As an undergraduate, Professor Hillary Berk was encouraged and guided by dedicated faculty mentors, and has used her position to offer the same opportunity to her students. She looks for students who are passionate about delving into their subject and uses their research collaboration to help prepare them to pursue their own academic and professional futures. Through their research, Professor Berk’s students gain experience working independently and overcoming the struggles they encounter on the way. She also appreciates the fresh views her students bring to their collaborations, which encourage her to rethink her own opinions. UROP is pleased to highlight Professor Berk’s dedication to 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?

When I was an undergraduate attending the University of California years ago, I had two outstanding mentors who supported my creative and interdisciplinary interests, which actually changed my professional trajectory. Now that I’m a professor, I like to “pay it forward” so that our students can feel supported, inspired, and invested in their own unique projects. I have directed projects ranging from the legal rights of incarcerated parents to have relationships with their children, analysis of changes in international human rights protocols for women and girls, and confirmation bias as an impediment to challenging homophobia.

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

In addition to excellent academic performance and ability, I look most for passion about the subject matter, enthusiasm to embark on a research adventure, and demonstrated curiosity about the social world. I also think “reality checking” is vital: can the student actually handle the extra workload and still meet their regular academic and personal commitments without getting too stressed out?

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

When I am advising and supervising an undergraduate, we typically meet based on a schedule in person, in writing, and by phone. Additionally, I am regularly available to problem-solve and respond to questions as they come up. I have relatively high expectations for my students, yet they report back that I am very approachable and friendly as compared to other faculty, and not “intimidating.” I use the undergraduate research project as an opportunity to get the student comfortable with working independently and thoughtfully, yet recognize their limitations and ask for what they need. The process of research and writing prepares them for their professional futures, no matter their career pathway. My students must be reflective, organized, and justify the choices they are making as the process unfolds. When I sense more struggle, I step in and tend to be more directive and hands on. But I prefer that they first come up with their own ideas and conclusions, and then I’ll test them as they emerge. I am known to give very thorough editorial comments and “on paper” mark ups of drafts and/or results.

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

Students report they evolve into more reflective, effective, and efficient writers and thinkers. They learn new research methods and skills, or how to think like an explorer who is curious about the “whys” and “hows” of the social world. He or she will take away a sense of pride, accomplishment, and achievement. Also—in totally instrumental terms—having completed undergraduate research gives the student a competitive edge when considering post-graduate education. Of course, I believe students are not only learning content for a particular project, but how to think, analyze, and communicate, no matter the context.

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

On one level, I actually learn new content and developments in a variety of subjects that I otherwise would not have time to investigate on my own. Sometimes they even challenge my own biases and stereotypes. On another level, if my mentorship helps to build a student’s confidence in and vision for their personal and professional potential, it seems like a win-win to me! In a time when facts and evidence are under assault, I feel training students to ground assertions in empirical evidence and communicate well is part of a larger goal of mine as a law and society professor: building an informed and empathetic citizenry so we continue to have a strong democracy.

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

Ask yourself: what topic or issue do you truly care about that is worth deep investigation? What are you most interested and curious about? Is there a social justice issue that needs addressing where you might be able to make a small but important impact? If a student can come to the table with this perspective first, then he or she will be excited to engage with their research, even when days get long and things seem challenging. And they will…

Research Interests: Sociology of law; gender, law and society; law and inequality; law and the changing family, especially, assisted reproductive technology and surrogacy contracts

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