From a leader of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s effort to tackle the opioid crisis, to a recent graduate working with current students on campus while looking for the next learning opportunity, to four undergraduates who came to the University of Michigan not quite sure what to expect from their college experiences, a similar story emerges about the impact a single U-M program has had on their academic careers.

Established in 1988-89, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program is marking its 30th anniversary. Its annual Summer Research Symposium will be July 31, when nearly 150 students will have an opportunity to present their summer research experiences and the projects they have been working on with the guidance of their research mentors.

A day later, UROP will showcase student work through the Detroit Community Based Research Program, a social justice focused summer fellowship that matches students with community-based organizations in Detroit.

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Program Director Michelle Ferrez says there are countless stories over UROP’s history of career decisions made and lives changed through participation in the program that has served as a national model for introducing students to academic and community-engaged research from the very beginning of their university careers.

In fact, based on U-M institutional data, UROP has close to 50,000 alumni, if not more, since its inception. The theme for the anniversary celebration — “One Goal. One Community. Limitless Impact.” — emerged through UROP alumni surveys and countless alumni interviews.

“Over the 30-year period, UROP has maintained that when you combine early student access, diversity and research — which involves faculty and research mentors — you are providing students with self-agency beyond the classroom and beyond the institutional walls of the university,” Ferrez said.

“This is a program that said, ‘You don’t have to be an honors student. You don’t have to have a certain GPA. We will provide you with a professional opportunity that will teach you critical learning skills and a number of skills that will span your lifetime. And we never lost sight of that.”

One alumnus who has been part of the anniversary celebration is Douglas Roehler, a health scientist at the CDC for the opioid crisis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from U-M.

A first-generation college student, Roehler came to U-M as a pre-medical student and enrolled in UROP right away, with his first research assignment in kinesiology. He continued with the program, working on a UROP healing project with a First Nation tribe in Canada and a boys’ home in Detroit. He then became a peer adviser for UROP.

The boys’ home experience led to more work on youth violence during his advanced studies in Africa and eventually at the CDC. His doctoral dissertation was also on the topic.

“I think I have been intent on getting as many different research experiences as possible,” Roehler said. “The most valuable aspect about U-M and UROP, in particular, is the opportunity to dip your toes in all different areas — from working with rats in labs to dance and theater projects. It really helped me hone in through trial and error.”

Shannon Habba, a pre-pharmacy student agrees. A transfer student from UM-Dearborn, Habba says as a commuter she did not take advantage of campus activities her first year.

“Anyone interested in research should try it,” she said. “You may fall in love with it.”

Her UROP project was to study chemotherapy side effects on the quality of life before and after treatment. She is now a peer facilitator.

“I know that not everyone is going to have an easy transition experience at this big, amazing university. That’s why we’re here as peer facilitators,” she said.

Alyssa Dews also serves as a peer facilitator after having her own success with the program working as a summer biomedical research fellow on a project studying the effects of altering gene splicing in patients with sepsis. She likes that, as the only student on the project, she got a lot of one-on-one time with her research mentor.

“You can learn just by doing the research but also from the people, and the lifetime connections with people you meet doing the research,” she said. “You meet people at the forefront of their careers. You learn in ways you didn’t think you could learn before.”

Dews will graduate with a degree in cellular, molecular and developmental biology, with a minor in science, technology and society, in May 2020 and plans to go on to medical school.

Another transfer student came through the Community College Summer Research Fellowship Program, which invites students from community colleges across the state of Michigan to participate, even if they do not plan to attend U-M.

UROP has worked with community colleges for nearly 15 years in providing access to research at a four-year institution. This past year, UROP received 348 student applications from more than 21 community colleges in the state. The 48 Community College Summer Research Fellows from summer 2019 represent 13 community colleges from all academic fields and areas of study.

Katherine “Kiki” Martin was at Mott Community College, participated in UROP’s Community College Summer Research Fellowship Program, and transferred to U-M. Martin graduated with a sociology degree in May and is working temporarily at the university while applying to graduate school in sociology.

Martin was part of a team that gathered data on Title IX compliance from 381 colleges and universities. The goal was to determine how transparent institutional policies are, the resources available to communicate them to campus communities, and the processes for handling complaints. The work took on new meaning in the last few years as several high-profile sexual abuse cases made headlines and with the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the law.

“We’re really one of the only research program teams looking at what schools are doing. It’ll feel really good to have our research out there when we are finished,” Martin said.

As for the experience with UROP, Martin said, “I think the biggest thing is that community college students don’t think they are capable. If you have any interest you should go for it. UROP completely prepares you. Even if you don’t know you want to do research it’s good to try. It’s good to open those doors and answer those questions. It’s great to get this experience.”

The opportunity to work on cutting-edge research as a new student is what appealed to aerospace engineering major Torrence Gue. As a summer engineering fellow, he worked in the A2SRL Lab to create a ground vibration test rig for an experimental test aircraft considered the future of the technology because it will help reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

“This experience helped me get an inside look into what research looks like in the aerospace engineering field, which really isn’t offered to many undergrads,” Gue said. “It also prepared me for my current work in the aerospace industry, especially when considering project management and critical thinking.”

The 30th anniversary event began in fall 2018. Celebrations included many alumni and current students sharing their stories.

“So, what we heard from alumni over and over is how much this program shaped their academic and professional career trajectories,” Ferrez said. “And had they not had this access, they wonder what that would have done to their careers.”

When UROP was established during the 1988-89 academic year, serving 15 students under the direction of 15 faculty mentors, it was a trailblazer, Ferrez said. Prior to that, research for undergraduates largely was an experience for honors students and upperclassmen in science courses.

At the time, the academy was talking about underrepresentation of women and minority students in terms of access to higher education, in addition to the science fields, and grappling with how to prepare a technology-based workforce.

A short time later, in the 1990s, the program moved beyond STEM to include social science, humanities and creative arts and ensured — as it does today — that underrepresented students and diverse student populations would have access to the program.

The program grew quickly in scope and scale, topping 1,000 student participants in 2010, and has boasted as many as 1,400 in one year working on 1,000 research projects.

Ferrez said the commitment from faculty and community partners has been key to the program’s past success and will be in the future, when she hopes mentors will help the UROP team imagine how to incorporate more digital scholarship and international and community-based partnerships, among other goals.

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