Professor Todd Holmes started research as a freshman in college, and that experience helped propel him into the success he has had in his career. His background has led him to appreciate the importance of research as a part of an undergraduate education. Professor Holmes had dedicated himself to working with the undergraduates he mentors, helping them gain confidence, independence, and the skills they need to succeed. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor Holmes for his commitment to the undergraduate researchers 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 grew up in Southern California as a surfer/skateboarder kid living near the beach. I attended UC San Diego and started research as a Bio199 student in my freshman year and conducted research until I graduated. After graduating, I “took a year off” to work as a lab technician, continuing the work I was doing earlier as an undergraduate student. It really did feel like a year off compared to school. By the time I started in the Ph.D. program in Neurobiology at MIT (a pretty good place), I was a co-author on three peer reviewed papers published in scientific journals. Similarly, I set student co-authorship on papers as the tangible goal for my students. As I spent so much time as an undergraduate researcher, I developed very clear ideas about what works (and what doesn’t) for mentoring students.

The first consideration for good mentoring is to consider the needs of students, then to go from there. Then there is the important consideration of respecting the fact that students have midterms and finals, and that scheduling flexibility is important for them to maintain healthy grades. As far as creative projects, the first hurdle to get over towards developing creative projects with real intellectual contributions from students is that they must attain a level of technical competency. The next step for the student is ask themselves “I have this skill, now what question can I address?”. The next level beyond that happens when the student is confident enough to say “This is the question I want to answer, and I will seek out new skills to answer my question.” At a higher level, students realize they can do anything they want to do if they can conquer their sense of limitations of their imagination and skills. At that point, students are usually called “Professors” or “Inventors.”

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

I started mentoring many years ago and took longer than I should have to arrive at a very simple set of criteria for predicting which students will be successful. First, the earlier students begin participating in research, the better, ideally in their freshman year. This is because it takes some time to develop skills. If students approach me in their senior year, I have to say sorry, too late. Next, I strongly prefer to select students with a GPA around 3.5 or higher. This is very predictive of whether or not students will be successful undergraduate researchers. Next, and not so obvious, I usually ask prospective students if they have ever had a job. It doesn’t matter what kind of job, but employment experience is predictive of the simple but important ability to show up when you say you are going to show up. Science is a team sport and each member of the team is important for the team to win. All of this combines towards my maintenance of a culture of excellence in my lab.

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

All undergraduate students in my lab are paired with a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow, who teaches them technical skills. Our goal is find out what students can do, what they are good at, and when you enjoy doing something, the chances are good that you will excel at it. Following attainment of a baseline level of competence, students then take on pieces of projects, then their own projects. I expect that if everything goes to plan that student contributions will eventually lead to co-authored contributions on scientific papers published in the very highest level scientific journals. As students progress, I increase my engagement with them in the form of helping them develop their own talks for lab meetings and then at University research forums, then even beyond to professional scientific meetings. I gave my first talk at an international level scientific meeting as an undergraduate. I also work closely working with students on their writing skills. Last, I strongly encourage students to think critically and develop their own ideas.

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

I mentored my first undergraduate student Kevin Berman while I was a post-doctoral fellow at Brandeis University using my own personal experiences as guidelines. Kevin went on to the MD/Ph.D. program at University of Texas Southwestern at Dallas and he is now a successful dermatologist. My next student a year later Jill Schwartz took a similar path, and now I have dozens of mentored students who I trained that went on to graduate school or medical school. A few are Professors. Most recently, my Bio199 student Yocelyn Recinos joined the Ph.D. program at Columbia University medical school and her peer Bio199 student Joshua Chevez has a half dozen interviews set up over the next month or so with first rate Ph.D. programs in the U.S. This is one of most rewarding parts of my position. I still provide career advice to students who were in my lab over a decade ago when they ask. So this can be a lifelong relationship.

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

With cultivation, luck and hard work, students can eventually reach the point at which they are fully capable of generating their own ideas and making them happen. From this, I have learned there is such a thing as intellectual lineage and the evolution of ideas branching to distinct paths.

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

As a student, do what interests you, not what you think will impress someone else.

Research Interests: Circadian Biology, light effects of arousal and sleep/wake cycles, jet lag and other forms of circadian dysregulation

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