Professor Marcelo Wood considers his undergraduates to be a critical part of his lab. He looks for students who have curiosity about his research into how the brain works and a passion for pursuing it further; he expects them to ask questions and be engaged throughout their work with him. For Professor Wood, working with his undergraduates gives him the opportunity to question his research assumptions and he appreciates the chance to learn that teaching them provides. In return for the passion and energy they devote to his lab, he is devoted to helping his students prepare for graduate school and future careers. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor Wood for his continuing commitment to undergraduate research at UCI.

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

Since joining UCI in 2006, we have worked with a little over 40 undergraduates in my lab. From the first undergraduate researchers in my lab to the current 199ers, I am always impressed with how bright, energetic, and committed they are to their research. Our undergraduate researchers have worked on projects aimed at understanding the epigenetic mechanisms underlying long-term memory processes, drug-seeking behavior, and even aging. Undergraduates are critical members of my lab and we are very fortunate to have such a strong undergraduate research program at UCI.

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

When I interview undergraduates, I try to assess their level of curiosity and enthusiasm. They have to be curious about how the brain works! We discuss real data so I can show them the power of the scientific method in uncovering fundamental questions about how the brain works. I look to see if their eyes light up when we discuss really cool results. The more questions they ask the better too. We also work in teams in my lab for numerous types of experiments, so I also try to determine whether the candidate will work well in a team. We also require dedication, self-motivation, and good time management. These are attributes that make any undergraduate successful at anything they do, not just research.

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

I know all my undergraduate researchers well. An undergraduate in my lab starts off by working directly with a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow to learn how to perform experiments, set up proper controls, collect data, and interpret data. I meet with each group routinely to assess progress and determine the correct direction for the overall project. Some undergraduates become fairly independent after a year or two in the lab. In those cases, I meet with the undergraduate in a similar manner as I would with a graduate student. I also spend time helping undergraduates prepare for presentations and in many cases help them prepare for their graduate school and medical school interviews. They have committed a large amount of time and energy to our research program, and I in turn help them with their careers in any way I can.

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

I think, and hope, that the students who have worked in my lab leave with more questions than they arrived with, leave with even more curiosity, and leave with a real passion for what they plan to embark upon. I hope that our undergraduates have learned a lot about the scientific method. I hope that they have become more critical in their thinking and more creative in their problem solving. I hope that they observe and understand the self-motivation and perseverance that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows exhibit. Those are two very important personality traits to be successful. Lastly, I hope that they truly enjoyed their experience in my lab and at UCI!

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

One of the best things about working with undergraduate researchers is that they challenge our assumptions. As they try to fill in their conceptual framework for a particular scientific topic, their questions begin to pinpoint the areas we know little about or that we have made certain assumptions to move forward. I have learned a tremendous amount about organizing teams of researchers, matching personalities, and teaching graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in my lab how to mentor their undergraduates. I have learned to listen carefully to the questions that undergraduate researchers ask because they highlight what we teach poorly. They highlight what we understand poorly. I have benefited greatly from being infected with their enthusiasm and passion, which really helps me prevent becoming callous and indifferent. It is a wonderful experience for us all in so many different ways. I really can’t imagine running a lab without undergraduate researchers.

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

Be open to new ways of thinking. Be imaginative and creative. Be fearless (in a humble way). And whatever you decide to pursue—own it!

Research Interests: Epigenetics, Long-Term Memory, Drug-Seeking Behavior, Transcription, Histone Acetyltransferases, Histone Deacetylases, Small Molecule Therapeutic

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '15 Barbara Sarnecka
Nov. '15 Sarah Pressman
Oct. '15 Elliot Botvinick
Sep. '15 Xiangmin Xu
Aug. '15 Belinda Campos
Jul. '15 Yama Akbari
Jun. '15 Loretta Livingston
May. '15 Mohammad Al Faruque
Apr. '15 Steven D. Allison
Mar. '15 Emily D. Grossman
Feb. '15 Munjal M. Acharya
Jan. '15 Marcelo A. Wood