Dr. William Hsu

Meet Dr. William Hsu, a professor in the Department of Radiological Sciences, Bioinformatics, and Bioengineering and a member of the Medical & Imaging Informatics group. He also served as a faculty author in the 2023 issue of the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal (USJ).

We had the opportunity to ask Dr. Hsu about his experience mentoring undergraduate students:

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

I am a biomedical informaticist, someone who works with data, information, and knowledge to optimize their use for medical decision making. My lab works with clinical, imaging, and molecular data to diagnose cancers earlier. I have had a fantastic experience working with undergraduate trainees. While they come from different majors, such as computer science and computational and systems biology, they all share the same level of enthusiasm, motivation, and focus. It’s amazing how much they juggle, from coursework and other extracurricular activities, yet they come with passion and commitment to do research. I’m very grateful for them.

2. What are your most effective approaches to promote undergraduate research success?

In any mentoring relationship, it’s important to establish expectations. Research is a commitment and takes time to make progress. You will need to do a deep dive into a subject area. That means a lot of background reading and preparatory work. In my area of informatics, trainees need to understand where the data comes from, what algorithms to use to analyze the data, how to process and interpret the results, and why the algorithms may or may not have worked. I find it’s important to take the time to develop a solid background and not rush this step. I also make sure that undergraduate trainees see themselves as equal members of the lab. That means participating in lab meetings whenever possible, presenting their work in front of the lab, and interacting with other lab members.

3. What is your experience working with undergraduate students who want to develop their scientific writing and publish?

I’m always so impressed with undergraduates who express a desire to write and publish. My advice would be to start by reading a lot of scientific writing. Scholarly articles may seem daunting to read at first, but learning how manuscripts are often organized, particularly in the field you are publishing, is helpful. I would also say that scientific writing is an iterative process, and it often takes a lot longer than you think, so plan ahead if you’re aiming to submit work to a venue like the Undergraduate Science Journal.

4. What is your outlook on team science and collaboration? What advice would you offer students as they navigate team science?

In a translational field like biomedical informatics, it’s so critical to be involved in a team and to collaborate with people with different backgrounds and expertise. For example, I collaborate very closely with radiologists and other clinical colleagues who are deeply knowledgeable about the challenges of practicing medicine that inform the types of problems that we tackle in my lab. Without their input, I would be running the risk of spending a lot of time developing an innovative solution, but the problem may be something that is never encountered in practice, or the solution may be too impractical to deploy.

5. How do you support students as they navigate alternative career trajectories in research?

There are many opportunities to apply skills picked up from doing research beyond being in a lab or staying in academia. Research teaches you creative problem-solving, teamwork, networking, and communication skills, to name a few. When trainees leave my lab, I want them to be prepared and supported to enter a career that they are most passionate about, whether in academic research or in other areas, using the skills they learned while doing research.

Dr. Anthony Covarrubias

Meet Dr. Anthony Covarrubias, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. His mentorship helped Albert Macias, a 4th year UCLA Biochemistry major, secure a CAMP ThermoFisher Award to support their work on immunosenescent NAD metabolism. CAMP is an NSF-LSAMP program at UCLA, aimed at enhancing diversity in STEM at the PhD and Faculty levels. Learn more about CAMP here: UCLA NSF-CAMP.

We had the opportunity to ask Dr. Covarrubias about what it’s like to mentor undergraduate students in the lab:

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

My first experience with undergraduate research was when I was an undergraduate at UCLA myself, many years ago. I worked as a lab technician and was inspired to pursue a Phd in science. At the time, I was taught lab techniques and technical skills, but the details of the scientific goals we were pursuing were not always clear to me. Thus, as a PI I strive to make sure that in addition to technical skills, undergraduate researches also gain a good understanding of the broader mission of the lab and the research project that they are contributing to.

Since joining UCLA as an assistant professor, I have taken on multiple undergraduate students as lab members and mentees.

