Award-winning Mentors and their Students

An Undergraduate and a Nobel Winner

Imagine you’re an undergraduate with the great fortune of having a faculty research mentor. And then your mentor wins the Nobel Prize! Welcome to the life of Davina Dou, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology, and a mentee of Professor Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“Being mentored by a Nobel laureate is both surreal and humbling!” says Davina. “Dr. Doudna is so involved in every aspect of her lab, and it's encouraging to see that her scientific curiosity never stops. Her research has definitely evolved, and I’ve learned that it's important to always ask probing questions about both what we already know and what we don’t know.”

As part of Berkeley’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) program, Davina worked in Dr. Doudna’s lab on probably the most revolutionary and cutting-edge area of the life sciences: CRISPR gene editing. Davina helped to develop a live-cell imaging platform to understand the mechanisms and potential of the CRISPR-CasX enzyme to be harnessed for gene editing.

UC Berkeley’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships (OURS) oversees SURF, along with a wide range of programs, workshops, partnerships, and communication platforms to support undergrads who want to engage in Berkeley’s dynamic research enterprise. This includes the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP), Haas Scholars  Program, Prestigious Scholarships, Underrepresented Researchers of Color, UC Washington Program (UCDC), and the Stronach Baccalaureate Prize. Each program has its own unique way of getting undergraduates up close with faculty members and their research.

Students report that these experiences are profoundly transformative. In fact, Berkeley’s undergraduate research opportunities are unique among its educational peers, but the prevalence of award-winning teachers and mentors is a rarity. Most high-level research institutions allow their prizewinners to stay in the lab and avoid the classroom, but at Berkeley it’s different. Nobel laureates, MacArthur Fellows, Pulitzer Prize winners and other extraordinary professors both teach and mentor – and they want to!

“It’s amazing that Berkeley’s most recognized faculty are so engaged with undergrads,” says Undergraduate Studies Dean Bob Jacobsen. “These superstar professors not only do their own research and work with graduate students, they also teach undergraduate courses, serve as advisors, and have undergrads in their labs. This really doesn’t happen very often at other schools.”

For Jennifer Doudna, mentoring is about giving back. “Without the mentorship of several key individuals in my past who took the time to train me, I might not have ended up in science at all. It's how science builds and sustains itself. It's a great pleasure for me to keep the tradition alive, and to show young students from all backgrounds what a life in the sciences is like — and that there's a place for them if they want it.”

Others state that undergraduates bring a fresh and vital perspective to their work. Says Professor Robert Full, a faculty member who often employs undergraduate students, “My research outpaces that of my competitors because of my undergraduates. They raise questions that others don't. Their open-mindedness influences the work in my lab in incredibly fruitful ways.”

For Davina, SURF was life changing. “I’m very grateful to have been a student in Dr. Doudna's biology class as well as a mentee in her lab. It’s been an immensely enriching learning experience. Because of the SURF program, I’m definitely exploring my professional career options in this field!”

 

Photo of student Davina Dou at her laptop

Davina Dou

For Jennifer Doudna, mentoring is about giving back.

“Without the mentorship of several key individuals in my past who took the time to train me, I might not have ended up in science at all. It's how science builds and sustains itself. It's a great pleasure for me to keep the tradition alive, and to show young students from all backgrounds what a life in the sciences is like — and that there's a place for them if they want it.”

Others state that undergraduates bring a fresh and vital perspective to their work. Says Professor Robert Full, a faculty member who often employs undergraduate students, “My research outpaces that of my competitors because of my undergraduates. They raise questions that others don't. Their open-mindedness influences the work in my lab in incredibly fruitful ways.”

For Davina, SURF was life changing. “I’m very grateful to have been a student in Dr. Doudna's biology class as well as a mentee in her lab. It’s been an immensely enriching learning experience. Because of the SURF program, I’m definitely exploring my professional career options in this field!”

