Students present their collaborative and original research at the annual UROP symposium, an event that, for many, marks the beginning of a track that continues into their established careers. Photo courtesy of UROP
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.