Professor Cascade Sorte first mentored undergraduate research projects as a graduate student, and has continued doing so throughout her career. She has discovered that including undergraduates in her lab benefits not only the students, who gain valuable skills, but the entire research team, as the undergraduates bring new ideas and energy into the lab. Professor Sorte encourages her students to pursue independent projects related to her lab’s interests, and has been impressed with the professional growth they have achieved under her guidance. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor Sorte for her commitment to supporting the undergraduate researchers 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 started mentoring undergraduate projects when I was a graduate student at the UC-Davis Bodega Marine Lab where they had a summer REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) Program. I immediately learned that guiding undergraduate projects is rewarding at multiple levels, from generating new scientific discoveries that can start new research directions to developing skills in both the mentee and mentor!

Research in my lab at UCI focuses on the impacts of climate change in coastal marine systems. As an integrative ecology lab, we do studies both in the lab (including our seawater facility) and field (at local coastal sites). Undergraduate student projects are quite diverse. For example, this term (Winter 2019), there are five Bio 199 students in the lab, and their research topics include: (1) impacts of a novel species of carnivorous snail on the feeding behavior of a native species (using video footage), (2) movement vs. homing behaviors in hermit crabs (and how that affects thermal physiology), (3) succession (the order of species colonization) in a subtidal community and how that varies across California, (4) developing methods for adding heaters to our seawater system to simulate climate change, and (5) effects of weather patterns on the use of wildlife corridors by mammals such as coyotes. This last project is an example of how an undergraduate student is taking the Sorte Lab’s research into completely new terrain: terrestrial wildlife ecology!

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

A well-written email—that includes a resume/CV and describes a student’s previous research experience and their goals in conducting research in the lab—is the first way of catching my attention. I do not require previous research experience, but I will look for clues that a student is responsible and proactive (such as previous work or extra-curricular commitment) and, because almost all of our projects involve some fieldwork, evidence that they like to be outside (such as enjoying class field trips or outdoor hobbies). At the interview, I am largely gauging enthusiasm—there’s nothing more telling than a student who can’t suppress a smile when you talk about the expectations of the position along with probability of doing cold, wet, early morning fieldwork! Students are expected to commit 8–12 hours per week to academic year research, depending on the number of credits, between attending weekly lab meeting, conducting their independent project, and assisting with other projects in the lab on an “as available” and “as needed” basis to promote cooperation and get a diversity of experiences within the lab.

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

In the Sorte Lab, undergraduate students develop independent projects related to the research of one of the lab graduate students or postdoctoral scholars, who are significantly engaged (and themselves get experience in) training the undergraduates in project design, research methods, and data management and analysis. Over ten weeks, undergraduate students spend approximately three weeks developing their project (reading scientific literature and writing a two-page research proposal), five weeks collecting data, and the final two weeks analyzing data and preparing an oral presentation. The term culminates with a mini symposium where members of the Sorte and Bracken EEB marine ecology labs come together to watch the undergraduate researchers give 10-minute presentations on their projects. I like to give the undergraduate (and grad student mentors) a lot of independence in project development while at the same time providing ample feedback on the proposed research plan (often playing “devil’s advocate” and challenging students to draw experimental design and possible results) and draft presentation. The entire lab also contributes by brainstorming early in the term during lab meetings and asking probing questions at the final symposium.

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

Most research students spend multiple terms in the lab, and it is wonderful to see how they grow over that time, in their ability to articulate the justification, hypotheses, and significance of their projects, confidence with which they give final presentations, and drive to become increasingly independent in their project ideas (often moving well beyond their grad student mentor’s project).

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

I have been impressed with every one of my undergraduate research mentees in every term in the lab. That indicates to me that the ability to succeed at independent research is accessible given hard work on the undergraduate’s part and engaged mentorship (really need to send a big “thank you” out to the wonderful grad student and postdoc mentors here!). I also strongly believe that teaching is one of the best ways of learning, and working with undergraduate students gives me an opportunity to continue incorporating new research areas in the lab, some of which have grown into multi-year projects.

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

The first step is to get involved! It can be challenging to get an undergraduate research position as there are fewer faculty than students at UCI. But you can get a foot in the door in research in many ways, including volunteering for groups outside of UCI or for TAs and professors of courses that you particularly enjoy and to which you demonstrate a strong commitment. Then, be persistent – hard work pays off!

You're invited to follow our new research project on multi-stressor effects of climate change on Twitter @CascadeJBS and #SitkaNSF

Research Interests: Ecology, Climate Change, Species Invasions, Biogeography, Marine Biology

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '17 Hillary L. Berk
Nov. '17 Dongbao Chen
Oct. '17 Cascade Sorte
Sep. '17 An Hong Do
Aug. '17 Todd C. Holmes
Jul. '17 Adam Martiny
Jun. '17 Mark I. Langdorf
May. '17 Anthony J. Durkin
Apr. '17 Thomas Ahlering
Mar. '17 Dara H. Sorkin
Feb. '17 Andrej Lupták
Jan. '17 Michelle A. Fortier