Meet Dr. Kent Hill; a professor in the department of Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics. His laboratory investigates flagellar motility in African trypanosomes. These protozoan parasites cause a disease that is commonly called “African Sleeping Sickness”. They are transmitted to the bloodstream of their mammalian hosts through the bite of an insect vector, the tsetse fly.  As an AMGEN, Beckman & SRP mentor, he gets the opportunity to work with many undergraduates and guides them through their research journey. Dr. Hill was gracious enough to sit with our team and answer a few questions regarding his mentoring experience:

1. How would you describe your experiences with undergraduate research at UCLA?

I’ve had a fantastic experience with undergraduate researchers at UCLA. I’ve had several undergraduate researchers in my lab over the years and have enjoyed my interactions very much. Undergraduate researchers in my group have spanned a variety of levels of involvement, from mostly learning basic skills and serving in support capacity, to full-fledged, independent projects (connected to ongoing lab projects) as part of 198 or 199 programs, or as part of research fellowships from HHMI, the Beckman Foundation, and Amgen fellows, etc. … I’ve learned a great deal from working with undergraduates, and those who have gone through my lab have gone on to a variety of successful endeavors, from grad school, to med school, to lab techs, to other activities.

2. What advice do you have for faculty who are considering mentoring undergraduate researchers in their lab?

Definitely consider this. Many UCLA undergraduate researchers are on par with our best graduate students. The experience is a great interaction for you, and provides fantastic learning opportunities for your junior trainees (grad students, postdocs, techs) for mentoring. Remember that, particularly at the start, undergraduate students will require more attention and direction than more senior researchers. There is indeed a time investment that is necessary, but if you go in knowing that and provide sound foundational training and guidance, you and your undergraduate trainees will benefit immensely.

3. What resources at UCLA do you consider the most beneficial for including undergraduates in research activities?

Other undergraduate researchers are perhaps the most valuable resource. The undergraduate research center is also a great resource, as staff and personnel there have a wealth of experience and, in my experience, are always looking to help encourage students who have an interest in pursuing research as part of their undergraduate experience. The ‘PATH2’ program in our department and other departments is another great resource for students. This program enables student researchers to obtain course credit for their research in a lab, in lieu of otherwise required laboratory courses. The program also offers formal opportunities for students to present research papers, research plans, and research updates to their peers and to an instructor for direct feedback.

I recommend student researchers also identify one or more regular research seminars to attend, as these provide an opportunity to see how successful researchers organize their lines of investigation and how to present effectively (or, in some cases ineffectively, which is also a learning experience). Research seminars also expose students to a breadth of research topics and approaches, stimulating ideas for their own work, or opening new ideas for subsequent paths to follow in the future.

4. What are some important considerations that undergraduates should consider before starting research?

Go in with realistic expectations. Realize that you want to get a good grounding in basics and fundamentals before taking on a full-fledged research project. Once, knowledge, skills, dependability and capability are established, full research projects and increased responsibility will come. Proper preparation is critical for being able to carryout a successful and rewarding research project – you won’t jump right in to independent experiments until you establish fundamentals. In your first ventures in to research, realizing this is important, so that you don’t come out disappointed when things take longer than you might expect.

Be sure to have realistic assessment of the time you have available to commit to research. You will need to be able to devote time to lab work that takes away from time you might otherwise have spent studying or in other activities. Your research experience should be enjoyable and augment your studies, not detract from them.

Pay attention to efforts that don’t work out as planned – research does not mean always getting the results or outcome you expect. You might go through struggles with some lines of investigation, but perseverance and thoughtful consideration almost always win out. A large percentage of your “research time” will be spent thinking about, reading about, and talking about your project(s). Research is not just about doing things with your hands. Planning your research thoughtfully is very important.

Ask questions! Always work to identify places where your understanding has gaps and ask questions to fill in these gaps.