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UCSB Ph.D. Students William Ryan and Stacy Copp Win Fiona Goodchild Award for Work as Mentors to Undergraduate Researchers

Two UC Santa Barbara Ph.D. students, energized by their experiences mentoring undergraduate researchers, have been rewarded with the Fiona Goodchild Award for Excellence as a Graduate Student Mentor of Undergraduate Research.

Stacy Copp of Physics and William Ryan of Psychological and Brain Sciences are recognized for distinguishing themselves through their excellence in, and contributions to, undergraduate research supervision; and for encouraging others to become involved in these research efforts. Candidates were nominated by an academic department or program, or by an organized research unit; and selections were made by the Academic Senate Committee on Undergraduate Student Affairs. Stacy and Will received certificates of recognition and $500 honorariums.

We interviewed Stacy and Will on topics related to their graduate education and their work as mentors. They shared that mentoring is much more than just teaching someone to do good work. It also entails advising, encouraging, and supporting the mentee in their future career endeavors. For Stacy and Will, mentoring undergraduate researchers is one of the most rewarding experiences of their graduate education. And they told us that the learning goes both ways; the undergrads have taught these graduate students as well.


On his own research:

William Ryan, a Ph.D. student in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department. Credit: Ryanne BeeI am a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the social psychology area of the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department. I am eclectic in my research interests, but broadly speaking am focused on various types of social threat, specifically in relation to non-normative or stigmatized identities. So far I have done work on homophobia, coming out as LGBTQ, attachment in polyamorous relationships, and the ways in which people think about the content of gender roles. I am particularly interested in the types of social support that allow individuals to integrate or come to terms with identities that are conflictual, stigmatized, or otherwise difficult in some way as well as the impact such integration has on psychological and physical health. I study these questions using a variety of methods, including self-report, structured interviews, implicit (reaction time) measures, and physiological measures (such as heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow). Research methods themselves are a big part of my work; a colleague and fellow grad student, Matt Cieslak, and I have recently published a paper on integrating blood flow measures (“impedance cardiography” is the technical term) with brain imaging measures (functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI). To make possible this integration, we developed a new software to score and analyze this data that is quickly being adopted by other researchers. 

On supervising undergraduate researchers:

My goal when working with students has been to help them gain confidence in their ideas and in their ability to contribute to intellectual discussions and empirical studies. Many of my students have gone on to pursue graduate degrees and others have landed jobs as lab managers and data analysts. A number of my students have especially flourished in this environment, ultimately conducting their own research projects on questions they developed within our lab setting.

I work with students in a lot of different capacities and through a variety of programs. Since starting at UCSB almost four years ago I have mentored over 30 undergraduate research assistants working in the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior (ReCVEB; of which my advisor, Dr. Jim Blascovich, is the director). Working in the lab, students assist with running subjects through psychological studies. Because of the types of studies we conduct, students are trained in methods including virtual reality technology, cardiovascular measures (heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow), and brain imaging (fMRI). In addition to the regular work of running studies and coding data, I supervise many students doing independent projects. Three of my students have received Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) grants to fund their research and several others have received FRAP (Faculty Research Assistance Program) funding for their projects. I have also supervised eight students doing an independent study in fulfillment of their departmental lab requirement (190L). Each of these students completes their own project and writes it up as a full research paper. 

In 2012 I supervised four undergraduate students from the Computer Science department on their Capstone project. I assisted these students in applying their CS skills to developing an immersive virtual simulation of a “cyberball game,” a classic rejection paradigm used in social psychology. These students made a 3D model of Storke Tower and the surrounding courtyard and integrated the Kinekt with existing immersive virtual reality equipment to track motion in real time. That same year I also mentored an undergraduate from Jackson State University through the 2012 Summer Applied Biotechnologies Research Experience (SABRE) program hosted through UCSB’s Institute for Collaborative Biotechnology (ICB). 

