Student mentors share thrills of undergraduate research, and keys to success

Student mentors share thrills of undergraduate research, and keys to success

December 02, 2016
By Matt Windsor
What's it really like to do research as an undergraduate? Students in UAB's Undergraduate Research Ambassadors program offer advice, professional development opportunities and real-world tips.

As the newly crowned Ms. UAB during UAB’s Homecoming Week in October, Isabella Mak became an official ambassador for the university. But Mak, a junior in the UAB Honors College Global and Community Leadership Program who is majoring in neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences, already has plenty of experience in that role. For more than a year, Mak has served as director of the UAB Undergraduate Research Ambassadors, a group whose goal is to help provide “equal access to opportunities” for UAB students in every major, she says.

Research opportunities are everywhere on campus, Mak explains. According to data from UAB’s Office of Undergraduate Research, more than 700 research-focused undergraduate courses were offered in the 2015–2016 academic year, with more than 7,300 enrollments in those courses. Mak, working with UAB undergraduate research program administrator Gareth Jones, hopes to raise those numbers even higher. (Learn more about undergraduate research success at UAB in the video below.)

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Taking research for a test drive

There are 18 Research Ambassadors, all of them undergraduates like Mak, who together have worked with more than 500 mentees over the past year. They answer frequently asked questions, including explaining what it’s actually like to do research, how to get started and how to approach professors. “Sometimes, when students show interest but feel intimidated, they may just need some encouragement and guidance along the way,” Mak says. The Ambassadors specialize in various areas of research, so they can get to know professors in those fields and give students an idea of the experiences available.

The Ambassadors also can help undergraduates take research for a test drive, by pairing them with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and “observing their work for a day,” Mak says. “The Office of Postdoctoral Education and Graduate Biomedical Student Outreach have been huge supporters,” both with shadowing and assisting in professional development workshops organized by the Ambassadors, she notes.

Getting your hands dirty

Mak’s own research experience began during her first semester at UAB, when she joined the lab of Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., RD, professor and Webb Endowed Chair in the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences and associate director at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Demark-Wahnefried is the principal investigator on the Harvest for Health project, a clinical trial that is evaluating the effects of a “home-based vegetable garden intervention on health-related quality of life, including changes in diet and physical activity,” Mak says.

While working on the project, Mak has had the chance to collect data, process biological specimens and interview cancer survivors during home visits. “Dr. Demark, and others in the lab, including Dr. Yuko Tsuruta, Dr. Andrew Frugé, and Mrs. Mallory Cases, have mentored me over the past couple of years in many aspects, such as critical thinking, interactions with patients and overcoming challenges faced in the research,” she says. “I have learned how research can be interdisciplinary, combining the fields of public health, genetics, biochemistry and behavioral science.” In addition, “our lab collaborates with other labs, which provides me the opportunity to observe and to interact with faculty members and researchers from different departments.”


“As a female and a first-generation college student, also moving from across the world, I knew attending UAB was the right decision for me. The academic-focused environment, ample opportunities to get involved on campus, and chance to be a part of the Birmingham community all attracted me to UAB as well.”


Mak, who grew up in Hong Kong and went to high school in Dothan, says the opportunities for interdisciplinary research at UAB drew her to Birmingham. “As a female and a first-generation college student, also moving from across the world, I knew attending UAB was the right decision for me,” she says. “The academic-focused environment, ample opportunities to get involved on campus, and chance to be a part of the Birmingham community all attracted me to UAB as well.”

Mak's goal is to attend medical school and eventually work in higher education. “I love sharing my experiences as a Research Ambassador,” she says. “I have had such a positive experience working with my research team, and the Harvest for Health project.”

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