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Undergraduates in research

By Alex Piazza

A University of Michigan sophomore spends months in the lab working to curb the mortality rate of triple negative breast cancer.

One of her classmates analyzes data to determine whether entrepreneurship can transform the economy in developing countries.

And her suitemate tests water samples to discover ways to reduce pollution in the Great Lakes.

Each year, thousands of undergraduates participate in groundbreaking research at U-M, an opportunity that can not only lead to key advances that benefit society, but can also augment their educational experience and transform their lives.

Early engagement

More than 1,400 U-M undergrads sifted through binders at the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) office this fall to find research projects that sparked their interest. The hefty binders contained a list of 950 research projects being conducted by U-M faculty that ranged in focus from pediatric artificial lungs to depressive symptoms among aging men.

“When we first started, our mission was to promote undergraduate research as a way to improve the retention and academic success of our diverse student body,” said UROP Director Sandra Gregerman. “Today, this mission and the value we place on early engagement in research remain the hallmarks of our program.”

UROP began in 1989 with 15 undergrads and 15 faculty members. Its popularity has soared over the past 25 years, as more than 15,000 U-M undergrads have landed research gigs through the program.

And the benefits have a lasting impact, according to a longitudinal study conducted by UROP, with support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

UROP students reported a greater understanding of their academic discipline and were more engaged in classroom activities, as compared to students who did not participate in undergraduate research.

African American males who participated in UROP were 19 percent more likely to complete their undergraduate degree. And students who participated in undergraduate research were 26 percent more likely to pursue a graduate degree.

Enter Katie Mues (’08 B.S.). Her career revolves around research, as she tests the safety of prescription drugs at a multinational biopharmaceutical company.

Her passion for research stems from her UROP experience, in which she explored the health disparities among female Somali refugees living in Ohio. Mues organized focus groups, conducted personal interviews and surveyed hundreds of Somali women to learn more about their reproductive health.

“That experience was the starting point of my career in research,” said Mues, who later earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology. “You could say that program changed the course of my entire career.”

Disaster relief

A young boy sat in his concrete home moments before a massive earthquake rocked China in 2008.

He could not escape before the roof caved in and trapped him below the rubble for two days.

He sipped water from a nearby puddle to stay hydrated, but eventually lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital.

The Sichuan earthquake killed nearly 70,000 people, though this boy escaped with only an amputated arm.

“He appreciated the fact that he was still alive, but he waited so long for help to arrive,” said Josh Verson (’14 B.S.). “If first responders had found him sooner, he would not have lost his arm.”

As a UROP student, Verson traveled to China for 30 days to interview residents who sustained injuries during the quake.

The trip was part of a project led by Dr. Andrew Haig, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation. Haig leads International Society for Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine efforts to build rehabilitation response to natural disasters.

They received a $20,000 grant from the now-defunct Center for Global Health to create an education program for physicians who travel overseas to assist in disaster zones.

“When natural disasters strike, physicians will do whatever they can to help,” said Lars Johnson (’13 B.S.), who worked on the project with Verson and Haig. “But you can take the greatest physician in the world, and if they don’t know the logistics of the area, there is only so much they can do. We want to make sure that physicians are prepared for what to expect in a disaster zone.”

Hundreds of physicians traveled to Chile in 2010 to provide medical aid after a major earthquake destroyed thousands of homes and killed more than 500 people.

The death toll could have greatly exceeded 500, but Chilean leaders had implemented a series of disaster protocols before the earthquake hit.

Johnson traveled to the South American country to interview Chilean leaders about their disaster response efforts, and during each interview, he asked the same question: “What do physicians need to know before they travel to disaster zones?”

The question often generated similar responses.

“Bring a radio or satellite phone.”

“Pack your own toiletries.”

“Appoint a travel guide.”

Verson and Johnson, both of whom are now enrolled in medical school, created an expansive list of recommendations in an effort to help prepare physicians for overseas disaster relief missions.

“They did incredible investigative work, came back, and over the last two years, completed this outstanding physician education program,” Haig said.

Connect the dots

In one UROP project led by Betsy Lozoff, professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases who also has ties to the Center for Human Growth & Development, South American teenagers are pit in a hypothetical situation where they are accused of shoplifting and have only three minutes to defend themselves.

U-M sophomore Jenna Hach is not concerned with their pleas of innocence during this exercise. Instead, she spends hours analyzing their responses, looking for signs of increased anxiety—eye blinks, hand fidgets, etc.

Regardless of authenticity, the stressful situation sheds light on how iron deficiency in infancy affects long-term behavior, and in this case, how it impacts the teenagers years down the road

“We’re looking at how kids who were supplemented with iron in infancy differ in their development than kids who did not receive iron supplement,” said Hach, an international studies major. “It’s really interesting to be a part of because Dr. Lozoff was the first person to research iron deficiency and development.”

Lozoff began studying the development of these particular Chilean teenagers long before they were asked to defend themselves against allegations of theft. She started monitoring their development when they were just six months old.

“Having been involved in this type of research, I feel a lot more confident in my skills moving forward,” Hach said. “The ‘O’ in ‘UROP’ is so important because it’s opened up so many opportunities for me. I definitely feel ahead of the game.”

Shelly Flagel (’98 B.S.) agrees. Twenty years ago, Flagel was a U-M undergrad, curious about research. She was inspired to apply for UROP and eventually landed a research gig with Dr. Israel Liberzon, where she studied patients with posttraumatic stress disorder and specifically examined how certain regions of the brain responded to combat noises.

“My UROP experience was my first introduction to research, and it was during this time that the spark was ignited and I became passionate about research,” Flagel said. “From that point on, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”

Flagel went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from U-M and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry. Similar to her initial research endeavors, she still studies factors that render certain individuals more susceptible to mental illness, but now with a focus on addiction.

“There is no doubt that if it were not for my experience as a UROP student, I would not be where I am today,” she said. “For this reason, I try to give as many undergraduates that I can the opportunity to have similar experiences and work in my lab.”



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