2011 Recipient of the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research
Professor and Chair, Department of Microbiology
Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Sometimes I stay rather late in my office in the Life Sciences building, mostly because I want to finish something and forget about the time. Usually I am extricated from this state of social delinquency by a call from my wife reminding me about dinner. Some weekends I come to my office to work rather than using my desk at home, because there is simply too much paper to lug around.
When I see people working in the laboratory at these odd hours, I smile, because I see that my passion is also their passion. When I see undergraduate students at these times, my smile gets even wider.
I have been smiling a lot lately at UC Davis.
You will notice that I said office, not laboratory, when referring to my work place. The unfortunate evolution of a university professor in the sciences is that very few can maintain an active presence in the laboratory, but it was the laboratory work that attracted us to and qualified us for our chosen career. The real experiments in my laboratory are performed by a talented cadre of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research technicians. My role is fundraising, designing projects, synthesizing ideas, interpreting data, asking challenging questions, matching people with the right project. Many of these activities can be summarized in a single word: mentoring.
Mentoring of undergraduate students is what makes a research university like ours so special, and nowhere are so many undergraduate students engaged in undergraduate research in the life sciences than at the University of California, Davis. The College of Biological Sciences is well known for its rigorous curriculum, with challenging lecture courses and intensive laboratory classes. But what makes UC Davis special, what places our undergraduate students in the world's best graduate programs and medical schools, is their undergraduate research experience. The challenges of designing and executing experiments, interpreting results, casting them in a PowerPoint presentation for the weekly research meeting of the laboratory group, and then preparing a poster, a talk, or a publication are the best preparations for what is to come. While the formal course work is highly structured, with clear schedules for homework and examinations, undergraduate research provides the opportunity for students to acquire one of the most important skills to be learned: how to be productive in an unstructured environment.
As a researcher, attending scientific conferences is always an adrenaline rush for me. I am reminded why I love what I am doing, enjoying the singular focus on science. My best ideas often come after talks, in front of posters, or over coffee, and sometimes over libations restricted to those over twenty-one, when we scientists gather to discuss our projects. The UC Davis Annual Undergraduate Research, Scholarship & Creative Activities Conference perfectly emulates this environment. The quality of the oral and poster presentations is superb, reflective of intensive preparation and numerous rehearsals.
Yet for me, the most important skill is a different one, one that's harder to prepare for: how the student-researchers respond to questions from those viewing their posters or listening to their presentations. Their answers often show an unrehearsed passion for their subject and demonstrate that they can think quickly on their feet. This kind of engaged dialogue at a conference is where creativity is born, where a group of minds becomes more than the sum of their individual parts. And it is why face-to-face interactions are irreplaceable in the development of a researcher.
The late Stanford University Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg (1959, Physiology or Medicine), one of the fathers of modern biochemistry, famously stated, "If asked to name varieties of mental torture, most scientists would place writing at the top of the list." I think most scientists in the life sciences would agree with Professor Kornberg, and yet writing is such a crucial part of our lives. At the risk of being facetious, I might even say that my colleagues and I live in a state of perennial torture, possibly one of the reasons some of us appear grumpy once in a while. More seriously, though, good science writing needs practice, and starting early is the best strategy against experiencing writing as "torture." For this reason, I encourage my undergraduate students to contribute to Explorations; it is a great start to showcasing their work in a formal setting where fantastic products are featured.
My satisfaction in science comes from the experiments of the students and research fellows in my laboratory. The only things that I am looking for in my student researchers are motivation and initiative; everything else either I can provide or the students can learn. Luckily, at UC Davis we have many motivated undergraduate students with plenty of initiative. They find ample opportunities and open doors to pursue their dreams in biology, the sciences, humanities, or wherever they choose to make their contributions to society.
When you start reading this issue of Explorations, I ask that you imagine the work behind the graphs and figures, the long hours it took to collect the data, the failures that needed to be overcome, and the "torture" of the final writing process. When you imagine all this, you can appreciate what a terrific group of students contributed to this issue; I know they will continue to make all of us at UC Davis proud.
As I said, I am smiling a lot lately at UC Davis, never more than when I think about our undergraduate students, what they are accomplishing now, and what discoveries they may make in the future.