Dr. Kimberly Petersen and Dr. Brittany Cassidy are the winners of UNCG’s 2023 Thomas Undergraduate Research Mentor Awards. The awards recognize outstanding faculty mentors who engage undergraduates in experiential learning through research.
Dr. Kimberly Petersen, who conducts research on organic chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, won the 2023 Thomas Undergraduate Research Mentor Award for Tenured Faculty.
Since joining UNCG 12 years ago, she has mentored 35 undergraduates in her research group, which focuses on developing new ways to synthesize molecules.
Eight of her students have been published as undergraduates, two received travel awards from the American Chemical Society, and, in just the past five years, 25 have presented their research at conferences, with some even winning awards for those presentations. In 2021, one of her mentees received the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.
“When you mentor undergraduate students, you get to spend a lot of time with them one on one, and you really get to know them and see them grow as a scientist and as a person,” she says. “You can see the change that has happened in their confidence and in their abilities. And it’s just really an amazing experience.”
Students have gone on from Petersen’s lab to highly ranked graduate programs, medical school, and successful careers with major biotech companies. Two of her students received prestigious NSF graduate fellowships for their graduate studies.
“Now at Caltech, I am so grateful to have had a PI that built up my self-confidence,” shares one of her former mentees. “There are multiple examples where Dr. Petersen helped me grow past imposter syndrome. She saw potential that I didn’t see in myself.”
Petersen says, “I try to make our research group very supportive. Everybody is cheering for everyone else. We really try to build each other up.”
Petersen, who identifies connection, inclusion, opportunity, and engagement as essential to teaching and mentoring, is particularly committed to recruiting students from groups historically excluded from her field. “It brings new experiences to the table and new mindsets and new ideas.”
As part of her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, she serves as co-PI on two NIH-funded and NSF-funded programs at UNCG that aim to support students from underrepresented groups in science.
“Having these opportunities exposes students – who traditionally haven’t been welcomed into STEM – to something that maybe they didn’t know they would be passionate about,” she says. “Then they take it and run with it and go in a million different directions.”
Petersen received UNCG’s Alumni Teaching Excellence Award in 2018, as well as her college’s teaching award the previous year, and she has previously held UNCG’s Candice Bernard and Robert Clickman Dean’s Fellowship.
One of her prized possessions is a mug gifted to her by her students that reads: You’re not only the best chemistry teacher, but also the best father. “My students tell me that I’m kind of like that awkward dad with the jokes and whatnot.”
When asked about her experiences as a mentor, she says, “I’m moved by the stories my students tell me after they leave. I’ve had students get back in touch with me and say, ‘I thought we had something special at UNCG, but when I’ve gone elsewhere, I can really see how special that time was.’”
Dr. Brittany Cassidy, who conducts research on social cognition in the Department of Psychology, won the 2023 Thomas Undergraduate Research Mentor Award for Early Career Faculty.
Since joining UNCG five years ago, Cassidy has mentored 30 undergraduates in her Social Cognition Lab, which focuses on how people think, interpret, and evaluate each other.
“Participating in research as an undergraduate has enormous benefits,” she says. “I know from firsthand experience that being in a lab and doing research as an undergraduate was the most impactful part of being in college for me, and it affected my entire career trajectory. I would not have been able to reach the position that I am today without the mentors that I had.”
In Cassidy’s time at UNCG, already her mentees have been part of eight conference talks and presentations, and two students are co-authors on manuscripts currently under review.
Her area of interest offers students a wide range of opportunities, many unavailable at other universities. Students gain experience in everything from recruiting participants and running behavioral and neuroscience tests to working with the JSNN’s MRI for functional neuroimaging research.
“These are opportunities that don’t happen at every university and a strength of UNCG,” says Cassidy. “Students get to really see what’s going on versus just learning about the methods in the classroom, and that can be really, really eye opening.”
She enjoys seeing students moving out of their comfort zones. “It’s really rich for me to see undergraduates succeed and learn and become much more confident in their abilities, whether it’s writing or speaking, or even just becoming more well versed in the literature.”
A personal favorite memory, she says, is when a student who had never been out of state or on an airplane traveled with her to San Francisco to present at the national conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
Several of Cassidy’s mentees have entered prestigious graduate programs in areas ranging from industrial organizational psychology, to social work, to cognitive neuroscience. Others have entered the workforce in research-related positions.
“Even if they don’t become social psychologists, you can see them using the skills that they learned to be successful outside of the lab. It brings them confidence, I think when they’re looking for careers.”
Cassidy says her philosophy is to treat undergraduate researchers like they are on the same level as she is. “It helps undergraduates grow in their confidence to have discussions and take ownership of their research,” she says.
“They really drive the research forward, and it helps me really have a holistic view of being a professor. I like that UNCG is a place where your identities as a researcher and as a teacher and mentor are similarly valued. It’s a place where I’ve been able to grow and learn from a diversity of students, as much as I teach them.”