UROP marks 20 years

As an undergraduate in the late 1980s, Dr. Arul Chinnaiyan wanted to learn more about biology and what type of research it involved. It just so happens his interest coincided with the unveiling of a fledgling university program that provided students research opportunities with faculty members.

Chinnaiyan, who is director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology, still uses the skills and experiences gained two decades ago through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program from his faculty mentor, Stephen Weiss, a research professor in the Life Sciences Institute.

"I learned how to think critically, write manuscripts, design experiments and how to conduct high-quality biomedical research," says Chinnaiyan, who co-mentors more than 40 UROP students with the help of others in the lab.

UROP allows students to work one-on-one or in small groups with faculty members conducting research in social sciences, humanities, biomedical sciences and engineering/physical science/natural science.

The program celebrates its 20th year April 1 in the Michigan League, with its annual event that is free and open to the public.

At the research forum, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., students in the Junior-Senior Program and Research Scholars Program will present their projects in poster presentations.

At the research symposium, 4-7:30 p.m., students will give oral and poster presentations.

The number of research partnerships has grown from 14 in 1989 to more than 1,000 students and 600 faculty researchers today, making it one of the university's largest undergraduate research programs. All schools and colleges participate to inspire students to discover the world of research.

UROP director Sandra Gregerman says the last 20 years have seen an increase in faculty who value students getting engaged in research early in their academic careers. In addition, more students seek out these opportunities when they arrive on campus.

Universities nationally increasingly offer undergraduate research programs. Gregerman says it has become one of the areas U.S. News and World Report ranks as one of the important programs to look for when students make college selections.

"We have really been ahead of the curve in terms of engaging first- and second-year students in undergraduate research, and this is being copied nationally," she says.

Students choose projects from a catalog of faculty research and then interview for the positions.

Gregerman says students typically spend 6-12 hours per week on their projects. They can participate in the program for academic credit, or they can be paid, if they qualify for work-study funds.

All students in the program must attend bimonthly research peer seminars, meet monthly with a peer adviser, read research-related articles and keep a research journal, Gregerman says.

UROP enabled many of its participants, such as Nicole Exe, to secure jobs involving work they did in the program.

Exe works at the Veteran's Administration Medical Center, where she conducts surveys about patient medical decisions. She recently was chosen to serve on a search committee to fill a job opening at the center — a task that will utilize her UROP skills. She learned about resume writing and knows what to look for in applicants' resumes, such as concise job descriptions and skills applicable to the position, she says.

"It was great that UROP really helped you get those skills early on, not just as an after-thought for those preparing to graduate," says Exe, who received her bachelor's degree in biology and a Master's of Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Education at U-M. She participated in UROP from 2002-05, including two years as a student peer adviser.

UROP, which is supported by the General Fund and private individuals and foundations, was founded in 1989 to further undergraduate education with research-based projects. The program originally was designed to increase retention and improve the academic performance of underrepresented minority students, but since has been made available to all students.

The program began for freshman and sophomores but expanded in 1998 to include a small number of juniors and seniors who have not to date had a research experience.

Gregerman says she wants to expand the number of opportunities for students to participate in undergraduate research in the humanities and the creative arts, as well as research internationally and to expand its small but highly innovative community-based research.

UROP is located on the first floor of the Undergraduate Science Building. The program is accepting applications for 2009-10 through May 1 for current students and June 1 for incoming first-year students and transfer students.