Currently I work with six research assistants, two of whom are doing independent projects. Suzanne Becker is conducting a study examining LGBTQ individuals’ coming out experience and the dimensions of religiosity that lead others to respond negatively. She received an URCA grant to fund this project. Alexis Isaac is working on a line of research examining the psychological factors that underlie the relation between support for stigmatized identities and well-being. Alexis will continue this line of work as she studies abroad in England next year working with Dr. Netta Weinstein, a former mentor of mine. 

On the rewards and challenges of mentoring:

Working with undergraduate students in the lab is by far the most intrinsically rewarding aspect of my graduate work. The challenges have been few and have mostly been in regard to managing my time and attention between projects. I've never been the most organized of people so scheduling everyone in an active lab has been a learning process for me. I truly enjoy working with students and gain a lot from these experiences. My students make me a better researcher and teacher; they expose me to new ideas and literatures, they keep me on my toes with their insightful questions. They are also very patient with me in explaining how to get to places on campus when I do leave the basement lab. I think most importantly, working with students reminds me of the excitement I felt when I first got into psychology. Grad school is long and hard and it's easy to lose sight of that spark. Seeing that excitement in students helps fuel my enthusiasm for the work I do. 

On what the award means to him:

I am very honored to have won this award. It's always nice to receive recognition, but what's really rewarding is all that I described above. 


On her own research:

Physics Ph.D. student Stacy Copp. Credit: David CoppI am a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Physics, and my research focuses on tiny fluorescent clusters of silver atoms that are encapsulated by DNA. I am studying how the sequence of DNA selects clusters of varying colors, and I am also using DNA as a tool to arrange these clusters on the nanoscale. Metal clusters are exciting because they exhibit properties that are characteristic of both molecules and metals, and their interactions are little-studied. We are hoping to explore these properties, with an eye toward applications in sensing, imaging, and optical materials. (Editor’s note: Stacy is one of four UCSB students selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting this summer in Germany.)

On supervising undergraduate researchers:

I have mentored 10 undergraduates in the Beth Gwinn lab at UCSB.  My primary role as a mentor is to guide undergraduates through the research process by developing projects that are interesting, relevant, and achievable for busy undergraduates, by teaching them necessary lab and data analysis skills, and by providing frequent feedback on their results. Three of my mentees have co-authored journal articles with me: Alexander Chiu, Mark Debord, and Kira Gardner. We are also in the process of preparing a manuscript for submission with a fourth undergraduate, Alexis Faris. However, being a mentor is more than just teaching someone to do good work in the lab – it is also about supporting that person’s future career. When I was an undergraduate, I was blessed with several wonderful graduate mentors whose support and encouragement helped me see my own potential. One of my mentors, Dr. Ben Kalafut, was especially instrumental in encouraging me to apply for scholarships and grad school. I owe much of my success to Ben’s selfless investment in my education and development as a researcher, and he inspired me to incorporate undergraduate mentorship into my own research as a graduate student. Thus, when I mentor undergraduates, I also focus on preparing them for whatever they want to do after graduation. This means that I start pestering my students about considering grad school, industry, or national lab jobs and taking the GRE’s when they are juniors, and I talk to my seniors about their future plans and help them edit grad school and job applications (if they want the help!).

Our lab is particularly committed to providing research opportunities for transfer students, who spend only two short years at UCSB and thus have less time to join and establish themselves in research groups. Half the students I have mentored have transferred to UCSB as juniors. I especially enjoy working with these students because they display incredible work ethics – with such a short time at UCSB before graduation, they still manage to adjust to a new environment, excel at upper-division coursework, and do great work in the lab. One of these transfer students, Kira Gardner, is now a graduate student at Stanford. Another, Mark Debord, is a successful researcher for the U.S. Navy, and Jacqueline Geler Kremer just received a prestigious fellowship from University of Texas at Austin, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in Physics. I find working with transfer students incredibly rewarding, and I plan to make this something I continue when I am a professor. 

