The Graduate Division launched the aptly named SMART (Student Mentoring And Research Teams) project three years ago as a unique 10-week program providing crucial summer funding for graduate mentors and their undergraduate mentees who undertake original research at Berkeley under the guidance of a faculty advisor. The program’s success, including international acclaim for some of the student teams, is attracting a record number of applications from prospective participants in 2015. To encourage philanthropic investments, the Graduate Division will provide a dollar-for-dollar match for SMART-supporting gifts made in 2014.

“We took a lot of care in constructing the components of this program to maximize its benefits for both graduate and undergraduate students,” says Linda von Hoene, Director of the Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) Teaching and Resource Center, who together with Sabrina Soracco, Director of Academic Services, has co-directed SMART since 2012. To date, the SMART Program has supported 59 student research teams comprised of 118 mentors and mentees. Each research team is supported by $10,000, half from donor support and half from Graduate Division matching funds. The funds are distributed as follows: $5,000 as a stipend to the graduate student mentor, $3,500 as a stipend to the undergraduate mentee, and $1,500 to team research expenses.

“All our participant surveys have shown strong positive feedback from participants,” says Sabrina Soracco. “Graduate students feel better prepared and undergrads have expressed that their views on research, academic careers and on graduate study have been expanded.” Important components of the SMART program design include a mandatory one-unit course for graduate student participants (GSPDP 301: Mentoring in Higher Education) offered in the spring preceding each summer’s cohort. Workshops for undergraduates, concurrent with the summer research, emphasize building skills in academic and professional writing, applying to graduate school, and applying for grants and fellowships, such as the Fulbright or National Science Foundation graduate research programs.

Alexandria Niebergall and Lindsey Dougherty, the SMART Disco Clam Team
Alexandria Niebergall and Lindsey Dougherty, the SMART Disco Clam Team

One of the many noteworthy SMART collaborations is the “Disco Clam” team composed of Lindsey Dougherty, a Ph.D. student in Integrative Biology, and Alexandria Niebergall, a third-year undergraduate student in marine science who Dougherty carefully selected to be her mentee. Lindsey received international acclaim after discovering how the Ctenoides ales (a saltwater clam better known as the disco clam) emits its signature flashes of light. The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, National Geographic, and The New York Times provided coverage of this breakthrough research on the light-reflecting silica components of the disco clam’s inner lip and the discovery that the outer lip absorbs light. This combination leads to a flashing effect when lips of the disco clam open or close. With Alex’s help, Lindsey researched the reasons for this behavior, investigating whether flashes increase around predators as a ward against threats or are a spawning signal or a lure to attract the plankton on which clams feed. Footage of the fascinating phenomena, set to disco music, is available on YouTube and has garnered more than 50,000 hits worldwide.

“I really think we made so much more progress because of the SMART Program,” said Lindsey, “When you’re in charge of someone else and you have to teach and explain to them what’s happening, you have to be more on top of your game.” She credited Alex’s ideas for contributing “in significant ways to how our work evolved and are insights I’ll incorporate in future research.” Alex noted, “SMART definitely changed my undergrad experience for the better.”

Nobel Laureate and UC Berkeley faculty member Randy Schekman, who has participated in the SMART Program as a faculty advisor, credits the SMART Program with nurturing academic growth among undergraduate and graduate students, and enhancing research on the Berkeley campus overall. “SMART is just one example of why Berkeley is so unique,” said Schekman, “and one of the most important institutions of higher education in this country.”

To promote future investment in UC Berkeley and the SMART Program in particular, the Graduate Division is highlighting SMART in the November 20, 2014, “Big Give” and will double every gift, dollar for dollar, to propel Berkeley’s SMART future.

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