As contemporary shifts in higher education are reshaping the path toward graduate school, several University of Arizona programs are working to ensure that students are well poised to earn advanced degrees.
Connecting those programs is the UA's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium, or UROC, one of the largest programs of its kind in the country, which is preparing UA students, as well as students from across the U.S. and Latin America, to pursue graduate studies.
UROC, offered as both a summer and year-round program, involves undergraduate students – mostly juniors and seniors, from a range of disciplines – in University research. While in the program, students also gain important knowledge and build networks to help them pursue and earn advanced degrees in an increasingly competitive world.
Graduate school admissions competition is evermore challenging, and graduate students are increasingly expected to arrive with grant funding to support their education. Meanwhile, there exists an accelerated move of those with doctoral degrees into the private sector rather than the academic world.
At the same time, there is nationwide demand to enhance the diverse representation of students in graduate programs, especially in health-related fields and in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
"We are a Research I institution that can provide levels of research not available at other institutions," said Maria Teresa Velez, associate dean of the UA Graduate College, which facilitates UROC.
"These days, in order to be admitted to graduate school, having done research is almost a prerequisite," Velez said.
"And a graduate degree provides lots of things – better jobs, better job stability and higher earnings, and it also provides a certain independence that other jobs might not give you," Velez said. "The fact that these students are working closely with a faculty member will give them an advantage."
By training underrepresented students toward graduate studies and professional careers, UROC and its nine partner programs are helping to increase the number of such students in higher education – particularly those who are from low-income families and those who are first-generation college students.
Velez credits UROC with contributing to the UA's ability to recruit a diverse graduate student body, including underrepresented minority students, women going into STEM fields and students from Mexico and Latin America, sponsored by organizations and agencies in their home states.
Of note, the UA has the highest percentage of underrepresented minority students among allAssociation of American Universities members. Underrepresented minority students comprise 18 percent of the UA's total student population.
"It becomes very important to expose these students to the type of research that is done here, encouraging them to apply and to graduate from graduate studies," Velez said. "It also is a strong recruitment tool for the UA."
Expanding Graduate School Access, Representation
The UA program matches students with a faculty mentor and engages them in active research while also preparing them for graduate studies and professional careers.
In the last five years alone, more than 500 students have participated in UROC and in addition to strong graduate school placement, students also have earned nationally competitive scholarships, such as those awarded by the National Science Foundation, Ford Foundation and U.S. Fulbright Program.
More than 75 percent of each class of UROC students eventually pursues graduate studies, Velez said.
This year, 120 students from across the U.S. and Mexico are enrolled in UROC, which also offers students stipends of up to $4,500 for summer research.
Among this year's UROC students is Robert Clark, a senior in the UA's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.
"The program helped me to discover that I would like to continue on to graduate school," said Clark, anArizona Assurance scholar who works with Heidi E. Brown, an assistant professor in the UA Epidemiology and Biostatistics Division.
Clark has been studying "hot spots" for rabies infection, dealing mostly with reports of bats, skunks and foxes with the deadly viral disease, relying on the Pima County Health Department's 2004-2010 annual data sets for positive cases of rabies in the region.
Eventually, he intends to facilitate health education to local nurses, youth and families and will be presenting his research and plans at the Aug. 6 UROC poster session alongside other students in the program.
Clark said a summer English course facilitated by Andrew Huerta and two graduate students has been especially helpful in preparing him for the graduate school application process and his eventual studies.
In the course, students learn the basics of academic writing and research communications and prepare a poster they must present at the UROC poster session in August. They also produce a personal statement, a professional curriculum vitae and a manuscript for their research.
"The main thing I try to focus on is professionalism," said Huerta, the academic services manager for the Graduate College. "For some, they don't understand the difference between undergraduate and graduate education and their roles as independent thinkers."
Huerta said that is why UROC focuses on making sure students have applied research experience coupled with classroom instruction and networking.
"We want them to hit the ground running and using their skills," he said.
Students also connect with motivational speakers; learn how to gain institutional scholarships, nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships; and prepare for and take the GRE, the examination required for entry into many graduate programs.
"It's great to see that the Graduate College makes this available to us students," said Clark, who is working toward a career in epidemiology.
Translating Studies to Action
When Jose Miguel Valdez came to the UA, his plan was to earn a degree quickly so that he could begin working immediately.
Now, in his second summer participating in the UROC program and third year at the UA, Valdez has been involved in several training and education programs.
A student in the Minority Access to Research Careers program, Valdez currently works with Pak Kin Wong, an associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering.
"All of these programs are really preparing me for graduate school and, eventually, getting a Ph.D. The research experience is not to be overlooked," said Valdez, who is entering his senior year at the UA. He also emphasized the pre-graduate school preparation, particularly around developing a competitive application and how to land funding.
"Every experience has helped me strongly in moving forward with that goal of attending graduate school. UROC has really expanded my mind on how to do it," he said. "In the long run, the benefits are higher and not just in terms of pay, but also the quality of the job I will have."
Another UROC student, Katheryn Ryan, a UA microbiology senior, is investigating bacterial pathogenesis in V.K. Viswanathan's lab in the veterinary science and microbiology department.
Through her work, Ryan hopes to be able to inform improvements in preventing infections. Eventually, she plans to pursue a public health degree with a focus in epidemiology. And she wants to do this at the UA. Her dream job? Working for the Centers for Disease Control or National Institutes of Health, investigating diseases and aiding in prevention.
Ryan said UROC has not only given her invaluable research experience but has helped her to better understand how to move from undergraduate education and research to more professional areas.
"Every part of the program is very helpful and I feel very lucky to be in this program," said Ryan, who is working toward improving what is known about how Escherichia coli, or E. coli, proteins interact with their hosts.
"In college, you are expected to know how to write a personal statement and a CV and how to apply to graduate school, but those aren't things that are necessarily taught," said Ryan, who has long desired a graduate degree. "UROC didn't put the idea in my mind, but it has made it feel possible."