Undergraduate student research spring symposium goes virtual


The pandemic may have altered research projects at the University of Michigan, but the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program was still able to implement a successful program to give first-year, second-year and transfer students hands-on research experience.

The program served more than a thousand undergraduate students who will showcase their work virtually April 22 at the UROP Spring Symposium, including some research projects related to COVID-19.

The event provides a unique window into the diverse research, scholarship and creative activities that represent all areas of study from U-M’s 19 colleges and schools, including community and national partners.

The symposium will consist of 20 Zoom breakout rooms offering seven or eight presentations simultaneously each hour. It is free and open to the public.

While the pandemic altered research projects and imposed restrictions for attending physical labs, UROP research mentors worked to engage students through remote lab settings, before returning to labs last November.

Although the situation was both difficult and new, many of the UROP research mentors said they appreciated the ability to rethink how they approached their research and thought creatively on how to engage UROP student researchers. This included writing literature reviews, maintaining and updating laboratory notebooks, organizing data and back-burnered data analysis, as well in-lab data sharing to a greater degree.

The program expanded and broadened its reach to community organizations with research projects addressing social and environmental justices, food insecurity, human rights, public health and more.

UROP alumni and former U-M faculty had the ability to participate in the program from different parts of the world, and mentors could work remotely from other academic institutions, and industry and community organizations. This allowed more students to get involved with UROP, specifically those who did not return to campus and for whom in-person research was not an option.

Innovations emerged in research collaboration and scholarly communication, and many of these innovations, ranging from broader use of digital technology to new research lab and nonlab practices, strengthened the undergraduate student research experience and the ability to think in new and creative ways.

Project examples included:

Black Youth Understanding of Racial Inequality: Scale Development and Validation

Headed by Natasha Johnson, postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Public Health and Department of Psychiatry, the project evaluates ways Black youth understand racism and oppression.

Lana King, a first-year student interested in public health, chose to participate in the project because there wasn’t a lot of prior research on the subject. “Especially when you target Black youth, it kind of goes under the radar,” she said.

The aim of the research is to develop a psychological scale that measures youth’s understanding of racism, which could provide support for intervention programs that combat racial stress. The students working under Johnson are completing the first phase of the project: the preparatory phase.

“One of our first tasks has been looking up articles in the library and sorting through scientific journals,” King said. “Through this process I have definitely developed research skills that will be useful in the future.” 

COVID-19 Bioinformatics Research

Oliver He, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, and a member of the university’s COVID-19 Faculty Council, has been working on COVID-19 research since January 2020 when the virus was first discovered in China. UROP students helped further his research through a COVID-19 bioinformatics research project.

“UROP is a wonderful resource to get students working on the projects right away,” He said. “There was training for the students that was necessary, but I was really excited to train students because I want them to learn so they can contribute. I am very grateful for the UROP program because they provide us with a very talented pool of students.”

Students Roshan Desai and Easheta Shah are focusing on acute kidney injury as a potential complication to contracting COVID-19, while Grace Whah is working on clinical data to further determine features of COVID-19.

Revitalize Northeast Detroit Through Research on How Land Use Impacts Our Environment

Nortown Community Development Corp. works to develop and foster safe and affordable housing, business retention and attraction, educational improvement and job opportunities in northeast Detroit. UROP students conduct initial “deep dive” research into neighborhood geography for the nonprofit organization, which collects housing data to determine if the area is stable or needs assistance.

As the UROP program moves forward into the year, student involvement increases. For example, if there is a land use zoning hearing approaching, students would be assigned to research land use zoning in preparation.

“Students are exposed to so many disciplines that are critical to me in terms of the work we do,” said Patricia Bosch, Nortown CDC executive director. “Within one week, we could have three major cases that the students would be helping me with. It is very time consuming and without the students being there to help we would not gain as much information as we do right now.”

Riley McKenna, an undergraduate in art and design, attests to developing skills across many disciplines.

“I worked on a variety of subjects from zoning use to environmental impacts to interacting with representatives at all levels of government,” she said. “I would consider it the best part of my time at the University of Michigan, so far. I have gained so much confidence, real-world experience and networking opportunities in a way I could never receive in the classroom. The UROP experience and my time with Nortown CDC have been incredibly valuable.”


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