Juan Casas (B.S. 1993) arrived as a first-year student in 1989, knowing a bit about research but nothing at all about driving an RV. That didn’t stop him from joining the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) and participating in an experience that guided the trajectory of his life and career.
Casas connected with Psychology Professor Jeff Parker, who had set up a mobile laboratory in a motor home to study how kids in early grades formed relationships. Casas became a member of Parker’s research team.
“It had a couch, a table, and a small kitchen area, just like any other RV,” says Casas, “but it had integrated some audio and video. There were microphones in various places, and a camera on each end, so regardless of where the kids were in the RV, we could get everyone’s conversation. That was the lab space.”
Casas and his fellow researchers could roll to cities beyond Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, interviewing kids from across Michigan to study their friendships. “We would drive the RV to a local school, plug into their electrical, and have the kids participate live in a place that was already convenient for them,” he says.
Casas loved the work—and the chance to drive the RV. The whole experience kick-started the research he still loves to do as a professor and mentor in the psychology department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “We used to stop at truck stops, which was the only place the RV would really fit, to have coffee and pie and just talk about life and plans,” he remembers. “That’s in part also why I consider my time with UROP so transformative. I was getting the research experience, I was getting support and guidance to narrow the focus on what I wanted to do when I finished, and I also had some really nice conversations with graduate students and Dr. Parker.”
Casas was one of UROP’s first student researchers. In 1989, LSA’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) began with 15 student researchers and 15 faculty projects. Thirty years later, it hosts about 900 faculty projects, giving 1,400 students a chance to share in U-M’s research mission and form partnerships with professors across disciplines.
Over the years, UROP has developed a system that generates its own network of mentorship and support. UROP alumni can become mentors to younger students while finishing their undergrad degree, moving on to graduate school, and even becoming faculty who themselves host UROP students.
Students with at least one year of UROP research under their belt can become peer facilitators and advise incoming students. “Peer facilitators are the glue and one of the best parts of UROP,” says Michelle Ferrez, who became program director in May this year.
Xhesika Topalli (B.S. 2018) majored in neuroscience with an interdisciplinary astronomy minor, studying pediatric tumors at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. As a peer facilitator, she met regularly with UROP students, staff, and faculty, mediating among them to support other students in UROP.
“It helped me with my leadership and time-management skills,” Topalli says about helping her younger peers. “Working with such a diverse group of people and really empathizing with them—understanding the trials they overcame—helped me with the way I interact with people.” She plans on applying to medical school. “Hopefully the experience will help me build relationships with patients, who also will be diverse.”
For Topalli, the highlight has been sharing the experience with the other peer facilitators in UROP. “We all helped each other—not only as peer advisors, but also as students. When you’re with other people who are going through the same thing as you, it’s like your own little community.”
Graduate students often become mentors to the next generation of UROP students, too. Working in LSA’s Department of Film, Television, and Media, Ph.D. candidate Vincent Longo (A.B. 2014) has built a team of UROP students with majors in computer science, chemistry, business, sociology, architecture, and other fields. Longo studies fascism and anti-fascism in an unpublished script that Orson Welles had hoped to film as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. “One of the cool things about this project is that it’s going to be a digital book,” he says. The result will be an annotated digital archive that uses video, audio, maps, and virtual reality content. “We’re making a large part of the archival Welles collection here accessible.”
“Most of my students are not film majors, and they never planned to be film majors,” he says. Instead, he reminds them how their research work translates to other fields. Longo mentors his students by teaching the research methods he wishes he’d known as an undergrad. “If the students are passionate about it, they’ll contribute to your research. And you’ll help their lives, essentially,” he says. His unique and intensive style earned him an outstanding mentor award.
“I think mentors are only as good as their mentees,” he continues. He tries to help his students cultivate the skills they can use to mentor others with his guidance. “You really do see this trickle-down mentorship. Those are my proudest moments,” he says. “I’m really proud of them as mentors.”
“I’ve not met a single student that hasn’t been phenomenal,” says Tahra Luther (M.S. 2016), who mentored UROP students while she earned her master’s in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. She also earned an outstanding mentor award by making herself available to students, creating a tight-knit lab, and teaching lab techniques and life skills. “I tried to be a role model in all areas,” she says. She now works as a lab manager at the U-M Medical School.
“UROP really promotes experience,” Luther says. “You can only learn so much from books and attending classes. How else will you know if you want to go into this field, or something related, without actually trying it?”
Professors who invest in UROP by mentoring students in their lab, such as John Jonides, agree. Early in UROP’s history, Jonides helped grow faculty involvement with his glowing reviews of the perks students get from the program. He thinks the program’s value centers around its opportunities for exploration. Students can experiment with research and use the experience to develop or reject it as a career option. In either case, there is value in the research. Research requires making mistakes, learning how to ask questions, and finding answers despite uncertainty. The hands-on experience also develops personal responsibility, intellectual growth, and critical thinking.
