Dr. Patrick Rafter sees research as a valuable part of an undergraduate education, one that gives his students a view into life as a research scientist. He looks for students who are enthusiastic and curious about his field, introduces them to basic laboratory methods, and gradually offers them the opportunity to do more work on their own. He also appreciates the chance to hone his own skills through mentoring his students. UROP is pleased to recognize Dr. Rafter for his enthusiastic support of 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 first mentored undergraduate students as a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University, but I’ve been most successful with mentoring the ultra-motivated students here at UCI!

Because some parts of my research require very simple laboratory methods, we frequently accept students with no laboratory experience. These students typically begin by learning to prepare ocean sediment (“mud”) for geochemical analysis using standard geological methods—essentially what a gold miner does while looking for gold in a stream. If the student is motivated and good at laboratory work, I will teach them more advanced methods and they can ultimately learn how to prepare and analyze the radioactive isotope of carbon (radiocarbon) in our lab here at UCI, which is arguably the world’s best lab for these measurements.

My research program is focused on addressing how Earth processes influence the atmospheric concentration of the important greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) and we analyze geological archives like rocks, sediment, corals, and more to identify past ocean and climate conditions. I’ve had several students conduct their senior thesis research by measuring the radiocarbon content of these geological archives, which provide insight to past ocean and climate conditions. These include investigating the basic characteristics of radiocarbon in ocean sediments and how seawater radiocarbon has changed since the last ice age. Our current work includes developing new methods for quickly understanding the “calendar” age of ocean sediments, investigating theories about how carbon is moved throughout the global ocean, identifying changes in Baja California precipitation alongside atmospheric CO2 since the last ice age, and testing how well these sedimentary microfossils are recording seawater chemistry.

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

The most important expectation of an undergraduate student is that they are careful and let us know if a mistake was made. For example, because we are routinely processing hundreds of samples, it is very important to know if some samples were potentially mixed up or mislabeled. Other than that, I look for enthusiasm in a student.

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

I teach undergraduate students the basic skills for the work / necessary safety precautions, ask if they have questions, and then I let them work a little bit on their own. My rationale is that people typically have their most important questions only after beginning the lab work. I think this applies to developing new skills in any environment.

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

Most undergraduates don’t know exactly what they want to do after college, which is perfectly fine. I wasn’t sure either. For those who are thinking about becoming a research scientist, working in an active research laboratory is an important learning experience because they can figure out if they like doing the (sometimes boring) work that makes the research happen.

I’m happy to say that undergraduates leave our lab with a healthy understanding of what it means to perform laboratory science. I think this is a priceless experience and we are also doing important work that examines global ocean and climate conditions on a variety of timescales.

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

Guiding undergraduate research has been the prime way in which I’ve learned how to mentor and manage people in my lab. This is because we aren’t taught how to manage people when we get a Ph.D. in the Earth sciences. Mentoring undergraduates at UCI has been extremely helpful for my continuing education and we have also done some really great work.

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

Keep an open mind about what kind of research you are working on—you just might be surprised by what sparks your interest. Also, ask a lot of questions about why you are conducting this research. Scientists love to answer questions about their research so you should never feel embarrassed to ask even the most simple question (those are usually the most important and difficult to answer). Another piece of advice is that you should never feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the lab. If you don’t feel well trained or supervised in the lab, make sure you let your mentor (or someone you feel more comfortable with) know.

Research Interests: Marine biogeochemistry, especially the cycling of nutrients

Profile: https://www.ess.uci.edu/~prafter/

Email: prafter@uci.edu

Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '18 Judy Tzu-Chun Wu
Nov. '18 Justyna M. Sosna
Oct. '18 Chen Li
Sep. '18 Shahrdad Lotfipour
Aug. '18 Zoe Klemfuss
Jul. '18 Patrick Rafter
Jun. '18 Kelli Sharp
May. '18 Gilverto Q. Conchas
Apr. '18 Ozdal Boyraz
Mar. '18 Amal Alachkar
Feb. '18 Andrea Nicholas
Jan. '18 Wenqi Wang