Professor Sally Dickerson worked with a generous and helpful mentor when she was an undergraduate, and she has diligently attempted to pass the same experience on to her students. While gaining hands-on research experience in her lab, Professor Dickerson’s students offer her new ideas, hypotheses, and insights into how to improve her own research. She encourages students to find a mentor to help them pursue their questions and passions throughout their undergraduate career. Professor Dickerson’s commitment to undergraduate research was recognized through her receipt of the 2008 Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research for the School of Social Ecology.

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

I was very fortunate to have worked with an amazingly generous and supportive professor when I was an undergraduate; I wanted to try to be able to provide the same type of experience for my own students. In my lab, we study stress reactivity—we conduct studies in which we look at how the social context of the stressor influences physiological responses. Students working in my lab help run participants through the experimental sessions, collect physiological samples, and assist with other tasks at different stages of the research process. Some of my undergraduate students also pursue individual projects. These students often investigate questions that are interesting to them in the context of our ongoing studies; for example, some students have examined whether certain personality characteristics or other individual differences predict reactivity to stressors.

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

We look for bright, motivated, and hardworking students who can commit to working the lab for at least two quarters.

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

I offer a research course for the undergraduate students in my lab (P196) where they can learn more about the theoretical background of our studies; this also provides a great opportunity for us to have great conversations about our projects and the research process. The graduate students in my lab also greatly contribute to the mentoring of our undergraduate research assistants. I work most directly with the students pursuing independent projects or honors theses; many of my undergraduate students have presented at the UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium and other conferences, and have gone on to graduate school in a variety of fields related to psychology, health, or medicine.

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

Working in a research lab gives students great “hands-on” experience that brings course material and research methods to life. Attaining research experience can also help students figure out the type of job or graduate training they would like to pursue; for example, the area of psychology that they would most like to study in graduate school or whether they would like to be in a graduate program that is more focused on research or clinical training.

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

I find that students approach our research projects with a fresh, new perspective, and I have greatly benefited from talking to them about their ideas. Also, the undergraduates are often the ones to have the most contact with our study participants and so they have interesting comments and insights into how to improve our studies. Undergraduate research assistants also develop wonderful hypotheses for future projects that stem from their direct interactions with our participants.

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

I think that the more time you put into research, the more you get out of it. Sometimes it can take awhile to get the experience and training to learn to do all of the different components of a research project, and so the longer you are in a lab, the more you will benefit. I would definitely encourage students to pursue their own questions and projects under the guidance of a mentor, and to take advantage of the wonderful resources and opportunities offered through UROP.

Research Interests: I study how stressful situations influence emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses. I am interested in how the social context influences stress reactivity, and whether social-evaluative stressors are particularly likely to lead to physiological changes.

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