Stacy Copp, top left, and other members of the Beth Gwinn Research Group. Credit: David Copp

In addition to guiding undergraduate researchers in my lab, I am also involved more broadly in recruiting undergraduate researchers and improving their opportunities to present their work. In my first year at UCSB, Professor Mark Sherwin invited me to talk to his Physics class about my experiences as an undergraduate researcher and about the importance of doing research as an undergraduate. I have given a number of similar presentations since then and have even recruited some of our own lab's undergraduates in this way. Many students just don't know about the opportunities that exist for them, so these types of presentations are crucial for informing students about their options. In addition to recruitment, I also organized the first UCSB Physics Symposium for Summer Undergraduate Research last year. This program provides undergraduate researchers an opportunity to give talks about their research findings to a general physics audience. As part of the program, I also teach the students how to give a scientific presentation, I provide assistance as they prepare, and I encourage them to consider graduate school. The UCSB Physics Department and the KITP graciously sponsored the event, and I plan to organize a second event this September. Keep an eye out for our event – we would love to have lots of people attend!

On the rewards and challenges of mentoring:

Stacy Copp, right, works with mentee Jacqueline Geler Kremer in the Beth Gwinn Group lab. Credit: Steven Swasey Mentoring undergraduates is one of my favorite parts of academic research because, despite the many challenges, it is so rewarding to see students develop as scientists. One challenge of supervising undergraduate research is adjusting to individual research and communication styles. This is something that is impossible to learn in graduate classes. I have supervised students who are very independent and prefer a hands-off mentorship style, as well as students who flourish with more guidance and encouragement. At first, finding a balance in my involvement that is right for a particular student was a real challenge, and I still find this one of the more difficult parts of undergraduate mentoring. Another challenge is choosing an appropriate project. The ideal project captures and retains interest, is at an appropriate skill level, and is highly relevant to our group’s research so that the student can contribute to publications. It is often incredibly challenging to satisfy all three conditions. I am grateful that my advisor, Professor Elisabeth Gwinn, has given me many opportunities to brainstorm projects for our undergraduates over the last few years. Her careful guidance and correction have helped hone my project-choosing skills. Finally, there is the challenge of having enough time to juggle your own projects with your students' projects. This is something that I still need to learn to do better!

The rewards of mentoring undergraduates far outweigh the challenges. As people who are new to research, many undergraduates have an excitement that is contagious. Seeing one of my students get excited about their results makes me more excited about my own work. It is also extremely rewarding to see my mentees succeed after graduation. This year we have three undergraduates who are graduating and going on to grad school and industry: Alexander Chiu, Alexis Faris, and Jacqueline Geler Kremer. I am so very proud of how they have developed as researchers and as people in the last few years! In addition, working with undergraduates has been incredibly beneficial for my research because they bring a fresh perspective and an incredible creativity to the topics that our lab studies. For example, one of our talented undergraduates who graduated in 2013 came up with the idea of using machine learning algorithms to understand patterns in large data sets that I had generated. It turned out that Mark Debord's idea was a great one, and we have since won an NSF grant to continue this research and have published two papers on our results. Without Mark's unconventional idea, we might never have made such progress on that topic.

I have learned just as much from my undergraduate mentees as I hope they have learned from me. The opportunities I have had to supervise undergraduate research in our lab have taught me skills that will be crucial when I have my own research group someday. These are skills that you cannot learn in the classroom, so I am very grateful to my advisor for the many chances I have had to develop as a research supervisor. I have also gained a much deeper appreciation for the graduate students, professors, and research scientists who have mentored me in the past. It is not always easy to be a mentor!

On what the award means to her:

I am very honored and humbled to be selected for the Fiona Goodchild award because the credit really goes to all the wonderful undergraduates who have worked with me for the past four years. Their hard work, creativity, and excitement have impacted my own research and career goals in incredible ways, and I know they will go on to do great things in the future. I am also humbled to have been chosen for this award because many of my fellow graduate students at UCSB are incredible mentors to undergraduates and have taught me how to be a better mentor. No person is an island, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to many past research mentors, both PI’s and graduate students, whose own investments in my research have inspired me to give back to the next generation of researchers.


Congratulations to Will and Stacy!

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