This post is written by UC Irvine grad student Aide Macias Munoz
My advisor Adriana Briscoe is a Faculty Affiliate of BEACON, and I have been fortunate to be a member of this supportive community since starting my PhD in 2012. I appreciate that BEACON has many projects aimed at increasing diversity in science, some of which highlight the importance of mentoring at all educational levels. This summer our department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine partnered with UCI Graduate Division to host North Carolina A&T students through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. Graduate students from our department were assigned a mentee interested in working in our labs. Mentors were required to participate in a teaching seminar for an academic quarter aimed at learning techniques for effective mentoring. During this seminar, we discussed the importance of communication, differences between a mentor and advisor, and we designed a research project that complemented the students’ busy schedules. Aside from the research projects that we planned for our mentees, they were required to participate in classes such as writing courses, GRE prep classes, and presentation workshops.
Before her UCI visit, my mentee Adiya Moore and I communicated through email about her potential project in the lab. I shared with her NSF proposals that I had written for the particular project that she would assist with and two review articles relating to the project. She arrived to our lab ready to work. Upon arrival, we met to discuss the aims of the project, to plan a schedule, and to answer any questions that she might have. Her project was to investigate gene duplication, gene expression and cis-regulation of vision-related genes in Heliconius melpomene butterflies. Due to time constraints, she had to focus her analyses on a small subset of genes. During the first week, she learned how to use NCBI BLAST and MEGA to make gene trees and look for gene duplications. Next, I gave her gene expression data which she plotted and analyzed for our genes of interest. The rest of her time was spent identifying the location of these genes in a reference genome and looking for areas of open chromatin near these genes. Aside from learning bioinformatics tools, we worked in the lab to do DNA extractions and PCRs.
In order to complete the project, I had already done some of the data processing and had output files ready for Adiya to work with. It was an interesting experience for me to examine ways in which someone else might learn best. Adiya was a quick learner, and I realized that an effective way was for me to show her how to do something and explain the rationale, then she did it with my supervision, and then she did it on her own. We met weekly to discuss progress and set goals and I checked in daily in case she had any questions. Since the summer program also required students to write a mock NSF proposal and scientific article, I shared my proposals with her to use as examples and I proofread her essays. Students also had to do a presentation at the end of the summer, so Adiya presented a talk to our lab during 3 separate lab meetings. I received good feedback from Adiya about the mentoring style that I employed over the summer. While she worked a lot on her own, I had beforehand talked with her about the project and taught her how to do what needed to be done, and I was always available if she had questions.
Our summer together ended with a lab trip to Colorado for a conference. The conference (Ward Watt Festschrift) took place at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, a site full of biodiversity and interesting research projects. Adiya, Aline –a visiting undergraduate student from UNAM, and I presented posters and discussed our research and career goals with faculty in attendance. Many professors were impressed by Adiya’s work and tried to convince her to continue in academia. Upon our return from the conference, Adiya did both a talk and a poster in a UCI symposium for summer research students. While her goal is to attend dental school, Adiya put in a huge effort to learn about our lab and to complete the project. It was an extremely rewarding experience to work in the lab with such a driven and self-motivated undergraduate.