Have you ever felt the joy of discovering something new or finding the solution to a difficult problem? Such joy lies at the heart of scientific discovery and contributes to the immense value of undergraduate research opportunities. Studies have shown that students who get involved in research reap numerous benefits including improved critical thinking and data analysis skills, better grades, increased rates of college graduation, greater participation in STEM careers, and overall better career outcomes.

These benefits can be especially impactful for first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students from groups underrepresented in the sciences. However, studies have shown that these students are often the least likely to participate in research because they may be unaware of the opportunities available or their educational value, and many report feeling intimidated and under-equipped to apply for them.  

About 5 years ago, the Department of Psychology examined this problem in our own Honors program. At that time, these groups were indeed underrepresented in the Honors program (comprising less than 6% of Honors students), compared to their enrollment in the Psychology or Biopsychology, Cognition & Neuroscience (BCN) majors. To understand why, we polled the students. Our findings were consistent with those of existing research in the field: Many of these students were unaware of research opportunities, of their importance, or of how to apply for them.  In many cases, students only began to realize this in their senior year when they wanted to apply for the Honors program. However, by then, it is often “too late” because at least one year of previous research experience is typically required to complete a thesis successfully. Several students mentioned that we needed to help them get started with research early, before they got too involved in other activities.

To help address that disparity, Dr. Priti Shah led the Department in creating the Students Tackling Advanced Research (STAR) Scholars program. This program aims to help first- and second-year students get interested in research and to provide them with the skills and background needed to apply for opportunities successfully. Now in its 4th year, STAR has already substantially increased the number of underrepresented students participating in research in the Department. Last year, the percentage of underrepresented (including first-generation and financially challenged) students increased to 30%—over 4 times what it had been before STAR was established! While STAR may not be the only factor, it has clearly had an impact. Looking forward, STAR hopes to expand its reach to include more students at U-M and even at other institutions around the world.

STAR has two components: Fall workshops that are open to all students, and Winter workshops and mentoring groups targeted toward promising early-stage students who need help getting started with research. As Dr. Cindy Lustig, the current faculty director, notes, the Fall workshops cover “things that even students from more privileged backgrounds may not know yet, such as how to select and apply to graduate schools. Since those workshops are held virtually, we have opened them up to as many people as want to come and to students from all over the world. We have had as many as 100 people at a time logged into Zoom for those.”

“During the Winter semester,” Lustig continues, “we alternate between workshops focused on skills building and on smaller-scale interactions with faculty and graduate students. For example, we will have a group workshop that talks about applying for research positions and the interview process. The following week, the STAR Scholars will meet in small groups (3-4 students) with a graduate student mentor to practice their interview skills and get feedback. The next large-group session will build further on that, with a research speed-networking event where STAR Scholars conduct mini-interviews with graduate students from different labs about what kinds of research they perform, what they like about it, how it applies in the real world, and opportunities for STAR Scholars to get involved.”  

The STAR program has already brought great benefits to U-M students and is now looking to expand its reach and impact. In addition to making the online Fall workshops available to students all over the world, the graduate student mentors recently published a description of the program in Teaching of Psychology and are in the process of making program materials publicly available so other institutions can build on its success. 

Lustig notes that she also plans to expand STAR Scholars’ opportunities to leverage their new skills in giving back to their own communities, which benefits both those communities and the students themselves. 

“What motivates a lot of these students is a desire to give back,” Lustig says. “And I think that when you do that, you really start to feel more capable: ‘Now I’m not just a student passively receiving knowledge. I’m actually DOING something’. It’s a way for our STAR Scholars to really begin taking on the identity of a scientist and see how they belong to the scientific community. We are currently looking into giving them more opportunities to talk to students at their high schools. We also have a graduate-student-run series called “Brains Rule” that gives elementary school kids opportunities to learn about the brain, and we are hoping to get the STAR Scholars more involved in those events.”

Looking forward, Lustig hopes to expand the program in other ways as well. Most importantly, she would love to enroll more students each year, but enrollment is limited primarily by a lack of funding to pay more graduate student mentors. “One of the things we have to be conscious of is that graduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds are often the ones who are especially passionate about doing this kind of work. But it is obviously not then fair to have them doing this kind of work for free while their peers are doing other kinds of work for money that may not have the same kind of direct social impact. So essentially, more funding means we can pay more graduate student mentors, which means we can mentor more STAR Scholars,” she says. 

If you would like to donate to the STAR Scholars Program, please visit the program’s donation page here (link). The program is also interested in having alumni who are using their Psychology degrees in nonacademic fields participate in workshops to help students understand the variety of careers that Psychology research can open up to them.  If you would like to participate in one of these panels, please contact Dr. Cindy Lustig at clustig@umich.edu. The next non-academic career panel is November 10, 2021, and the STAR program will hold another session on this topic during the Winter semester.