Humanizing research, UROP empowers young academics


University of Michigan undergraduate students Jovanna Gallegos and Isabella Balza knew little about biomechanics and knee injuries before meeting Steven Garcia last fall.

Garcia, a doctoral candidate at the School of Kinesiology, has worked closely with Gallegos and Balza since last fall as a mentor in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. Their project focuses on evaluating modifiable risk factors associated with knee cartilage health in individuals two to four years after anterior cruciate ligament reconstructive surgery.

“Our main goals are to connect aberrant walking biomechanics with poor markers of cartilage health after the surgery while establishing ultrasound imaging as a low-cost and clinically useful imaging modality to evaluate cartilage health in clinical populations,” Garcia said.

“Gallegos and Balza have made substantial progress as researchers and students in their first experience in a lab. In only a short time, they have been able to build a solid base of data collection and data analysis skills, and it’s been rewarding for me both from a research productivity side and a mentorship aspect. In addition, watching them become more comfortable and confident in the lab is great.”

Photo of LSA freshman Olivia Garzo Dominguez sharing information about her research project.
LSA freshman Olivia Garzo Dominguez shares information about her research project “Simulators of Physiological Regulations” during the UROP 2023 Spring Research Symposium. (Photo by Erin Kirkland, Michigan Photography)

Gallegos said she is “always excited to enter the lab, even if it is to just stare at a screen for three hours to perform a data collection.”

“Steven has a ‘see one, do one’ teaching philosophy, which I discovered on my first day in the position when he threw me right in the deep end for my first data collection with a participant,” she said. “I like the sense of independence he gives me while always being open to answering any question.”

For Balza, the work at the Orthopedic Rehabilitation and Biomechanics Laboratory has inspired her to continue pursuing research as a career path.

“Being able to gain research experience and exposure in this field so early in my college career is enriching and rewarding,” she said. “Additionally, working with my peer facilitator and having a community of student researchers has improved my skills within professional development through resume building, summer research, obtaining health care jobs for pre-med students, navigating the pre-med requirements and more.”

About 1,300 mentors and mentees presented their projects April 19 at this year’s UROP symposium, “Humanizing Research: The Quest for Authentic Action.” The annual conference celebrates the partnerships created between first- and second-year undergraduate students and their mentors — U-M faculty and graduate student researchers, and community partners and organizations. More than 58,000 students have participated in UROP since its founding in 1988.

Overall photo of mentors and mentees in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program showcase.
Mentors and mentees in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program showcased their research projects at the UROP 2023 symposium April 19 at the Michigan League. (Photo by Erin Kirkland, Michigan Photography)

Jessica Anand, research assistant professor of pharmacology, has mentored more than 20 UROP students since 2013. Her research team focuses on the structure-activity relationships of opioid compounds to develop novel rescue therapies, opioid maintenance therapies and new analgesics with reduced abuse potential.

“I enjoy mentoring students and helping them find their paths,” Anand said. “Science (and college) offer so many opportunities, it can be overwhelming. I like helping students navigate that and watching them grow throughout undergrad.”

Rural medical care

Rural intensive care units can save the lives of the critically ill, but even at the best of times they are challenged to ensure access to high-quality care for their patients, said UROP mentor Amanda Schutz, a research specialist in microbiology and immunology. Together with students Jordyn Disbrow and Nadia Taeckens, she has been working to improve care in rural hospitals.

“We’re interested in learning more about rural hospitals’ challenges, especially when recruiting and retaining staff,” Schutz said. “Rural hospitals often struggle to staff their units fully. We wanted to learn more about why people choose to work in these hospitals and what keeps them working there.”

For Taeckens, UROP allowed her to pursue research as a freshman.

“If you don’t have experience, it can be hard to get into labs,” she said. “In addition, our mentors provide guidance and support so we can start our research journey. They facilitate a greater understanding of the research process. Being a part of UROP has also allowed me to explore different types of research.”

Disbrow also had no previous experience in research, and the idea of getting started “was daunting.”

“UROP has made this wide-reaching university feel more intimate and the task of putting myself out there less intimidating,” she said. “The program walked me through almost everything from creating resumes, writing cover letters and presenting final research. It has allowed me to sharpen my critical thinking, problem solving and real-world application skills, which will, without a doubt, aid me throughout my professional life.”


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