Professor Mark Steyvers has learned a lot from the undergraduates he mentors; they have often found solutions to problems of which he had been unaware. Because they know less about the field, his undergraduate students are able to look outside the accepted assumptions that limit more experienced researchers. Professor Steyvers challenges his students to develop technical expertise, while maintaining a strong passion for their work. Most of the undergraduates he has mentored have gone on to graduate school, with one remaining in Professor Steyvers’ laboratory for his graduate studies. Professor Steyvers’ students provide a strong example of how undergraduate researchers can thrive under the direction of a strong mentor.

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

In my first year at UCI, several undergraduate students volunteered to work in my lab. This worked out much better than I expected, with the students achieving the same level of competence as many graduate students in our department. One student in particular stood out, ended up receiving support from SURP and gave presentations at several conferences (including the UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium). After that promising start at UCI, there have been several excellent undergraduate students working with me who have received support through the UROP office. One of those students is now working with me as a graduate student. The undergraduate students I mentor typically work on short-term projects involving empirical studies of human memory. One current goal of our studies is to better understand how prior knowledge can facilitate our memory for specific events.

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

The primary factor I am looking for is motivation and interest in the field. Good grades are important too, but the GPA of a student usually does not tell the whole story. I also tend to look for students with a high degree of technical skill.

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

The students that I mentor often work independently on a research project and present updates on their research to our research group. The graduate students in my research group also play an important role in mentoring. We often set up small meetings with the undergraduate students along with the graduate students to discuss research progress.

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

Most of the undergraduate students who have worked with me have continued their education in graduate school. One student, who did some excellent undergraduate research has continued to work with me as a graduate student at UCI and currently has one of the most promising publication records among graduate students in our department.

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

I have learned a lot from the undergraduates I've worked with. Because the students can work fairly independently on their research, they are often able to find solutions to problems that I was unaware of myself. Also, because the students know less about the particular research domain, they are able to “think outside the box” and also challenge some of prevailing assumptions in the field. Discussions with students often help to shape the research project.

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

It is crucial to have an ability to perform basic computer programming. In the cognitive sciences, this helps in developing software for running experiments, performing basic data analysis and, most importantly, to test and develop computational theories of human cognition. Many undergraduate students who have academic ambitions delay taking classes in programming and believe it to be something they can learn in graduate school. This is a mistake. Learn to program in some language as soon as possible.

Research Interests: Computational models of human cognition; Machine Learning

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