Potential PhD candidates should note that applications to the MEAM program at UPenn are first reviewed by an admissions committee before any decisions are made by individual professors. Reaching out to me prior to applying is therefore not a requirement for admission, nor will it necessarily improve your chances of admission. That said, you should still reach out if you have an especially strong interest in my group. I am happy to learn more about you and your interests, inform you about any specific openings/projects that will be available, and to answer any other specific questions you may have.
What I am looking for in PhD candidates and how I review applications. This is a tricky topic, because academic records and other application materials can't tell the full story of someone's drive, creativity, potential for academic research, and personality fit with the lab. Here are some things I will look for in your application and/or initial introductory email (with CV attached!):
Research interest match: It's okay if you aren't 100% sure about your research interests directly out of undergraduate, I know that I was still exploring at that point. However, it's ideal if you have identified at least a few broad areas of interest and have spent some time on my website identifying which types of projects excite you. Mentioning a project you find interesting in your initial email is a great way of demonstrating that you are not sending boilerplate emails and have spent some time considering how my group could fit your interests and goals. Although I will guide the topics for your first few projects in the lab, my hope for PhD candidates is that they will propose their own ideas as they become more experienced in research. Thus, overlapping research interests are critical, as the ideas you propose and pursue later on should still be within the scope of the group. I will evaluate research interest match based on past research experiences and on what you describe in your email or research statement. It's okay if your past research experience is in an area totally different from my work, just make sure to highlight your desire to switch fields and briefly explain why you are interested in switching topics.
Extracurriculars and outreach: Student clubs, K-12 STEM outreach, organizing seminars at your university, DEI work, engaging in student government, volunteer work, and/or participating in other activities outside of your degree program are all great ways of showing that you are well-rounded and passionate about other aspects of life. This is just as important to me as academic record, because it demonstrates more about your personality and potential fit than your record alone. I will search for this on your CV, but you could also (very briefly) highlight any extracurricular activities that are relevant for a PhD position in my lab in your introductory email.
Drive and curiosity. These are exceptionally difficult to determine from a CV or even from conversation. I attempt to evaluate this by your GPA (a high GPA may suggest drive, and hopefully also a genuine interest in learning), past research experiences (which show that you identified opportunities to learn and pursued them), and extracurricular activities (curiosity beyond your program of study). Letters of recommendation will also be important at the application stage.
Independence. To do a PhD is to become the world's leading expert in your thesis topic, meaning that at some point you should know more about your work than I do. There will be a point in your degree when you discover that your PI doesn't have all of the answers and can't help you overcome certain obstacles. Thus, the ability to become an independent researcher is an important consideration. Like drive and curiosity, this metric is exceptionally difficult to evaluate from an application because many students coming directly from undergraduate programs won't have had many opportunities to demonstrate their ability to work independently. Again, letters of recommendation and products from courses or prior research experiences (presentations, published papers, etc.) can be useful here. I don't expect PhD candidates to have published in their undergraduate programs, but if you have, I expect that you made genuine contributions to the project and will be able to answer some basic questions about the work!
Postdoc applicants. The above criteria for PhD students is also what I look for in postdoctoral applicants. Some additional criteria include a strong publication record in respected journals, conference presentations, and some type of academic service activity during your PhD. By respected journals, I don't mean that you need to have published in Nature/Science, I simply mean journals that have good reputations in their respective fields and are not predatory or otherwise engaged in dishonest publishing practices. I especially value postdoctoral applicants who bring new expertise to the lab, can articulate what new skills they hope to develop in their postdoc, and who will propose projects at the intersection between our respective areas of expertise.
About me as a mentor. This information may be helpful for you in deciding whether you'd like to apply to work in my group and whether we would be a good fit in terms of personality. I am new to the role of PI, so I am still learning and my mentorship style is likely to continue to develop over the years. I have previously mentored 14+ students in research as a graduate student and a postdoc, and I believe that positive advising relationships are very important to both PI and mentee. I have attended several workshops and courses on best practices in academic mentorship, and I read academic literature on inclusive mentorship and do my best to incorporate those findings. Good communication is important to me, and I am actively preparing a lab informational document that explicitly lays out expectations for both mentees and for myself as a mentor. I believe that a majority of tension found in academic labs can be avoided by clearly communicated goals and expectations that are agreed upon by all parties. I do not take negative feedback personally, even when it comes from students. Rather, I value critique (when communicated in a professional manner) because it is the best way to continuously improve as a mentor and researcher. Members in my group will be expected to learn to give and receive feedback professionally and gracefully. I do not monitor how many hours students are in lab nor do I have any expectations that you work beyond 40 hours a week. Rather, I expect you to be able to manage your own time and make reasonable progress according to your own schedule. I tend to be very thorough and will expect you to be as well when it comes to publishing. I get excited about new lines of research and am not opposed to trying odd ideas for the sake of seeing what will happen.