Professor Martha Mecartney loves working with the undergraduate researchers in her lab, and has mentored a number of them over her years at UC Irvine. She has created a culture in which the undergraduates each work on their own projects, starting with simple tasks and moving up in complexity as they develop further skills. Professor Mecartney considers her students’ undergraduate research experience to be a vital part of their future education and careers, as well as a tremendous benefit to her own research. UROP congratulates Professor Mecartney for the impact her mentorship has made in the lives of the undergraduate researchers working in her lab.

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

Ever since I was an assistant professor I have loved working with undergraduates in the lab, as that is the most fun type of teaching. I started doing research as an undergraduate myself at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, found it amazingly exciting, and that sparked my interest in going onto graduate school and eventually ending up in paradise (California). Besides that, really good students have helped my research career—one of my most highly cited papers was research conducted by an undergraduate who was first author on our paper. I have directed many different types of projects (see list of research interests above). Most of my undergraduate researchers start by working on sample preparation of materials, then move into measuring properties and characterization—and even to publishing papers!

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

First, I need students who have a good grasp of the principles of materials science and engineering (MSE) and have time to dedicate to research, so they must have completed ENGR 54, Intro to MSE, and have a minimum 3.0 GPA. Secondly, I look for responsible students—the lab is no place for goof offs! Inquisitive, questioning students are a plus as well as students who know how to build things—but everyone has different skills they bring to the table. Lastly, I have the prospective students interviewed by my graduate students who will work with them and I listen to their feedback. We want students who eventually can be independent, but understand how to ask for help and be part of a research team. I expect students who join my group to stay for at least a year, and to give 8–10 hours/week on average.

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

I usually schedule weekly meetings with the undergraduate students (except this year when I am on sabbatical) and we encourage our undergraduates to join the graduate students in our group meetings. On top of that, I often stop by the lab and student offices and greatly encourage my students to e-mail me or come by my office to tell me about any new developments. But to be very honest, my secret is a team of great graduate students, a number of whom have been phenomenal mentors and work daily with undergraduate researchers in the lab. And don't forget the group parties at my house!

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

Many ways! Some have gone to great jobs in aerospace, electronics, and biomedical materials companies (one undergraduate researcher just landed a summer internship at Boeing based on her research in our lab). Others have gone to graduate schools such as U. Delaware, U. Washington, UCLA, UCI, and Stanford. In all cases, I think they were well prepared to step into a lab and be productive, knew how to manage their time independently, and were able to present their research clearly in oral presentations and in posters. My students have not only given presentations and posters at the annual UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium, but also at local, national, and international professional meetings. These meeting often have opened up unique future career opportunities.

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

I have learned you must start simple, and train students first (safety, record keeping, sample preparation, etc.). Then, as they gain knowledge and master skills, they can transition to being more independent on advanced equipment and hopefully progress to the stage where they bring new ideas to me about their research project. I also have learned it is important for each student to have their own project, clearly defined as different from other undergraduates. Lastly, the right graduate student mentor can make a world of difference.

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

Be curious and ask questions! Talk with your research mentor as much as you can. Find the basic resources you need to understand more about your project, and learn how to use electronic resources such as Web of Science and Google Scholar to search the literature. See if there are conferences you can participate in and present your work. And lastly, if the project or group is just not working out and does not excite you, it is perfectly o.k. to try out another group the next quarter—just let the research mentor know.

Research Interests: My research is in the design of high tech ceramic materials for energy applications such as fuel cells and nuclear energy. My group makes materials with novel properties such as superplastic ceramics, proton conducting solid oxide electrolytes, transparent ceramics, etc. We use a combination of synthesis techniques along with electron microscopy and atomic force microscopy to characterize the material microstructure. We then use this information to explain the properties we measure, such as high temperature mechanical behavior, thermal conductivity, ion conduction, or radiation damage resistance. We also have started moving into computational materials science so we can predict how the microstructure and the phase composition affect the properties of ceramics.

Faculty Profile:


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