Professor Katherine Mackey has developed a great interest in mentoring students in interdisciplinary research, and worked to better understand the unique challenges required for those projects. She looks for students who have demonstrated a high degree of motivation and success in their classes, and works with them to increase their confidence, accountability, and self-assurance, in addition to all of the necessary research skills. The new ideas and perspectives that her undergraduates bring to their project inspire Professor Mackey in her own research. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor Mackey for the passion she brings to mentoring undergraduate research.

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

My interest in mentoring undergraduates in research grew out of my own experiences doing research as an undergraduate. I worked in several labs, and those experiences were vital in shaping my career path by helping me narrow down my interests and gain the confidence I needed to become an independent researcher. My interest in mentoring students in interdisciplinary projects grew under the guidance of my graduate adviser, Adina Paytan, who taught me many of the pedagogical techniques I continue to use to this day. I am very interested in understanding and honing the special skills needed for mentoring students in projects that span multiple disciplines, which often present unique challenges compared to single discipline projects. I have written several articles on this topic that were informed through my mentorship experiences thus far.

My students have been involved in research ranging from field and laboratory based experiments/measurements to literature reviews. I have taken students to do field work in the Red Sea, the Pacific coast, and in estuaries from California to Cape Cod. It is hard work, but the students love it!

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

Finding the right undergraduate researcher takes a different approach than for selecting a graduate student or post doc, because these students often have no prior research experience on which to be evaluated. Because undergraduates are still heavily involved in taking classes, the most important thing that I look for is a demonstrated ability to do well in coursework (e.g. a high GPA). The reason is that, above all, research should not detract from coursework at the undergraduate level, yet the time commitment of research can make this balance difficult to achieve. I look for students who understand the time commitment research brings and who have a proven track record of strong time management skills. I also make clear to all of my students once they join the lab that they need to prioritize their coursework – sometimes this means finding another student to fill in for them during exams or when big assignments are due, and they need to make these arrangements in advance. In my lab everyone takes turns filling in for each other as needed, and it is good practice for developing project management skills.

Beyond time management and academic excellence, the most important characteristic I look for is enthusiasm. I love, love, love the work I do, and I want my students to share that sense of wonder and excitement! Over time students also learn the importance of perseverance—this gets us through the times when the experiments don’t go as planned or take longer than expected—but perseverance is learned over time through experience. Enthusiasm has to be there from the start.

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

I take an active role in helping students plan their projects, and I enjoy working side by side with them in the field and lab whenever I can. Each student’s interests and aptitude are different, and I take this into account when helping them design a project. In my experience, students earlier in their education seem to benefit more from projects with a smaller scope and milestones that are easy to reach, whereas more advanced students often enjoy projects with a broader scope that are more open ended or exploratory.

In addition to receiving direct mentorship from me for project planning and career counseling, undergraduates benefit from the expertise of other people in the lab, including graduate students and postdocs. I would describe my lab group as highly interactive and supportive at all levels. Everyone works together and the peer mentorship creates a very dynamic, creative environment. We have a lab group meeting once a week in which students take turns presenting their own research or a paper of their choosing. We also have writing groups to practice writing skills and provide times for students to get feedback on abstracts for meetings, UROP proposals, etc.

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

My favorite part of helping students conduct research projects is to observe the confidence they gain and the sense of responsibility, accountability, and self-assurance they develop. The research experience also helps students determine whether a career in research is right for them—some of my students have decided to attend graduate school based on their positive research experiences.

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

There are many things, but probably my favorite aspect is the surprising number of insights my students bring to their project. They often ask questions or solve problems in ways I would never think of, and this leads me to examine my research from a new perspective. It breathes new life into my projects!

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

First, start early. Don’t wait until your last year to look for a mentor and start thinking about a project. Your project will be much more fulfilling if you join the lab early, learn some general information about what the group studies and how they study it, and then carve out a project for yourself once you have learned the ropes.

Second, manage your time. Plan ahead to make sure your research project and coursework schedules complement each other. Anticipate times when coursework will require more time, and make plans for how to structure your research accordingly. If you start to get overwhelmed, talk to your mentor—that is what s/he is there for!

Third, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself! Research is about much more than simply being in the lab; use the experience to improve your ability to read scientific papers, write proposals to support your work, and present your project at scientific meetings. These skills are invaluable for a career as a scientist, and are best mastered early.

Research Interests: Understanding how photosynthesis shapes, and is shaped by, biological, chemical, and physical processes in the ocean.

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Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '16 Miryha Gould Runnerstrom
Nov. '16 Allison Perlman
Oct. '16 John Billimek
Sep. '16 Wayne B. Hayes
Aug. '16 Aimee Lara Edinger
Jul. '16 Katherine Mackey
Jun. '16 Daniel Whiteson
May. '16 Wirachin Hoonpongsimanont
Apr. '16 Michael T. Goodrich
Mar. '16 Lonnie R. Alcaraz
Feb. '16 Kimberley D. Lakes
Jan. '16 Rocío Rosales