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SMART moves: Research program empowers undergrads through mentorship

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MARCH 22, 2019

The Keasling Lab in Berkeley is incredibly expansive — a multidisciplinary team of researchers utilizes complex biochemical tools and strategies in an effort to create renewable bioproducts such as commodity chemicals and biofuels. They used this technology to develop a biosynthetic version of the antimalarial drug artemisinin, increasing access to the drug in malaria-endemic areas of Africa.

When Rohith Krishna first stepped foot into the lab as a research mentee straight out of freshman year, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing. Surrounded by complex-looking equipment and technologies, Krishna initially felt out of his depth.    

Krishna was introduced to the lab through the Student Mentoring and Research Teams, or SMART, program, which gives doctoral students the opportunity to provide research experience to undergraduates by recruiting them to assist with their projects. The program provides stipends to both graduate and undergraduate students, giving them the opportunity to conduct paid research for a 10-week summer period. Pioneered at UC Berkeley, SMART aims to supply undergraduates with guidance and in-depth training in a specific area of research while teaching graduates how to serve as effective mentors — a skill that has proven broadly relevant across a wide range of professional career paths.

Working out of the off-campus Keasling Lab affiliate Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, Krishna initially had little knowledge of the complex scientific processes and intricate research techniques utilized by the researchers in the field. He relied heavily on the guidance of his SMART mentor, microbiology doctoral candidate Jacquelyn “Jackie” Blake-Hedges, to learn the intricacies of the science behind their research and to become adept at navigating the laboratory equipment.

“Jackie really took the time out to explain … why are we doing this, what is the thought process behind this, what is the science … which I think is really valuable, especially at such an early point in my college career,” Krishna said. “I really got to get knee-deep in research and actually understand what was going on, instead of just kind of going through the motions.”

SMART aims to supply undergraduates with guidance and in-depth training in a specific area of research while teaching graduates how to serve as effective mentors…

In fact, SMART mentees agree that an introduction to research is a crucial part of the undergraduate experience. Linda von Hoene, the co-director of SMART, referred to this exposure to graduate-level investigations as a “high-impact practice,” a term also used by the Association of American Colleges and Universities to describe an experience proven to benefit and enrich learning for college students. Beyond practical skills and advanced knowledge, according to von Hoene, the impact of early exposure to research often reveals itself as a new sense of confidence felt by students in the classroom, in the lab and when presenting their research findings.  

Yet for most UC Berkeley undergraduates, research opportunities are notoriously difficult to obtain. This is particularly true for students pursuing STEM fields, for which lab experience is considered imperative in order to get into graduate school and further their studies. As a result,  there is often an alarmingly large pool of applicants for a limited number of lab positions. In other fields such as the humanities, faculty members may be discouraged from taking on mentees because the nature of the discipline — reading primary texts, sourcing and consuming existing scholarship — requires more independent work as opposed to collaborative study.   

But beyond the competitive nature of the application process, there are other barriers to entry preventing students from pursuing these opportunities. According to a survey by the Computing Research Association’s Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline, in 2017, 21 percent of undergraduate students in the United States were deterred from doing research because it, unlike a campus job, doesn’t pay. And while many campus research opportunities, such as the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, or URAP, offer students course credit, an unpaid research position simply isn’t a viable option for those already participating in work-study or dependent on financial aid. This is one of many possible factors that may explain why students from low-income backgrounds are far less likely to pursue graduate school than their more affluent peers.

Increasing diversity and representation among research and mentorship participants has been a major goal for SMART.

“At the heart of the SMART program are issues of inclusion that we’re very mindful of and that we will continue to bring up in conversations about mentorship,” von Hoene said. SMART hopes to recruit undergraduates from diverse backgrounds and increase the accessibility of research opportunities for minority and low-income students.  

Expanding outreach is only one of many changes the SMART program will likely make in the next year. SMART will be integrated into the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Initiative, a campuswide effort to provide immersive, hands-on learning opportunities to every undergraduate student. Administration for the SMART program will also shift from the campus Graduate Division to the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships, which oversees campus undergraduate research programs such as URAP and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program. In essence, though the services offered by SMART will continue, SMART may no longer exist as its own program under the incoming leadership. On the other hand, the process of preparing graduate students to assume mentorship positions will undergo few changes as the Graduate Division will continue providing resources and offering preparatory courses for research mentors.    

In fact, the initiative’s goal of providing increased access to research experiences at the undergraduate level requires that graduates and postdoctoral students submit their own projects for mentored research, as opposed to having exclusively faculty-led projects, as is the case for URAP. While the Graduate Division provides funding for graduate mentors in SMART, undergraduate stipends are the result of contributions from donors. According to von Hoene, increasing contributions toward programs such as SMART will be a major part of UC Berkeley’s future fundraising efforts, though the program will likely not exist in the same form or even under the same name.  

