Professor Yama Akbari considers the undergraduates working in his lab to be vital members of this research team. They take the lead on projects, and often have the opportunity to make initial findings. Professor Akbari considers attention to detail and a passion for the subject to be vital traits of any successful researcher. He developed an interest in mentoring undergraduates through his own undergraduate research experience and the professor who guided him at that time. He appreciates the opportunity he has to influence the education and careers of the next generation of scientists and researchers, and UROP is pleased to highlight his dedication to the students he mentors.

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

I was originally inspired to pursue academic medicine when I was an undergraduate at UCLA and had a wonderful research mentor (Dr. Michael Fanselow) who changed my career perspective. I was also lucky to work with brilliant undergraduate students at the Ayala School of Biological Sciences while I was a Ph.D. student under Dean LaFerla's mentorship when he was a new Assistant Professor and also when I was a clinical and research fellow in Baltimore. I realized the impact that undergraduates can have on research and the impact that research mentorship can have on undergraduates. Additionally, being a new UCI faculty member building a translational lab, I had plenty of interesting opportunities for undergraduates. Thus far, I have had 30–40 undergraduates in my research lab since 2013, when I started building the lab. Students have taken part in a variety of projects, all centered on discovering the mechanisms of coma recovery after cardiac arrest. I try and make our projects translational, directly related to having a potential impact on humans and can be taken from the bench to the bedside. Specifically, our undergraduates have led projects on the role of caloric restriction in improving coma recovery after cardiac arrest, the role of anesthesia and blood pressure on brain activity during cardiac arrest and resuscitation, and fascinating brain activity we have found during cardiac arrest and death that may potentially shed light on near-death experiences that some humans describe after surviving cardiac arrest.

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

I look for dedication, commitment, and attention to detail. I like the team-oriented student who is always easy to work with and helps others in the lab. The lab environment is like a team. There is no "I" in team. One bad apple (i.e. a grumpy student) ruins it for the whole lab. Students who have a passion and appreciation for neuroscience, the cardiac and pulmonary systems, and molecular biology are highly appreciated. Students are expected to commit at least a year and around 15 hours per week so they can be truly immersed in our projects but must also maintain their GPA. My most successful students are ones who have stayed in the lab the longest and have wholeheartedly been dedicated to the science and mission that we pursue.

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

I am very hands-on in the lab. I am personally engaged in most of the experiments in some capacity, so students work directly with me frequently even though we have two postdocs and a lab manager. This is one benefit of working with a relatively new Assistant Professor. I still personally perform the CPR portion of every cardiac arrest experiment, so I'm physically in the lab a lot. I often treat the undergraduates similar to how I treat the medical students and residents in the hospital, which means I ask them interesting questions to raise their inquisitiveness and make sure they are deeply thinking during experiments. I teach students to think like a scientist but also try and give career advice and life advice. Teaching and mentorship go hand-in-hand. My mom was a teacher and my wife is a teacher, and they have always emphasized this. To facilitate this, I have an open door policy and I meet one-on-one with students frequently to discuss their progress in the lab and in their lives. I think some students might get tired of me giving them philosophical advice, though one of them logs my quotes!

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

The majority of our students have improved their discipline and sense of responsibility while being inspired by how our brain, heart, and lungs work together. Despite their time commitment in the lab, the vast majority of students have actually improved their GPA by learning better discipline. We have had many students take part in UROP, SURP, co-author abstracts presented at national research conferences, and now some are preparing manuscripts for publication. Students have won a number of research scholarships, and have been accepted to graduate school and health profession schools (medical, dental, pharmacy, physical therapy) while others have landed wonderful jobs. I believe the skills they learned in the lab have been pivotal in their overall academic success, life skills, and career goals.

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

I have learned a tremendous amount from my undergraduate students. First of all, they eventually lead projects in our lab, so they are often the ones that make initial findings when doing their data analysis. Some of these have been very fruitful. One student, Matine Azadian, who is a chancellor's scholar, recently landed a top abstract award at a national research conference highlighting the benefits of caloric restriction during cardiac arrest and resuscitation, something that taught me the importance of dietary intake in coma recovery and has now branched off into a novel direction for our lab. Three other students have established new techniques in the lab and ended up teaching me about how these new techniques are directly applicable in our line of research, which has elevated our research potential. Beyond scientific discoveries, I cherish the passion and dedication that our students demonstrate as it rubs on others, including myself. I really find myself inspired by our undergraduate students on a regular basis. Seeing them work late hours or send me emails late at night about a wonderful finding or thought—demonstrating their passion in a number of ways—is really joyous for me.

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

Find a nice laboratory that does both good science that is of interest to you and also provides good mentorship and an ambience of support. In your lives, always surround yourself with people who enjoy what they are doing and are truly dedicated in the topic being studied. This includes the laboratory environment. Your mentor will be key, but so will the peers whom you work with. A lousy environment will make your experience lousy and distasteful. Take your time in choosing a lab, and don't be afraid of persistently showing your interest and passion to land a spot. Then, dedicate yourself wholeheartedly for as long as you can. Two year dedication is better than one year commitment. The more the better. My most successful student has been with me for almost three years, beginning when our laboratory was just being built. Often, the first few months is just a learning phase. By the end of your first year, you will be highly knowledgeable. Thereafter, you will be a major contributor to a lab and be highly cherished.

Research Interests: Neurocritical Care; coma recovery after cardiac arrest and resuscitation; orexin pathway; caloric restriction for neuroprotection; quantitative EEG and multi-modality monitoring; near death experience

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