Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Craig Merlic

Dr. Craig Merlic joined UCLA faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA in 1989. He served as Vice Chair for the Department from 1997 to 2000 and 2004 to 2008. At UCLA, he has received a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in addition to several teaching awards. Aside from mentoring students in UC LEADS, he also serves as the Chair of the Faculty Advisory Board for the URC-Sciences. Dr. Merlic sat and discussed in length with Dr. Tama Hasson, Director of the URC-Sciences, about his extensive experiences in research:


1. Can you tell us about your history with the URCs and how you first got involved versus what your role is now?

I started working with undergraduate research students my first year as an assistant professor at UCLA. I probably worked with an equal number of undergraduate and graduate student researchers. A few years after that I wrote a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant that was funded, and through that grant I sponsored students to do summer research in Chemistry at UCLA. While working on that program, I became involved with Professor Judi Smith in looking at the greater needs of supporting undergraduate research on the UCLA campus. In 1996 I wrote another NSF grant, one that was an award for UCLA and Professor Smith, who was the Provost for Undergraduate Education, to create the Undergraduate Research Centers. This NSF grant, the Recognition Award for the Integration of Research and Education (RAIRE) gave Professor Smith and I the opportunity to travel to Washington DC to discuss our goals for undergraduate research at UCLA with program officers at the NSF. Our conviction was that we needed to leverage resources to get more students engaged in research. And participating in research was a foundational benefit for students at a research university. Professor Smith, of course, took the lead, but I was involved from the get-go in the formation of the Centers. I became a member of the original faculty advisory committee in 2003. Then Tama arrived. I actually claim credit for recruiting her to UCLA as my wife is a close friend of hers. In spring 2015 I took over as the director of the UC LEADS program [an undergraduate research program supporting physical science and engineering first generation students interested in research careers] and joined the current incarnation of the URC-Sciences faculty advisory board. In fall of 2019, I became chair of the Board.

2. Are there any particular success stories that stand out to you over your time with the URCs?

From that original REU I ran, about half the participating students went on to obtain their PhDs in Chemistry. But more striking is the success of UC LEADS students. Across the UC system about 70% of UC LEADS alumni are either currently enrolled in graduate school or have already earned graduate degrees in a variety of doctoral and master’s programs. UCLA has an even better record with 78% of our UC LEADS alumni getting graduate degrees!

3. What is the most rewarding thing about your work with the URCs?

To me, I learn lots of science from awesome students. I tell all of the UC LEADS students that I love to be the program director because I get to work with and learn from chemists, physicists, geologists, engineers etc. It is so exciting to work with the students and help them progress in their research abilities and I get to learn so much science at the same time!

4. What are the biggest changes you have witnessed in undergraduate research at UCLA? How have you seen the URCs evolve?

Support for the students! When I first started there were only a few students being financially supported during the summer and none during the academic year. Now we are supporting SO many students with a number of different programs! It is clear that UCLA recognizes the value of undergraduate research.
Also, the URCs have grown! Not only in the number of staff, but more importantly in the number of programs they run. So most importantly, in the number of students that they now support. As one measure of that support, during the first Science Poster Day there were about 80 poster presenters. Now we have a week-long event with thousands of participants and visitors!

5. What do you envision is next for the URCs as you look towards the future?

First is to provide support for every research student who needs it or wants it.
Second, we need to dramatically increase the scholarship amounts, particularly in the summer. We have to increase the amounts as some students give up jobs to do research. As an extreme example, consider my father. He worked during the summers and then he was pay for his tuition and fees and living costs for the next year of school. For me, I also worked in the summers and then was able to cover all of my school and personal costs, but my parents covered my living costs. But now neither of those models is unattainable – students would need $20k per summer to do what I did as a college student. Hence, I feel student researchers really deserve at least $10,000 as a minimum in summer to cover what they lose in job income. Right now students are paid half that or less.

6. What makes undergraduate research critical for a campus and community?

It connects faculty to the undergraduate students. When I teach 350+ students in a large class, I might meet a few in office hours, but that’s about it. In research I get to closely work worth students for an extended period of time. So there are students that I worked with three decades ago and I am still in contact with them.
Mostly, it provides a critical connection between students and the RESEARCH University (R1). This is a critical component of UCLA where we train PhDs. This way undergraduates too can see and contribute to the excitement of discovery!

7. Why do you support the URCs and why should other people?
See all of the above!
The state of California has specific funding guidelines that often tie student funding support to classes. Unfortunately, undergraduate research is not counted as a class in the same way. Hence, outside funding is critical. And since money will not come from the state, it is probably most critical to support students during their summer research.