For Professor Emily Grossman, mentoring undergraduate research provides students valuable insights into their future goals. Many of her students use their research experience to hone their interests and to discover whether they want to pursue research-related careers or move into some other field. To that end, Professor Grossman gives her students some freedom to explore projects of their own within her lab. Having been guided by exceptional mentors during her undergraduate years, Professor Grossman considers it an important element of her work to nurture and inspire the next generation of scientists. Professor Grossmanís commitment to her students was recognized through her receiving the 2015 Chancellorís Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research from the School of Social Sciences.

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

I was fortunate as an undergraduate to have had two exceptional mentors. Both spent a tremendous amount of time teaching me the fundamentals of laboratory research, and then later guiding me through the graduate school application process. Their attention to my training shaped the early part of my career, and launched in on a path to success, and Iím very grateful. I do my best as in my role here at UCI to replicate that experience for my own students.

Undergraduate researchers in my lab have taken on a number of different projects. Most students work on visual perception projects that require human subject testing in the laboratory. A few exceptional students have worked on brain imaging analysis projects, which is much more time consuming and requires very specialized training.

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

I seek out students who are motivated to do research by their own curiosity. The most successful students in my lab are active consumers of all kinds of science, listening to podcasts and reading books and scientific articles because they find it interesting. Laboratory research is fascinating and fun, but also has some monotonous components. Students that have the most success in the lab are motivated by their own interests, which allows them to keep sight of the goals while they push through the tough (and sometimes boring) parts.

I very much expect students in my lab to create opportunities for themselves. I provide the research tools, the training on lab technique and give them specific tasks early in their training. But once the students have reached proficiency, I expect them to seek to make their own mark in science. I like for students to work as a team, to learn to collaborate and incorporate constructive feedback. Itís a lot, but many students do reach this level, and that opens up doors to them in the next phases of their careers.

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

My approach to mentoring has changed over the years, as I have experienced what works and doesnít work in my lab. Right now, I bring in students as a small cohort (usually 6-10 individuals at a time) and train them on basic brain imaging techniques. I ask them to form teams and work together independently outside of our time together. These teams usually stick for the 1-2 years that they stay in my lab and Iíve found the entire training experience to benefit a lot from that.

After a short time of working directly with me, I usually have a sense of their individual skills, and we have had the chance to talk about their career goals. Many students love science, but find out that they donít like lab work. This is fine and I think an important part of their training. For all the students, whether they plan to stay in science or not, we talk individually about what experiences they can seek out in the lab to help them reach their career goals. The students are the ones that have to do the work, but I try to help them find the opportunity.

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

About half the students that join my lab are uncertain about what they want to do after college, and about half have a clear plan. All enjoy science, which is why they have approached me to learn research. For both groups, getting engaged in lab work crystalizes what it means to be a cognitive neuroscientist (at least in the form that is practiced in my lab) and that goes a long way to guiding their career decisions. Most students enjoy the lab camaraderie, but many learn that they prefer to consume science rather than create it. Others learn that they prefer to work directly with people than with data. Still others discover a passion for discovery. This experience gives the students a lot of confidence when making decisions about their next steps.

For the students who plan to continue in science, having research experience is crucial to success in applying for post-graduate research opportunities and to graduate schools. For these students, each skill they acquire in the lab is another asset to their applications. My former students have amazed me in the places they have gone and things they have done once they leave my lab. I feel fortunate to have been a small part of their early training.

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

I think that watching the students work together really drove home to me the importance of teamwork. Over the years I have had some very strong groups of students come through the lab that have shown me power of team problem-solving, pooling individual strengths together and the benefits of creative group thinking. Itís amazing the solutions they have come up with. Undergraduates are also much more in touch with aspects of technology and culture that changes at a pace that I canít keep up with on my own. They bring a youthful approach to science that I really appreciate and enjoy.

From a purely selfish perspective, I benefit tremendously from the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest students at UCI. They come into my lab at such an early stage in their careers that I get to watch their futures unfold, which is very exciting. Many come back for occasional lab meetings or potlucks, and sometimes even to give talks. And I have noticed that they all form a network with each otheróeven the students that train in different areas. As years pass and they move into their new positions, they continue to be a resource for me and the students currently training. That is invaluable.

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

My best advice is to create your own opportunities. Find an advisor with a training style that fits your learning style, and work independently on your own ideas in science. Donít sit quietly at meetingsóspeak out. Have opinions and join in the conversation.

I always encourage students to seek out relationships with faculty, even outside of the lab. Itís much more difficult to find mentors after graduation than while the students are here. While not all faculty are the perfect match for each student, surely students will find a few faculty with whom they connect over the 2-4 years of taking classes here. I encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity for guidance and insight from their professors.

Research Interests: Neural basis of visual perception, biological motion perception

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