Professor Donald Blake has been mentoring undergraduates since the late 1990s, and has been particularly active with students associated with the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) program. He appreciates the energy and ideas the undergraduates bring into his lab, using results from undergraduate projects in a number of his research proposals. Professor Blake looks for students who are willing to work hard and listen to others; he also considers good grades to be an important prerequisite for any student who is considering getting involved in research. For his commitment to mentoring undergraduates, Professor Blake received the 2001 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research from the School of Physical Sciences.

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

I started mentoring students in volume in the late 90s. I was approached by Kika Friend to take a CAMP student for the summer. Her name was Aisha Kennedy and she was wonderful. She did undergraduate research with us and, during her spring break, flew to Fiji or Tahiti and flew a science flight on a NASA tropospheric project. My respect for CAMP students started then and so of the 20–30 undergraduate students who have done research in our group I would say that two thirds of them have been from the CAMP program. In early 2001 Aisha Kennedy and Helen Rueda flew on another NASA project flown out of Japan.

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

All I care about in a student is their willingness to work hard and listen to others. Not all of my undergraduate research experiences have been positive. That was mainly because I had a few students who were far too social and sat in the lab and talked instead of helping out. I was partly responsible for the bad experience but for one quarter I assigned a senior undergraduate from my group to mentor the three undergraduates. The senior student was very disappointed with the three and told me I should kick two of them out of the group. Being lazy is not something that is going to help any student in a group. One of the students I kicked out of the group ended up joining a colleague’s group and she lasted less than a quarter before she was kicked out of that group. That student was plenty smart, but lazy.

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

Now that I am no longer the chair of the Chemistry Department I have more time to spend with students. I try to meet with the students every few weeks to discuss their progress. The students also work with graduate students and post-docs in the lab.

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

The students have all benefited but to varying extents. They certainly improve their lab skills and also see what it is like to be in a large research group. Many of the students go on to graduate school. Of the most recent group of undergraduates one is in medical school at UCLA, one is in pharmacy school, and one works in industry.

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

Some of the projects the students have come up with have been very interesting and data from those projects were used in proposals to NASA and NSF.

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

You need good undergraduate grades to get in the door to talk to potential research advisors. That doesn’t mean a 4.0 but Professor Sherry Rowland once told me that if a student didn’t have a 3.3 or better they were probably better off studying than being in a research group. However, having great grades is not a guarantee that you will succeed in undergraduate research. Back in the late 1980s we had three undergraduate students in our group. One had a 3.9, another had a 3.7, and the other had a 3.2. By far the best of the three in the lab, both in terms of lab skills and being creative in the lab, was the student with the 3.2. She was a hard worker (all three were females) and while the others weren’t slackers by any means, she was just the best.

Research Interests: Atmospheric Chemistry

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Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '12 James C. Earthman
Nov. '12 Kenneth J. Shea
Oct. '12 Jeanett Castellanos
Sep. '12 Barry Siegel
Aug. '12 Martha L. Mecartney
Jul. '12 Brandon Brown
Jun. '12 Wayne Sandholtz
May. '12 Farghalli A. Mohamed
Apr. '12 Susan T. Charles
Mar. '12 Katherine Faust
Feb. '12 Donald R. Blake
Jan. '12 Elizabeth Cauffman