Professors Reap Rewards

Faculty members find these programs enriching too. English Professor Robert Hass, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award and U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995-1997, mentored undergraduate Shanesha Brooks in the Haas Scholars Program. “For me, mentoring Shanesha was pure joy. She wanted to study the roots of the aesthetic of African American poetry and the way it connected to both hip hop and the musical traditions of the African American church she'd grown up in. Watching her go about it and thinking through the issues with her was a delight and a much more intimate way of watching someone learn than we ever get in a lecture hall.”

Shanesha went on to pursue a successful career, earning her Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Michigan. Now Shanesha Brooks-Tatum, she owns and manages two consulting firms, and has a thriving career as an activist, scholar, and award-winning teacher.

Shanesha needed a mentor to pursue her project, and she took it upon herself to knock on professors’ doors (literally) until she found one. Of her time as a mentee of Robert Hass, she says, “At a place like Berkeley, where one can be star-struck due to the achievements of our professors, to my relief, Dr. Hass seemed to be so anti-celebrity. I saw firsthand that he didn't let his achievements overshadow his personal commitment to affirm the humanity of his students and colleagues… Dr. Hass is an extremely kind and insightful person who I am grateful to have in my life. He was very gracious with me as a shy scholar in training. I look back at myself then and appreciate how gentle he was as a mentor in providing me guidance and support without being overbearing. I sincerely appreciate his support, which extended well above and beyond what one would expect of a mentor.” 

Photo of Robert Hass with Shanesha Brooks-Tatum

Robert Hass and Shanesha Brooks-Tatum

As early as the 1960s, Berkeley’s committee on undergraduate education began recommending that the university build on its strengths and involve undergraduates in real-world research and problem solving. The aim was to offer these students an experience as vital and engaged as they would get at a small liberal arts college. The first program — URAP — was formed in 1990 and, as a year-round apprenticeship program, it has helped students develop relationships with professors and served as a jumping off point to involvement in other programs like SURF and Haas. 

“The Haas Scholars program was one way that Berkeley was able to act on the goal of involving undergraduates in research,” says Hass, “by putting gifted students in close contact with faculty to work on problems of their own devising. When I worked with Shanesha, the culmination of her project was a presentation at a year-end Haas Scholars gathering. She was lucid and inspiring. I couldn't have been more proud.”

Research Opportunities Change Lives

Students report that these programs have the power to alter the course of their lives. “This was the most transformative experience during my four years at Berkeley,” says history major and 2019 graduate, Mathew Madain. The Haas Scholars Program supported his project, “Minorities in the Crossfire: World War I and the Crisis of Jordan's Christians,” sending him to Jordan to do field research. “The generous financial support allowed me to conduct research abroad—in a manner that was in-depth, comprehensive, and holistic. The prestige of this award also allowed me to create lasting connections with leading academics and politicians in my field, which will greatly benefit my future pursuits.“

But when he joined the program, Mathew couldn’t have anticipated that his Haas project would be the impetus for a thrilling next step after Berkeley. “This project thoroughly developed my capacities as an academic and diplomat—and is perhaps the leading reason I was admitted to master’s programs at Oxford and Cambridge.”

Photo of Mathew Madain

Mathew Madain

Mathew’s close collaboration with his mentor, History Professor and MacArthur Fellow Maria Mavroudi, was an important part of the experience.

“She was a mentor to me even before this project. I took classes with her from my first semester of freshman year. I served as her research assistant. The Haas Scholars Program, though, made our connection even stronger. She spent extra effort on my thesis, reading numerous drafts and providing lengthy feedback. I am forever grateful for this academic relationship, which I hope will last for many years.”

The stories of connection, inquiry, and success go on. Students and professors are deeply changed by their work together in Berkeley’s undergraduate research programs. It is the willingness of professors to go the extra distance that makes Berkeley special. And it is the curiosity and courage of Berkeley’s undergraduates that ignite the spark of discovery, fueling the collaborative process and illuminating unfathomable possibilities.