Professor Sergey Nizkorodov considers research to be a vital part of an undergraduate education. The students he mentors gain valuable skills and experience that help propel them to future graduate studies or careers. He appreciates the opportunity to mentor his students as well, constantly hearing new ideas from them and enjoying the energy they bring to his lab. Professor Nizkorodov looks for students who are passionate about their work and advises them to spend as much time engaged in their research as they can. His commitment to his students was recognized in 2012 when he was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research.

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

I view undergraduate research as an integral part of science education. Therefore, I use every opportunity to encourage students to do research in various research laboratories on campus, including my own. We do air pollution research, and this topic attracts a wide spectrum of students who want to better understand our atmospheric environment. I typically accept two to four students each academic year, and ask them to commit to the lab for at least one year because it is hard to achieve meaningful results in a shorter time. Students investigate chemical reactions involving aerosols, which are small particles of liquid or solid material suspended in air. Atmospheric aerosols play a critical role in controlling climate, driving atmospheric chemistry, and contributing to air pollution problems worldwide. Aerosols are also key components in a wide spectrum of practical engineering problems including climate modeling, air pollution regulation and medical inhalation treatment. Most of the projects carried out by my undergraduate students in recent years focused on the ability of atmospheric aerosols to absorb solar radiation, a process contributing to warming the climate. For example, my current students, Nujhat Ali and Mariyah Saiduddin, have been measuring absorption properties of a wide spectrum of aerosols, and they have discovered unusually strong absorption by aerosols made from a certain type of nitrogen-containing organics.

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

The first thing I ask when talking to interested students is what they plan to do after college. My research lab provides a great training environment for people aspiring to be researchers, forensics specialists or analytical chemists but not for people who want to devote their lives to medicine, pharmacy or biology. In case of an obvious mismatch I advise the students to check out more relevant laboratories first, and often give them a list of suggestions. The second thing I look at is academic performance. Research is certainly important but if the students are already struggling to stay on top of the subjects they are supposed to learn, taking on additional research responsibilities is not a good idea. The third important consideration is their level of experience. I prefer that students join my group in their junior or senior year when they already have basic chemistry training and some laboratory experience. However, in some cases, I accept sophomore and even freshman students in the lab if they are sufficiently knowledgeable and driven. For example, Nujhat Ali and Mariyah Saiduddin joined my lab in their freshman and sophomore years, respectively, and they are both outstanding! Finally, I always try to make sure that the student will be a good fit with the rest of the group. My lab team is cohesive and functional, and it is very important to me to keep it this way.

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

I like to be personally involved in mentoring undergraduate students. Although this can be time consuming because they are often not experienced in laboratory techniques, it is very gratifying to see them flourish into able researchers and thinkers. I meet with them regularly, read their weekly reports, discuss various problems with them, and help them in the lab when they get stuck. I am quite involved in writing papers at the end of the project, as this tends to be the hardest part for the students. Finally, I help them apply for fellowships, internships, and later, to graduate and professional schools.

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

The students benefit from their research experience in a number of ways. They pick up a lot of technical skills that will be useful in their future careers, such as ability to plan experiments, keep laboratory journals, write papers and reports, present their results to others, and work together with co-workers. In addition they become more diligent, patient, persistent, and mature. All this helps them immensely in applying to graduate and professional schools or searching for a job. For example, I routinely get reference requests from various companies for students who worked in my lab years ago; these companies obviously take the experience students got during their undergraduate research years very seriously.

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

I learn a lot from my group members, much more than they probably realize. They keep coming up with new ideas which often find their ways into research proposals I write. They make it possible for me to view things from a student perspective. After they graduate and go on in various directions they often come back to share their new experiences with me. My students have gone on to medical schools, graduate schools, forensics schools, various types of industries, and even a Bible school. Finally, it is always invigorating to work with young and energetic people!

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

Students who get the most out of their undergraduate research experience are the ones who are genuinely interested in and excited about the work they do. They spend time to read literature on their research topic, they try to figure out how their instruments work, they come up with creative ideas, and they keep coming to the lab every free hour they get. Therefore, the best advice I have is to find a research project you would truly enjoy. Do not join a random lab just for the sake of having research listed on your resume; find your true passion. Another piece of advice is to be patient. Students are often frustrated by experiments that do not work. More often than not, experiments we attempt do not go as planned or at all. Do not treat it as a failure; an unexpected or negative result of an experiment can still teach you something important!

Research Interests: Atmospheric Chemistry

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Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '13 Jean Gehricke
Nov. '13 Sergey Nizkorodov
Oct. '13 David S. Meyer
Sep. '13 Kieron Burke
Aug. '13 Mahtab Jafari
Jul. '13 André van der Hoek
Jun. '13 Abraham P. Lee
May. '13 Sheryl Tsai
Apr. '13 Julia Reinhard Lupton
Mar. '13 Richard Matthew
Feb. '13 Jogeshwar Mukherjee
Jan. '13 Diane K. O’Dowd