2. What are your most effective approaches to promote undergraduate research success?

Ensuring the success of the undergraduates’ research is a top priority for me and my lab. Emphasizing mentorship is of utmost importance, particularly when students first join the lab and when they face critical milestones in their undergraduate career. It is through this mentorship that I aim to help students formulate clear goals and then guide them on steps towards reaching those goals. Furthermore, I make sure to include undergraduate students in everything involving the essence of the lab. For example, I expect them to be contributing participants of every lab meeting and journal clubs.

3. What resources at UCLA have been the most beneficial to including undergraduates in your research?

The undergraduate research center at UCLA has numerous resources to assist undergraduates who are pursuing research. Among these are the honors research program and the summer programs. As a relatively young lab, it is particularly helpful when undergraduates are able to secure resources to pursue research in the form of fellowships or grants. There are many options for talented students to pursue if they are dedicated to the search and application process.

4. What should undergraduates consider before they begin their research journey?

Before they begin their research journey, undergraduates should first make sure they have formulated an end goal. That goal could be obtaining a Phd in a particular field, applying to medical school, or having in mind whether they want to pursue a career in academia or in industry. I recognize that the end goal could be a moving target or could change as time goes on. However, I find that it is important for students to have clarity and reasoning behind their desire to initiate a research journey. Doing so helps students focus on seeking the specific type of experience or research that would be most beneficial to reaching that end goal. Beyond this, students should recognize that the research journey can be very rewarding but quite long, and thus they should have the passion and enthusiasm needed to reach the end of the road.

5. How do you support students as they navigate different career trajectories in science?

I primarily support students and help them prepare for a career in science by ensuring that they build a very strong foundation in both research and technical skills. No matter where their career takes them, my goal is to give them the most robust launching pad that I can by challenging them to be their best. With each individual student, I aim to help them achieve their utmost potential in my lab by setting big goals and by encouraging them to overcome any difficult challenges. With this background, I know my students will be prepared for any future career, whether it is in the field of science or in something entirely different.

Dr. Zhefeng Guo

Meet Dr. Zhefeng Guo, a professor in the Department of Neurology at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. During the 2023 UCLA Undergraduate Research Week, Dr. Guo received a Faculty Mentor Award—an award that honors the considerable dedication of UCLA faculty who consistently and enthusiastically serve as effective mentors to undergraduate students involved in research. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Guo on his experience mentoring undergraduate students in his lab.

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

My experiences with undergraduate research have been pleasantly surprising and extremely rewarding. I have to admit that, although initially I underestimated the capabilities of our undergraduate students, I quickly found out that they always exceeded my expectations no matter what kinds of projects I gave them. Many undergraduate students in my lab have been first authors of our peer-reviewed research publications. Our undergraduates have continuously proven that they are among the best at performing scientific research. Many of my students have gone on to pursue their own careers in prestigious M.D., Ph.D., and M.D./Ph.D. programs, and won competitive research awards. It’s extremely rewarding knowing that I have the opportunity to support them at an early stage of their career and see them grow into fully independent researchers.

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

When considering being a mentor to undergraduate students I think it is important to give everyone a chance and to have patience with them as everyone has a different reason for getting involved in research.  While some students may simply want to enhance their resume for medical school applications, the majority of them coming into research have a genuine interest in science and are extremely capable. These students can help propel research projects forward on their own if given the chance to grow and shine. It is equally important to determine what degree of mentorship a student needs, depending on their goals and experience, to do the best you can as a mentor.

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

Most students find my research through the Undergraduate Research Portal where I post research opportunities throughout the year. However, another resource I found to be beneficial is the Biomedical Research Minor program. Dr. Ira Clark, the program Director, has recommended several students from the Minor to my lab. Every one of them has been excellent.

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

I think the most important factor to consider is to determine your reason for getting involved in research. Research should not be used as a means to an end. Determine whether you are genuinely interested in science and research and what about it you find interesting. If unsure, talk to fellow students who are currently doing research in a lab. Ask them about their experience: if they enjoy doing research and what they like and don’t like about it. After joining a research lab, put in the time and give your 100%. You will find it to be a highly rewarding and engaging experience during your undergraduate career.

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.

Dr. Kent Hill

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.