Michael Montoya, anthropology and Chicano/Latino studies assistant professor, knows firsthand the important role a good mentor plays in guiding professional and personal development and growth.  As an undergrad and later as a grad student at Stanford, he says he received excellent guidance and now he’s passing the lessons he’s learned along the way to the students he mentors at UCI, efforts which have earned him recognition as this month’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Faculty Mentor of the Month.  Working with a number of students from a wide range of majors, Montoya sets high expectations including that his students take the lead on research projects. An anthropologist by training, Montoya uses creative thinking to solve problems, and he requires his students to approach their research the same way. By encouraging creativity, he challenges the students he mentors to become independent, think for themselves individuals who follow their passions. Below, Montoya discusses his role as a mentor and how the experience has impacted both his life and the lives of the students with whom he works. 

How did you develop an interest in mentoring undergraduate research or creative projects, and what type of projects have you directed?
I've created a studio/lab/research space where all kinds of students flourish. Biomedical engineering, molecular biology, anthropology, Chicano/Latino Studies, public health, sociology are just some of the majors of students who have worked with me. I was mentored well as an undergraduate and graduate student. So, I am doing what I know, what I think makes a great education. I have had students who have created videos and websites, (www.communityknowledgeproject.org), and students who have done studies of urban Latino youth soccer leagues,
(http://www.uci.edu/features/2008/10/feature_montoya_081006.php). The only requirement is that they want to work hard, seek a higher level and challenge than coursework alone, and are not afraid to explore the idea that human health, human biology and human society are inseparable.
What do you look for and what are your expectations of undergraduates you select to conduct research under your guidance?
I expect them to lead their research project. They need to be able to write well, follow directions, follow through, report back regularly when needed, and participate in the larger community of scholars with whom I work.
Describe your level of engagement and style in mentoring undergraduates.
Benevolent pressure. High expectations for a project that the student and I together find interesting. For those who dare to jump in and take charge, it is exciting. We meet regularly as part of my "lab," the community knowledge project. We also meet individually as needed.
In your experience, how have your students improved or benefited as a result of their undergraduate research experience?
As an anthropologist, I was trained to ask a good question and bring to it any and all methods and theories required to answer it. This undisciplinary approach requires students to think outside the box and solve problems creatively. It begins with asking a great question.

What have you learned or benefited from guiding undergraduate research or creative projects?
I am continually impressed by the energy, optimism and determination of students who have found their passion. Seeing them benefit and grow as scholars and as people keeps me motivated. Since students are future leaders, I benefit by watching them learn the critical skills needed to solve complex problems. 

What recommendations and advice would you give students embarking on undergraduate research or creative projects? 
Don't listen willy-nilly to your professors, parents, pastors, priests, or pundits. Find your own voice and passion and then find mentors who will help YOU develop. If you don't care about what you are doing, why should anyone else?! Get in the game. It won't be easy thinking for yourself, learning to think out of the box, but being a drone gets old real fast.

Research Interests: Community Health, Social Determinants of Disease,
Science and Technology Studies, Race

Faculty Profile:

Email: mmontoya@uci.edu

-photo by Daniel Anderson, UCI Communications

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