Reflections on research mentorship

Undergraduate researcher mentorship has been an integral part of my research program and I plan to continue this culture of mentorship in my future lab. My goal as a research mentor is to help students become independent scholars. Not only will they gain mastery of methods and techniques, but also of scientific reasoning and effective communication skills. To that end, undergraduate researchers are involved at every step of my research projects, from experimental design to manuscript writing. Two ideas drive my mentorship. First, as with my teaching, I believe that providing students with knowledge before they need it allows them to make informed decisions about their own research. Second, I believe that it is important to know the relationship between methodology and the larger theoretical questions we aim to answer. Thus, one important component of my mentorship is explicitly drawing connections between the protocol and the boarder research question. This allows students, first, to practice the kind of reasoning involved in experimental design and, second, gives them the freedom to reason about their own research decisions.

My expertise and passion are for the neurobiology of perceptual systems and sensory memory, but I have been trained in research labs with diverse focuses, including heart remodeling post-myocardial infarction, biological motion perception, spatial navigation strategies in honeybees, and my own honors thesis studying the use of mood as information in decision-making. While I will happily collaborate with any student interested in perceptual psychology, both animal and human, my diverse research experience allows me to also comfortably advise students with divergent focuses from my own. In fact, I look forward to being a co-investigator with students from various fields and departments and seeing what creative collaborations arise.

Below, I've included some feedback from students that I have mentored over the years. Their reflections have been a great assurance to me that I've accomplished some of my mentorship goals.

Senior Student in Psychology (Currently a grad student at University of Washington):

"Michelle has overseen my work from the beginning, where I could hardly even scruff a mouse, to the present, where I’ve grown confident enough in my abilities to conduct independent research for my honors thesis.

My first impression of her was that she was genuinely interested in helping me learn; to this day, that impression holds true. Michelle took great pains to ensure I understood both what we were doing and how it fit into the greater scheme of things. Despite her attention to detail and close guidance, I did not feel babied or as if my every action was being micromanaged. Rather, she would always entrust to me an appropriate level of responsibility and independence. I would later learn that this was a key quality in her teaching style. Since our first meeting, I have also come to learn that she is articulate and keen to explain what I might not understand. She is incredibly perceptive of my needs as a student, and never fails to make me feel comfortable asking for help. 

As a senior doing independent study, I do not see Michelle quite as often anymore; I no longer need her help at every turn, nor do I need her approval for every decision. However, even as my independence increases, I feel as if Michelle is more helpful to me now than ever before. Though she continues to encourage mastery of skills and knowledge (maybe in a few years I’ll be able to scruff mice and perform surgeries as well as she can), Michelle has helped me understand my progress so that I might learn from myself and continue to grow- even after her mentorship ends." 

Senior Student in Psychology (Currently a grad student at Stanford):

"My main goal in joining the lab was to gain research experience and some insight into what being a researcher really meant. As an undergraduate researcher there was no explicit requirement for me to be aware of the context of the project. But I was lucky that Michelle emphasized the importance of understanding the motivation behind her work. Michelle’s serious attitude about understanding the relevance of our work was important, but equal weight should go to her easy style of sharing that information. Her balance of a relaxed attitude and careful organization kept our work fun and conversations interesting but simultaneously ensured that her research was methodologically sound. I really value the mentorship that Michelle provided."

SENIOR STUDENT IN neuroBIOLOGY:

"Michelle was my mentor for a summer research project.  I was a bit nervous about working with the lab mice for the project, but Michelle led by example and quickly made me comfortable working with the animals.  She was very patient with me when I made mistakes; I have never seen her get visibly frustrated with setbacks.  She really helped build my confidence that summer by trusting me to perform surgeries that I didn’t think I was ready for yet.  I learned a lot from following her example and setting higher goals for myself.  I have never had her as a TA for a course, but my close friends have given positive reviews about her willingness to meet with students individually outside the class."

Second year student in molecular Biology:

" I was an undergraduate research assistant working as a part of her undergraduate research team of three. Throughout the time, Michelle has been a great research mentor. She is patient, skilled, and compassionate.

Michelle is passionate about teaching us her research and giving us opportunities to learn from the research experience. She does a great job with explaining challenging and new topics in an understandable and easy to comprehend way. For example, our research involves investigating and analyzing the production of BDNF proteins produced during the long-term learning process. She also encourages us to ask questions and to explore the world around us through advice and feedback in individual conferences. Michelle is a friendly research mentor with lots of advice for us students.

Specifically, she has helped me to conquer my fear of mice, which we work with in the research lab. Generous with her time, Michelle patiently guided me in habituating with mice day by day starting with hands in the mice cage, then picking them up, and finally training the mice for our research."