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Alumni Spotlight // Research

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

UCSB Research Mentorship Program Director Lina Kim Ph.D. `09
Dr. Lina Kim Ph.D. `09 (Photo by Matt Perko/OPAC)
Dr. Lina Kim Ph.D. `09 (Photo by Matt Perko/OPAC)

Every summer, for nearly 25 years, hundreds of high school scholars apply for a chance to work on a chosen research project under the guidance of a UCSB graduate student or faculty member.

For six weeks, the teens who qualify to participate in the UCSB Research Mentorship Program not only learn how to work in a university research environment – they also have to be able to pitch their project to stakeholders and community members.

“Six weeks of working in labs and perfecting their pitches down to 30 seconds – it IS tough,” said Dr. Lina Kim Ph.D. `09, who has served as RMP director since 2013. "It's always gratifying to see students feel a sense of pride and excitement at the end of their presentations -- and mentors are impressed by the evolution of these students from their first week, to their last day."

As RMP director, Kim oversees every detail of the program – from selecting RMP participants from hundreds of applications from around the world, to supervising the mentors and facilitating student opportunities on campus -- and beyond. She also started the popular summer GRIT Talks, a presentation series showcasing some of the most brilliant research leaders at UC Santa Barbara. A talented photographer, Kim also can be found behind the camera, capturing images for RMP’s brochure and website.

In this Alumni Q&A, Kim opens up about her own experience as a graduate student at UCSB, her role as RMP director and how the program – and its students and mentors – have grown over the last three summers.

Where did you grow up? What was it like in your household as a child?

I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My parents are hard working small business owners who emigrated from South Korea to give their children the opportunity for a bigger and brighter future. They worked really hard to put food on the table and sent us to a private school so we could receive the best education possible. They understood and instilled in us a passion for learning and service. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up but we had a lot of love and respect for each other, which resulted in us relying on each other to entertain ourselves with a lot of imagination. My siblings and I used to create ice cream stores and forts out of hard cover story books and created "vehicles" out of boxes that my parents would bring from work by attaching strings to it to drag my younger sister around. On hot and humid days, we took my mom’s largest metal kimchi bowl and converted it into a mini pool – I still have a photo of my siblings and me crammed into one of these! My parents never hid the fact that we struggled financially and I think it was because they saw it as a great teaching opportunity. They wanted to provide with a better life than they had. They took us on fun family trips when they could and always surrounded us with incredible people who would become part our extended family and pillars in the foundation I stand on today. I won the parent lottery; I attribute my tenacity, hard working spirit, and compassion to them.

What were you fascinated by as a teen in high school? Did this fascination carry over to your chosen area of study at UC Santa Barbara?

I was curious about everything. I wanted to know how things worked, in particular, I used to take things apart and put them back together frequently. However, I realized that I didn’t feel this way about humans. When I was in high school, I was in the Health Academy because as most kids expect, I was possibly going to be a medical doctor. I was assigned the surgery clinic and was invited to watch a hip replacement and it was traumatizing. I knew then that I didn’t want to be a medical doctor.

I loved math, science and puzzles and I remembered going to the library to find new ones to solve. I wanted to know why things worked the way they did and if it was possible to make them better. I think that my fascination for wanting to solve problems made me realize that I wanted to be an engineer. I am pretty sure that this fascination is what lead me to study mechanical engineering, and in particular, get a PhD. The problems I encounter as an engineer are incredibly fun and dynamic. Every time I answer one question, more pop up… it is the perfect field for me.

Why did you decide to study at UCSB? What were your first impressions of the campus?

I fondly remember having a conversation with one of my favorite professors in undergrad and being so torn between two graduate school choices. He told me that UCSB had great faculty, interdisciplinary research, and that their trajectory was upward and boundless. I took what he said into consideration and follow my heart. I knew I had made the right decision as soon as I stepped onto campus as a graduate student. There was a great sense of community in my cohort and everyone was incredibly nice. The view isn't bad either! I had an incredibly supportive PhD advisor and the problems we solved were important in the advancement of the field.

As a first generation college student, what did you feel were your biggest challenges navigating university life? What advice do you give your students who are also going through the same experience?

I remember struggling with my college application and thinking to myself that I would have to seek help from people at school. I envied peers who had parents that could help them with their application but looking back, I appreciate the struggles I had because it made me resilient and encouraged seek out avenues for help. My first quarter was the toughest! I felt like a fish out of water, which for an overachiever, it was very stressful. I sought out my counselor often and joined clubs on campus. I got a lot of advise and support from upper classmen which really made my college experience fulfilling and successful.

I try to help every RMP alumni during the application process because I know from experience that it is not easy. Whether it is by reading their essays, or helping them with the actual application, or writing recommendations, I try to be as helpful as possible.

I tell my RMP alumni who are just starting college to seek out the resources they need for their particular issues; whether it’d be academic, financial, or social. I tell them to look for the Office of Student Life, join clubs, form a study group, get to know your instructors, go to office hours, buy a recorder for lecture, and set up a good study routine.

Describe your role at UCSB today - what is a typical day for you?

I have the best job. I am lucky to direct research outreach programs, teach, and conduct research when there is time. My days are never typical! Things come up all the time and this is the reason why I love my job. My days involve a combination of meetings, teaching, program planning in a collaborative environment, speaking to donors and students, reading papers and attending research seminars, and other administrative tasks. In general, my role challenges me, it is never the same or boring.

It is evident that you have such a great bond with the mentors and students at RMP. What was your experience when you first started with this program - and how would you compare it to your experience of RMP now?

I really love working with mentors and students especially because I have personally been in their shoes so it’s nice to see these roles in my capacity as director of the program. I’ve coordinated other programs so I generally knew what I was getting myself into but I had no idea how big this program was. When I was hired, I had 6 months to prepare for the program — this includes creating programming, admitting students, and recruiting mentors. It was tough but I loved every minute of it and I learned a lot in the process.

I came into an existing program and I am proud of the fact that my team and I have been able to update it to the ever-changing standards of research outreach programs; giving students an incredible opportunity while pushing their boundaries so they can become a better version of themselves by the end of the six weeks. If I had to compare my RMP experience in 2013 to 2016, I would say that we’ve come a long way! I’m amazed by the caliber of students and how amazing each mentor is. Everyone comes into the program fully invested. It’s worth every late night in the office.

If you could access unlimited funding to improve higher education, what would you implement/create?

Speaking from my own experiences, I strongly believe that early exposure to STEM and having enthusiastic teachers are important. I still remember the science teachers who shaped my interest in discovery and wonder. Every science teacher or experience I had became pillars that strengthened my passion for science and engineering.

With unlimited funding, I would start by placing science experts at the elementary level, where they can start inspiring students to turn ordinary things into extraordinary projects. I would implement afterschool clubs at the middle and high school levels to give students the opportunity to push their boundaries and explore topics outside of the classroom. It would be great to organize more science competitions for students to showcase their skills to each other, which will create a strong support community around each student. I would create training programs for teachers that would give them tools to teach science through hands-on activities that would engage their students. I would give fellowships to college-level students to volunteer in K-12 classrooms to serve as role models where they can talk about their research or conduct fantastic demos. Last, but not least, I would create Research Mentorship Programs in every research institution. It would take a lot of work it would be worth it!

What do you do on your days off?

I turn off my phone and go from there. I like to read, connect with family and friends, be present with nature, volunteer at local schools to spread my passion for STEM, go swing dancing for hours, organize and clean, and give myself time to recharge before I head back to work.

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