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Mentoring undergraduates in research


Cultivating interest of school-age-students in interdisciplinary science, a goal of University of California Riverside’s Center for Plant Cell Biology Chemical Genomics Interdisciplinary Graduate Research and Training (ChemGen IGERT) program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is to provide PhD candidates the opportunity to share knowledge with others, ranging from young students and their teachers to university undergraduates.

A required activity for ChemGen IGERT fellows is the mentoring of undergraduate students in a NSF-Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) or other organized program. To date, 11 undergraduates were mentored by ChemGen IGERT fellows in the Plant Cell Biology (( and BioAnalytical Science REU Site Programs. This tradition provides an extraordinary experience for undergraduates from 2- and 4-year institutions and a formalized mentoring experience for the IGERT fellows. Our 9-week REU programs emulate a graduate student experience. The first week of the Plant Cell Biology program is a hands-on workshop that covered plant growth and development, basic techniques in molecular biology, and an introduction to chemical genomics, bioinformatics, image analyses, and genomic technologies. The program continues with undergraduate student participation in a research project designed by a ChemGen IGERT fellow, with approval from a faculty supervisor. The program includes training in mentoring for the IGERT fellows and an ethics course for both REU students and IGERT fellows. A critical role of the mentor is to provide their undergraduate with a realistic perspective of graduate school and detailed information about training opportunities, such as those offered by NSF-IGERT programs.

Three REU participants were supervised by IGERT fellows in 2008: (1) Michelle Brown guided Robert Washington (African American), a junior from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The goal of the project Robert and Michelle shared was to screen over 46,000 compounds in a tobacco pollen growth assay for potential trafficking disruptors. In this process, Robert gained experience with the BD Pathway confocal microscope, the Bio-Tek robot for fluid handling, and his first experience working in a research laboratory. The outcome of this project was identification of 365 compounds that disrupt endocytosis and/or membrane trafficking in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Michelle commented that, ‘Robert gained experience that some biology graduate students do not have.’ This was a rewarding experience for both the undergraduate and his mentor. (2) Theresa Dinh mentored UC Riverside senior in Biological Sciences Michael O’Leary. Michael screened for chemicals that inhibit transcriptional gene silencing in Arabidopsis thaliana. Several chemicals were identified and one is currently being further pursued. Michael was given daily and weekly tasks that were discussed at daily meetings with his mentor. She was eager to explain how and why each experiment related to the project. Because Michael was a UC Riverside student he has continued his project with Theresa during the academic year. Michael will enter a PhD program at UC Davis in September. (3) Melissa Smith mentored REU participant Rebekah Silva, a Riverside Community College student. The project focused on a tomato enzyme called leucine aminopeptidase (LAP-A) that assists the plant when it is wounded chewing insects. The student’s task was to consider the role of reactive oxygen species in the wound response. Silva received her first hands-on experience in molecular biological techniques. Silva’s research contributed to the establishment a protocol for efficient RNA extraction for quantitative measurement and to Melissa’s research progress, a rewarding outcome for both the trainee and her mentor.

Address Goals

The University of California Riverside’s Center for Plant Cell Biology Chemical Genomics Interdisciplinary Graduate Research and Training (ChemGen IGERT) program trainees actively participate in mentoring programs for undergraduates and high school students. In 2008/09, several students in the program participated in activities to expand scientific literacy to students in K-12 schools.