Professor Keith Woerpel looks to mentor undergraduate students with curiosity and enthusiasm who want to explore the unknown, and he has discovered a tremendous benefit to their lack of sophistication. Letting them try crazy things that no graduate student would attempt has led to some amazing discoveries. Following his own experience as a student, he encourages the graduate students in his lab to mentor one or more undergraduates as part of their training, ensuring that all of his students have the opportunity to fully learn about the discovery process. Professor Woerpel’s appreciation of the undergraduates’ contributions to his research motivates him to more fully share the benefits of his knowledge and experience with them.

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, my thesis advisor asked me whether I would be interested in training a new undergraduate. Although I was intimidated at the responsibility at first, it turned out to be an important experience. Now, I do the same thing with my graduate students: I encourage them all to mentor an undergraduate as part of their graduate training. The undergraduates in our laboratory are not just a pair of hands. They get involved in projects at the forefront of what we are doing. I have found that approach has always been most beneficial for the undergraduate, the graduate student mentor, and for our research.

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

The things that set a particular undergraduate apart from other ones are curiosity and enthusiasm. Any student can say that they are interested in research, but the ones best suited for research are the ones who want to understand how we know what we know. They want to understand where knowledge comes from and how they can learn about the unknown. As a mentor, I cannot teach curiosity!

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

My relationships with undergraduates depend upon the students and how experienced they are. At the earlier stages, I interact with them more, but as they get more experienced, I let them find their own way. Their graduate student mentors are more hands-on, but also gradually give the undergraduates more autonomy. An important aspect of a research experience is to develop independence and comfort in a laboratory setting.

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

Students benefit in several ways. They learn a lot of chemistry, certainly, but more importantly, they learn about the discovery process. Most find that they are ideally suited to pursuing a research degree, and I am proud of having many former undergraduates who have pursued Ph.D. degrees in the best programs in the country (one former undergraduate, who participated in UROP, is now on the faculty at UC Riverside!). Others, though, find that research is not for them. That's OK, too.

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

I have always enjoyed the enthusiasm and optimism of the undergraduates with whom I have worked. Selfishly, though, my research has benefited tremendously from having undergraduate students working in the laboratory. Graduate students often feel that the crazier ideas that float around the lab are too risky for them, but I can usually convince an undergraduate to try something unconventional. That approach has led to some pretty amazing discoveries.

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

Throw yourself into research!

Research Interests: My laboratory is interested in the development of new chemical reactions from unusual organic starting materials. We focus on the study of reactions that allow us to build organic compounds that could be useful for the synthesis of new pharmaceutical agents. We are particularly interested in transformations that proceed by unprecedented pathways, and we try to learn more about those pathways so that we can design other reactions.

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