Independent research is part of many undergraduate courses taught by Professor Louis DeSipio. Frequently, these short projects lead to studentsí pursuing their topic in much greater depth or breadth. Professor DeSipio encourages these additional explorations and is happy to help students throughout the time they spend with their projects. Through his mentorship, students develop greater research skills and self confidence, along with improved writing and presentation skills. Mentoring undergraduates allows him to learn from their greater understanding of new technology and social media, keeping him informed of new topics and techniques. In 2004, Professor DeSipio received the Chancellorís Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research from the School of Social Sciences in recognition of his passionate devotion 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?

In many of the undergraduate courses that I teach, I expect some independent research as one of the class assignments. This initial exposure to independent research leads some of the students to want to engage the question they are asking more deeply or to expand on their initial project. This leads to independent projects in which I serve as the mentor. I have found that undergraduates need help in focusing their interests, but are often willing to dedicate a great deal of energy to their projects. They also maintain their excitement about research, making these projects a great pleasure to mentor. I canít imagine teaching without working independently with some of my students.

Iíve worked with undergraduates conducting their first independent research projects, often projects that grew from class-based research assignments, on field research projects, on UROP-funded projects, and on honors theses. I also regularly teach a course on research design in the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies. Because I teach this class and work with most of the Chicano/Latino Studies majors, I often get questions about projects that the students are working on for other classes and/or where to get data for their projects.

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

Most importantly, the student has to be excited about the project and willing to commit him/herself to taking on an independent project, meaning the student will have to make time available for the project and keep to a schedule that we agree to. For students collecting new data, particularly observational or interview data, I expect a commitment to the principles that guide research with human subjects. This doesnít just mean completing the IRB paperwork, though that is an expectation in itself, but an understanding of why we need to respect and protect our informants and how to do this.

The exact expectations vary by the type of project. All require some writing to present the results of the project. For a quarter-length course, this writing usually takes the form of a research paper. Where possible, I like students to also present the results of their research to other students and faculty. The UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Spring is an excellent venue for this. Honors theses require a series of research and writing activities over the course of the year that build to the final document. My hope is that each of the steps ensures that the final drafting of the thesis is relatively simple compared to whatís preceded it.

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

It very much depends on the individual Iím working with and the end-product of the research. In all cases, I work closely at the student at the beginning of the project to refine the research question and develop a workable research design to collect data to answer the question. For the kinds of projects that I mentor, data can mean all kinds of different things from observations, surveys, or interviews to secondary analysis of documentary sources, such as newspapers or speeches, or reanalysis of data collected by others. So, I also need to ensure that the student has the skills to collect the data and conduct the analysis. This often requires a series of meetings to discuss specific components of the project. For students who are conducting surveys or interviews, we spend a couple of sessions drafting the interview guide/survey. Once I am confident that the student has a manageable project, I take a step back and encourage the student to move forward with the data analysis/collection. As the project moves toward completion, my involvement tends to increase. I want to make sure that the student is using the data s/he has collected as richly as possible and is clear in the written and oral version of the findings.

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

They develop self-confidence and research skills. The confidence comes from the ability to work through a project from beginning to end and to take ownership of it. These are skills that serve students regardless of whether they do more independent research or not. The research skills are more applied and are, I think, particularly important for students going on to graduate or professional education or to jobs that require research-related skills. I am very pleased that many of the students I have mentored have gone on to graduate programs where they have further developed their research skills.

Finally, students gain additional experience in presenting their findings clearly. At a minimum, this ensures that they focus on their writing. Often, they also have the opportunity to develop oral presentation skills.

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

I benefit from the energy and dedication that students bring to their projects. Because the process is often new to them, undergraduates bring a fresh set of questions to any project. This is critical for those of us who have been doing this for a while. We always run the risk of getting stuck in our ways or of assuming that the answers we have donít benefit from reinvestigation.

I also benefit from studentsí better understanding of technology and social media. Their comfort with new technologies and new strategies of communication allows them to design innovative ways to collect information that I have been able to adapt in my own research.

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

Any good research project must begin with an ideaósomething that intrigues the student and can be better understood from investigation. So, all projects begin with a desire for more knowledge. If a student approaches me, indicating an interest in doing research and asks that I give him or her a project, Iíll usually say no. The student has to have enough of an idea about a project to get a discussion going. Iíll be happy to help refine the idea and guide the project (particularly on questions of methodology), but the first step has to come from the student.

Second, good research takes time and flexibility. If a student canít commit to the unknown, itís probably not worth their time in taking on an independent research project.

Finally, itís critical to present the results clearly so that others can understand whatís been done and how it was done. So, students have to be open to public sessions to discuss their results, such as the Symposium or departmental sessions to present honors thesis research.

Research Interests: U.S. race and ethnic politics, immigrant incorporation, political behavior

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '11 Louis DeSipio
Nov. '11 Anthony A. James
Oct. '11 Tiffany Willoughby-Herard
Sep. '11 Angela Lukowski
Aug. '11 Petra Wilder-Smith
Jul. '11 Ron D. Frostig
Jun. '11 Sunny Jiang
May. '11 Samuel L. Gilmore
Apr. '11 Sally Dickerson
Mar. '11 Shahram Lotfipour
Feb. '11 Mark Steyvers
Jan. '11 Benjamin F. Villac