Professor Sarah Pressman greatly values the contributions her undergraduate students make to her research group. Their fresh ideas, eagerness to learn, and enthusiasm all serve to make them vital members of her team. In selecting students to mentor, Professor Pressman looks, more than anything, for students who are conscientious and committed to succeeding. Their hard work is rewarded by increased responsibilities within the lab and greater opportunities to grow. Through her mentoring, her students gain valuable insights into the life of a researcher and are better prepared to move on to graduate school and their careers. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor Pressman for the contribution she makes to the lives and futures of the undergraduate students she mentors.

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

I have been mentoring undergrads for a long time, ever since I started as a professor. The kind of research that I do requires working with a lot of human participants and putting them through complex protocols with a slew of psychological and physiological measurements. For this reason, we rely on highly trained undergraduate students to run our research studies. They do everything from simply having subjects fill out questionnaires to complex procedures like monitoring cardiovascular EKGs, analyzing psychophysiological data, and creating novel stress scenarios. Our projects focus on inducing or measuring different kinds of emotions then examining how they alter the body and health. At any given moment in my laboratory, we have about four to five studies on the go and more than a dozen undergraduates helping us, as well as numerous honors students with important leadership roles in the research process.

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

Every faculty member looks for a smart and responsible student, but more and more, I realize that what I really look for is a conscientious student. Conscientiousness is a personality trait studied by psychology researchers like me, and is characterized by individuals who are thorough, careful, organized, and vigilant in their work. Conscientious people have the desire to do tasks well. In my laboratory, we count on EVERY student volunteer to do the job that we train them for, and to do it well. As such, if we have students who are too easy-going about the research process, it is sometimes a bad fit since our work requires a high degree of precision and attention to detail. Our students typically work more than 10 hours a week when they join the lab, and commit to a year of working with us. This involves some fun activities, like working with subjects, but can also be tedious, like doing data entry or data cleaning for artifacts. We expect our research assistants to be just as diligent in the fun research activities as they are in the onerous ones. We also want them to become fully immersed in our laboratory community and the research process. This requires doing more than just lab work. It might mean reading and researching relevant journal articles, submitting work to conferences, or applying for small grants to support their work, like UROPís. We expect a lot from our students, and fortunately, they rarely disappoint us.

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

I love spending time with my undergraduate students. I find them energizing and inspiring, and they are always delivering great work and new ideas for research. For my honors students as well as the students who take a leadership role on a project, I meet with them regularly in laboratory meetings with graduate students and in one-on-one meetings about their projects. Via these laboratory meetings, they can observe what it's like to be a graduate student, learn how to critique empirical articles, and see the research development process from idea to final paper. I try to be a friend to my students, so that they have a mentor who they feel comfortable talking to, while also maintaining a level of professionalism and academic rigor. Many of the students in my laboratory are first generation college students with a lot of questions about the research and graduate school process. We endeavor to create an environment of support in our laboratory so that all of their questions can be answered.

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

I think that in psychology, and in undergraduate school in general, a lot of students don't really know what it means to "do research." Supporting them and instructing them in research not only teaches them about the research processes, but it makes research seem like something attainable and fun. Being able to do this work as an undergraduate also gives the students the confidence they need to apply for graduate school, the experience they need to get in, and the knowledge that ensures that they know what they are getting into. The vast majority of my students successfully gain admittance to graduate programs in psychology and health-related fields, and I think this is directly attributable to the great experiences they get with research at UCI.

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

I don't know where to begin! My students teach me so much. Not only do they give us great ideas for future research projects, but they keep us up to date with our knowledge by providing a real-life perspective on our research subjects (who are frequently UCI undergraduates). We count on our students to make sure that our research designs are realistic for our samples. I've benefited in countless ways as well. Foremost, my students energize me and fill me with positivity. Their excitement when they learn new techniques, attend their first conferences, and get into graduate school is just so fun to witness and I'm so pleased that I get to be part of all of these first steps in their research lives.

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

Get involved with a research lab as soon as you can! I think a lot of students don't realize that research opportunities are open to them until they reach their senior year. Unfortunately, this is really late and it leaves little time for you to learn about the full research process. If you join a lab and stay with it for multiple years, you will really develop some amazing expertise that will propel you in ways you can't imagine. One tendency I've seen recently at UCI is for students to work in a lot of different labs in order to get multiple letters of recommendation. While this is a great way to be exposed to different research techniques and to learn a lot, don't abandon a lab that you love. The knowledge, experiences, and opportunities that will evolve by sticking with one research group are critical, and if you find a topic that you are willing to spend countless time working on as an undergrad, it's probably a strong hint as to what you would love as a graduate student doing work in a Ph.D. program.

Research Interests: My research focuses on the interplay between positive emotions and behaviors, stress, and health, with a focus on the physiological processes that underlie these associations. I am particularly interested in discovering factors that protect our bodies against the harmful effects of psychological stress.

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