Professor Barbara Sarnecka considers research experience to be an important part of an undergraduate education at UCI, especially for students who are considering moving on to graduate school. She looks for students who are genuinely enthusiastic about her work, and has high expectations for their dedication and performance. In turn, she makes an effort to include them completely in the day-to-day workings of her lab and fully prepare them for their future research endeavors. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor Sarnecka for her commitment to 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?

We do experimental psychology research, specifically in cognitive development. That means most of our studies are about children's thinking, although we also have some studies about adults' thinking. Developmental research requires a lot of labor, so we always have quite a few undergraduate research assistants working in the lab. And after they work in the lab for a year or two, many of them start to get good ideas for studies of their own.

Our opportunities to mentor undergraduate researchers really got a boost in 2010, when we got an NSF grant that included an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) supplement. This was money allocated for us to pay undergraduate student researchers, and it really has boosted our ability to mentor students in two important ways. First, it allowed us to have RAs (research assistants) working 20 hours/week instead of only 10. People learn a lot more and get very good at the job when they are there more often. Second, it allowed us to hire students who were really great—dedicated and curious and hardworking—but just couldn't financially afford to do volunteer work, so without the REU money we never would have gotten them.

To me, one of the best things about being at UCI is that more than half of our undergraduates are first-generation college students, and they just bring such wonderful things to the table. They worked hard to get to UCI, they don't take it for granted, and they really care about learning everything they can, and getting everything they can out of their college experience. This is what every professor wants in a student or a research assistant. But these students also can't afford to work for nothing, and they don't need more units of credit because they are already taking, in many cases, the maximum number of units. So if the only opportunity to do research is to volunteer, or to do it for course credit, then they can't do it. The only way a research assistantship is feasible for them is if it takes the place of their regular part-time job at Starbucks, or wherever they would be working. So I would say that I've become a passionate advocate of the REU program and other programs that pay undergraduate research assistants actual money.

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

We start by having them fill out an application, and we ask for a transcript and a written statement of 500–1000 words on why they want to work in the lab. Then we interview them. From 2010 to 2015, we were doing a lot of work in Spanish as well as English, so RAs recruited during that period also took a written Spanish test and were interviewed in both Spanish and English. We expect people to make a commitment of at least 10 hours/week for one year, and to attend the weekly lab meetings as well as meeting with the head of the project they are working on (usually a graduate student) during the week. We also look for people who have experience working with children, and it’s helpful if they have taken psychology or cognitive science research methods.

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

We have a big lab meeting once per week where all of us—me, the grad students, the lab manager, the paid undergraduate RAs, and the students who are taking our cognitive development research course—meet and discuss the work we've done in the lab that week. I think it's important for the undergraduates to hear what everybody does, so that they learn how a lab is structured and what all the different jobs are. Then we usually have a research paper to discuss as a group, and sometimes we have people demonstrate research protocols. One person will pretend to be the child, and another person will pretend to be the experimenter, and we will all watch them administer the task. That way we make sure that everyone's doing it right, and that we're all doing it exactly the same way. Outside of the weekly lab meeting, the undergraduate RAs usually work with graduate students who meet with them throughout the week to closely supervise the work they’re doing.

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

The students tell me that working in the lab is a great experience for them. They say that it gives them a sense of belonging and community at UCI that they didn’t have when they were just taking classes. They also say that learning how to read and understand scientific research articles is a huge benefit to them. This year, we had five undergraduate RAs who graduated, and four of them are going to graduate school. One is going into a master’s program to be a K–12 teacher in a Spanish-immersion school, and three of them are taking the GREs and applying to Ph.D. programs. They very explicitly say that if they didn’t have the research experience, it would never even occur to them to apply to grad school. And, back to the point about paying them, they also say that if we didn’t have the paid positions, none of them would have been able to work in the lab.

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

Well, the biggest benefit has been getting to know these wonderful young people; it’s really exciting to see them learn and grow, and develop confidence and embark on their adult lives. And I’ve certainly benefitted from the work they’ve done in the lab. We have a very productive lab, and a lot of that is due to the very high standard of work that we can expect from the RAs. If we had to double-check everything they were doing or babysit them every minute, we would be getting a lot less research done.

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

I have a son who is a senior in high school, and he wants to do research when he goes to college. My advice to him is to identify professors whose research looks interesting, try to take a class from them, and then work hard and do well in the class, and go to office hours to try to talk with the professor about his or her research. A lot of students email me and say, “I would like to work in your lab because I’m halfway through my senior year and I just found out that I need research experience for grad school.” Or they say, “I was looking at labs and guess what! Congratulations, I picked you!” My answer to those emails is always no. But if someone takes my class and works hard in it, and they come to my office hours and show a real interest in the research we do, then I’m willing to give them a chance.

I guess what students need to understand is that mentoring an RA is work for the professor, the lab manager and the grad students. We have to find tasks simple enough for undergraduates to do, train the RAs to do those tasks (which in our lab usually takes 4–6 months) assess their mastery of the tasks, and then once they’re trained we have to supervise their actual work. So if you want to approach a professor and ask to work in their lab, you should present yourself as someone who is really interested in the science, wants to work hard and will do a good job.

Research Interests: Conceptual and language development in early childhood

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