Faculty mentors in the program often treat students as colleagues, an affirming experience for students encountering research for the first time, who might not have interacted directly with faculty before. This welcoming arrangement works for recruiting and retaining underrepresented and historically underserved students, including people of color and women—populations that UROP has focused on from the outset.
“I came into it not because I wanted to create new researchers,” says Sandra Gregerman, who directed and shaped the program for more than 20 years, “but because I wanted to help diverse students to be academically successful at U-M, so they could pursue their professional and academic goals. Undergraduate research seemed like a unique way to approach this challenge.” UROP’s Changing Gears program, for example, supports community college transfer students as they pursue research at U-M.
Angela Dillard, the associate dean of undergraduate education, says, “As we enter the third year of the Michigan DEI plan, we want to make sure that we are revisiting this powerful strategy and making research opportunities available for all of our students.”
To ensure that UROP keeps opportunities open to everyone, the program conducts research on itself, using its own data to continually evaluate how well UROP meets its goals: good student retention; better academic outcomes for underrepresented students; and improved faculty perceptions of student researchers, particularly underrepresented students.
As one of the first members of his family to graduate from college, Benjamin Blanchard (B.S. 2013) is one such student. He’s been known to grab handfuls of ants. “These are quite aggressive,” he says. “They don’t sting, thankfully, but they do spray formic acid. It’s not so bad, but when they’re crawling all over you, it tickles a little bit.”
Blanchard double-majored in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Asian Studies. He also studied at LSA’s Biological Station. He’s now a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying ant evolution at his field site in a Chinese tropical botanical garden situated between Myanmar and Laos. He’s quick to laugh, and his excitement for ants bubbles into lengthy explanations about the diversity of giant spiny structures that some ant species bear. He says spines may make it harder for spiders to eat the ants.
As an undergrad, Blanchard pored over the giant book of available UROP projects, amazed to see a handful of faculty projects studying bugs—exactly what he’d been hoping to find. “I still remember my feeling of happiness, walking around the campus collecting ants,” he says. “Just the idea that I was getting paid to go collect ants on the quad and identify them . . . I don’t have any scientists in my family, so it became ingrained that I could go out and get paid for this kind of work.
“Another thing I learned in UROP is that international travel can be an element of research,” says Blanchard. “Many researchers will, at some point in their career, travel abroad. I think the chance to meet new people, see the world, and encounter a diversity of viewpoints is a benefit of research that’s underappreciated sometimes. UROP opened up my view of the world internationally and set me on a track of the research I’m doing now.”
With a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, UROP students can steer their way toward a career that suits them. This is the case for Erika Van Dam (B.S. 2005), who transferred to U-M in her sophomore year and now works as second in command at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. Van Dam’s UROP project mentor introduced her to a pediatric cardiologist who, in turn, influenced Van Dam in a completely unexpected way.
“I counted over 70 hours in the operating room with him,” she says. “Before we left the operating room, he would go over his case on a white board, drawing what was going on with the heart, testing me along the way to make sure that I had learned something.” When Van Dam decided to take a year off from pursuing medicine and asked her surgeon mentor for advice, he recommended that she get a master’s in public health. “And it changed the rest of my life.”
Van Dam had already written a thesis about algae and thought she’d become a phycologist after spending two summers at LSA’s Biological Station. But really, she’d fallen in love with the stars, trees, and fresh water of northern Michigan, where she returned after getting her master’s and joining the Health Department. “I think what’s really wonderful about UROP is that it allows students to build a relationship with a trusted advisor who can help guide students through their path, trying to figure out what their passion is and where they want life to lead them,” she says.
“Just getting students to go outside the comfort zone of a lecture hall and into other interesting experiences is a wonderful part of the program,” says Van Dam.
“You can paint a straight line between the kind of exposure to research that I had through UROP as an undergrad at Michigan to what I continue to do in my own research,” Casas says about his decades-long experience studying child psychology, beginning with his time behind the wheel in the RV mobile lab. “I think it influenced the way that I mentor students even to this day.”
Over its next thirty years, UROP will continue empowering all kinds of students on campus to discover and direct their careers. A recent UROP symposium featured research about how television represents consciousness, how thinking about movies affects emotional health, how to improve political campaigns, and how the brain adjusts to cochlear implants, along with hundreds more topics. As the program’s new director, Ferrez looks forward not just to coaching students through their options in research, but also to expanding the current UROP community-based research program across U-M and into more local communities. A good example of research work in local communities is the summer Detroit Community-Based Research Program, which combines research and social justice. Ferrez also sees the importance of examining the quality of the research mentor-mentee relationship; she plans to develop a robust training program for new UROP mentors and junior faculty. She says, “If you can have an impact on the younger generation of students and faculty, over time, they hopefully will help change the culture of research, teaching, and learning.”