In essence, though the services offered by SMART will continue, SMART may no longer exist as its own program under the incoming leadership.

For Shirley Zhang, a campus junior majoring in molecular environmental biology, the SMART program provided an especially unique opportunity. As an international student, she found that she was ineligible to apply for a number of federally funded undergraduate research programs such as the Amgen Scholars Program, whose openings are restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Zhang applied for SMART at the end of her freshman year and was selected by her mentor, Norma Morella, to work in the Koskella Lab for a project that involved examining seed microbiomes in tomato plants. Over the past two years, Zhang has continued working on the project, which recently culminated in a manuscript approaching publication.

Her experience working on this project has, by her account, been incredibly rewarding. Not only has Zhang had the chance to contribute to newly published research, but she also acquired skills specifically tailored to her goals and interests. She explained that partnering with her mentor allowed her to experience a personalized, self-directed style of learning.

“A major thing that I learned through the past two years was that it’s really important to be in control of what you want to learn,” Zhang said.

Comparing her experience with research to some of her peers’, Zhang noticed that many of them were hesitant to express their interests and goals to their advisers.

“I never feel that I should hesitate to reach out to the graduate student that I work with and then say that ‘OK, I want to learn something new,’ ” she added. “Having the awareness that you are allowed to say that, and that you should say that, is something that everyone should know. … (It’s something) I didn’t know when I started in this lab.”

Mitchell Thompson, a campus graduate student in the department of plant and microbial biology, similarly emphasized the importance of affirming the mutual goals of both the mentor and mentee throughout the research process. He has been a SMART mentor for five different undergraduates while conducting his research out of the Keasling Lab in the Joint BioEnergy Institute.

“We need to (be) very upfront (in) identify(ing) what we’re both trying to do, and we need to identify whether or not our goals are compatible,” Thompson said. “Can we work together? … Are we both going to get something out of this?”

Those familiar with research processes are well aware that it can be a grueling, repetitive and often disappointing process. Outside of the knowledge and skills students acquire in their respective fields of interest, von Hoene said mentored research teaches undergraduates how to practice resiliency and face failure, often by observing these characteristics and practices modeled in their mentors.

“A major thing that I learned through the past two years was that it’s really important to be in control of what you want to learn.” — Shirley Zhang

When selecting his mentee, Thompson said he asked applicants to share a time when they faced a moment of failure and overcame it. One of Thompson’s earliest mentees failed out of UC Berkeley and took courses at a community college before reapplying and being readmitted to the university. For Thompson, this student’s sense of grit and determination spoke volumes. Before completing his undergraduate degree, the mentee went on to publish his own research findings.

“A very, very important part of research is to deal with failure and be able to bounce back,” Thompson said. “I knew we were going to fail a bunch before we succeeded. … I wanted someone who knew how to adapt.”

The SMART program aims to provide an equally enriching learning experience for participating graduates. Mentors take a course titled “Mentorship in Higher Education” that provides insight into how to effectively provide guidance and practice leadership skills.

“A lot of this is about giving graduate students the opportunity to very intentionally become mentors in a way that’s going to really serve them well in the long run,” von Hoene explained. In fact, research has revealed that, in various fields, mentorship leads to greater career success and fulfillment on the part of the mentor and heightened commitment and engagement from employed mentees.

By facilitating opportunities for guided research, Von Hoene added that the program works toward establishing what she called “a culture of mentoring” on campus. She hopes that the growth and success of programs such as SMART will help cultivate a more collaborative, inclusive learning environment backed by a collective understanding and valuing of mentorship.  

“I knew we were going to fail a bunch before we succeeded (..).” — Mitchell Thompson

In addition to daily interactions and collaborative work with their respective mentors, undergraduate mentees have the chance to attend workshops on topics ranging from graduate school admissions to fellowship grant-writing. According to Sabrina Soracco, SMART program co-director and director of the UC Berkeley Graduate Writing Center, the goal of these courses was to “form different types of communities” within the program — to dismantle the notion that research is an isolating endeavor and to bridge connections between students across various disciplines.

Perhaps most importantly, however, SMART mentors play critical roles in illuminating the details and realities involved in pursuing specific career paths, giving undergraduates the opportunity to consider whether or not a career would be the right choice for them.  Zhang, for one, said her future path remains unclear. She’s more open, however, to pursuing a wider range of opportunities in the future.

“(SMART) definitely did (help me) reaffirm that I wanted to do research, but … it also helped me narrow my interests into more specifically exactly what types of research I want to do,” Krishna said.


Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mollyrose_nolan.

MARCH 24, 2019