Professor Derek Dunn-Rankin considers his interest in mentoring undergraduate researchers to be a natural extension of his overall interest in learning and discovery. By working with students who are committed to working thoughtfully and independently, he has been able to turn his laboratory into a community of scholarship that is dedicated to learning at all levels. He hopes that the students he mentors will learn how to synthesize knowledge from many sources, giving them confidence in their abilities to solve complex problems. UROP commends Professor Dunn-Rankin for challenging the undergraduate students he mentors to become better researchers and for giving them the tools to succeed.

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

The foundation of any research university is the connection between new knowledge generation or problem solving (i.e., research) and student learning. This connection occurs at all levels. I think my interest in undergraduate research and creative projects is simply a general interest in learning and discovery. What type of projects? Almost anything in mechanical engineering: designing gadgets, analyzing emissions for reducing pollution, building experiments, running computer models, developing activities that teach high-school students about engineering; this summer we had a project studying the absorption of laser light in human teeth.

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

These are difficult questions. In fact, I have no real expectations. Since nearly all students at UCI have proven themselves academically, I am not concerned with ability, and because everyone has their own style of learning, it is more a matter of finding a match between the problem approach and the student's skill and interest set. Once those components are in place, then the main success indicator is a willingness and commitment to engage thoughtfully and independently in the topic.

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

Another difficult question. Every student researcher is different. Basically, I would let any researcher pursue their own path to a solution so long as it is not dangerous (either physically or scientifically). I rely heavily on the excellent tutelage of more senior researchers in the laboratory to build a community of scholarship that new students can join. My principal role is in helping to scope the problems and resolve challenges when the associated frustration threatens to derail the learning process. Mostly, I just try to stay out of the way.

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

This requires someone else to answer. You will have to ask the students. I can say that my objective would be to provide an experience where individuals develop a confidence in their ability to synthesize knowledge from many sources and to resolve questions for which there is no simple answer.

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

Nearly everything I learn comes through interaction with others. Undergraduate student approaches to problems and their ideas are part of this worldwide web (not just electronic) of interaction. It is not possible for me to parse benefits and learning into compartments; undergraduate knowledge generation is just one of the enriching and valuable dimensions of research life.

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

Advice is always a little dangerous, so I start by saying that my advice is to be careful with advice. After that, I recommend that every student take responsibility for their learning; focus on BEING a researcher not LOOKING LIKE a researcher. Research is not necessary or appropriate for everyone; be motivated by an interest in the research enterprise and its outcome, not simply an interest in being able to list the experience on your resume.

Research Interests: Combustion, Optical Particle Sizing, Particle Aerodynamics, Laser Diagnostics and Spectroscopy, Indoor Air Quality

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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