Professor Anthony Durkin sees research as an opportunity for undergraduates to add depth to their education. This depth can expose them to possible academic and career options that they might not have considered otherwise. He also notes a tremendous growth in confidence in his students as a result of their research experience. Professor Durkin is frequently amazed by his students’ capabilities and ongoing thirst for knowledge. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor Durkin for the mentorship he provides to his undergraduate researchers.

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

I did not really have any undergraduate research experience myself while in school, but I did come from a very small physics program which provided many of the same qualities as research. There was no graduate physics program, so by the time physics majors were starting their third year, there was an expectation that they would teach the first and second year undergraduate physics labs that were required for all engineering students. This was the mid-1980s, so labs were “analog” and very hands-on. These involved a variety of activities that helped to internalize various concepts and a lot of consultation with professors who were managing the operation. I think that regardless of whether students are headed to grad school, medical school or to industry, working in a lab can provide a bridging step. In addition, I think it’s important for students to “try on” activities that bring them closer to what is expected of them once they leave school.

Undergraduate projects in my lab run a wide gamut. Historically, the specifics depend to a large degree on which research problems we are tackling in the lab. Often we have students start off with learning to fabricate tissue simulating phantoms, and subsequently characterizing these with a variety of optical technologies that we use. As students go through that process, which is well supervised by my senior lab members (typically post-docs and project scientists) we start to develop a sense for where the student might fit next, in terms of projects. I should mention that this isn’t simply an exercise. Tissue simulating phantoms play a very important role in the development and application of the optical technologies that are the focus of the lab activities and we never seem to have enough of them. Fabricating, measuring and analyzing the phantoms is hands-on, and exposes students to aspects of measurement and data analysis. We have had students become involved in preclinical and clinical studies related to skin cancer screening, burn wound triage, wound healing, development of new classes of tissue simulating phantoms, fabrication and testing of a new handheld clinical imager, refurbishment and validation of benchmark optical apparatus, histology, analysis of thermal imaging data from burn wounds. It’s quite a breadth of projects and really depends strongly on what we need to get done in terms of the major projects that lab is working on. Typically I solicit undergraduate project ideas from my senior scientists, we discuss, and then post a final cut of project descriptions and students respond to those.

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

Over the years, we have refined this. Our current standard is that when a student expresses interest in working in the lab, we require a minimum of 2 x 3 or 4 hour chunks of being physically present and active in the lab each week. There needs to be sufficient commitment to agree to that up front, as that seems to be what is necessary in order for students to get traction and make progress. Generally, we expect undergraduates to be able to work in MATLAB. More often than not, students come into our lab after completing the BME 60A & B course cycle that exposes them to both LabView and MATLAB. Often I will do the first interview of interested students and then, assuming that all signs are positive, the student spends some time with various members of the group and from there, we work out research direction and who will work with whom.

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

I am not a micromanager. Since 2003, up until very recently, I have been in a soft-money situation, which has required me to spend a large portion of my time writing grant proposals. As a consequence, most of the day-to-day mentoring has been done by members of my research group. Thankfully, I have an amazing team of staff, post-doctoral researchers and project scientists who are interested in working with committed undergraduates. I am not sure that people fully grasp how well regarded BLI is in terms of international reputation in the field of biomedical photonics. We have extremely good scientists and engineers and those working in my group have been fantastic mentors to the students. The undergraduates work side by side with them, getting exposed to different perspectives on how to think through various challenges. My own personal proclivities orient around clarity of communication, both written and verbal. Typically I give quite a bit of feedback in those areas. Having worked in a government lab for a few years, and then working in industry, I know how critically important it is for people who want to thrive in an organization to communicate effectively, concisely and with precision.

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

Some students have expressed gratitude for being given an opportunity to work on one or two problems that have enabled them to gain some depth in expertise. They have indicated that depth would have been missing had they not become involved in our work. I think this gives them a better opportunity to refine their thinking about what they want to do after finishing their undergraduate degrees. There have been physics students who have indicated that their lab experiences really opened their eyes to possibilities in medicine and medical technology development that they had not previously considered. A lot of students start to open up a bit, as they learn how to be a contributing member of a team. That seems as though it feeds confidence, which has subsequent payoffs in many facets of life.

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

The thing that continues to amaze me over and over is the seemingly widespread thirst that many of the students have for a research experience. I often find myself astounded at how capable the undergraduates are. I recently hired two members of my research staff who completed BME degrees at UCI. The both worked in my lab as 199 students for a couple years and over that time, they just kept saying “yes” to the challenges that we asked them to step into.

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

Recently I finished reading the book “Mastery” by Robert Greene. While there are some ideas there that seem oddly conceived, I do agree that an experience resembling apprenticeship is a very effective way to grow and develop expertise and self-knowledge. In that respect, I’d recommend that every undergraduate should seek out a lab in which to work. They don’t have to have aspirations of graduate school for this to be valuable.

Research Interests: Spatial Frequency Domain Imaging, Wide Field Functional Imaging, Quantitative Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, Fluorescence Spectroscopy, Tissue simulating phantoms, Chemometrics, Dermatologic imaging, Skin cancer screening, Wound healing

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Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

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