Undergraduates need a bit more guidance initially, of course, so I coach the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows working with undergraduates to work side-by-side with them at first. I try to provide the big picture vision of where we’d like the research to go, and depend on the team of undergraduates with their mentors to work out the details concerning routes. However, I look very closely at all results and notebooks generated by undergraduate researchers during mandatory, weekly subgroup meetings. I try to chat with everyone in the lab at least once per day. Often my favorite part of the day is poring over the latest data with an undergraduate researcher, as we try to figure out what it means and how it fits.

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

First, students benefit from the experience of working in a professional, demanding setting. We have deadlines and expectations that mirror what undergraduates will encounter after graduation. Second, I hope all students from my lab emerge as outstanding researchers; we have a good track record placing students in top graduate schools and then watching them succeed tremendously in such environments. Third, students develop independent thinking and creativity in ways that are truly inspiring to watch unfold.

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

Many papers from our lab include undergraduate co-authors, which demonstrates that undergraduates have contributed key experiments to advance projects around the lab. Additionally, undergraduates have on occasion made independent discoveries and even pioneered entirely new approaches to projects taking place in the lab. Once, for example, an undergraduate accidentally changed a protocol for a protein purification step. The results were spectacular! Most importantly, he recognized that he had made a “mistake,” and recorded the mistake in his notebook for future experiments. This example illustrates good science skills resulting from careful observations and a willingness to be upfront about mistakes made. Most importantly, we all learn from the mistakes in an important way.

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

Pour yourself into the project wholeheartedly, and give it your full effort. The satisfaction and enjoyment you’ll receive from conducting research is directly proportional to the effort level and degree of immersion you invest. If you can master the relevant knowledge in the project area, you’ll appreciate your contribution to a much greater extent. Furthermore, you’ll be more likely to make a key observation or uncover something new. Also, have fun, and enjoy exploring new knowledge.

Research Interests: Chemical biology, protein engineering, drug discovery, biophysics, membrane proteins, bioelectronics

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '10 Derek Dunn-Rankin
Nov. '10 Wendy A. Goldberg
Oct. '10 Bernard Choi
Sep. '10 Daniel S. Stokols
Aug. '10 James S. Nowick
Jul. '10 Thomas J. Carew
Jun. '10 Kristen Day
May. '10 Keith Woerpel
Apr. '10 Anshu Agrawal
Mar. '10 Darryl Taylor
Feb. '10 Michael J. Montoya
Jan. '10 Gregory Alan Weiss