Undergraduate students have a unique opportunity to pursue research through the University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). Over the past 30 years, UROP has served as a national model of access, diversity, and equity in undergraduate research, with over 1,300 first and second year students getting critical research experience early in their academic career.
Some of them are Genentech Fellows, supported by a grant from the Genentech Foundation as a commitment to increase research opportunities for underrepresented students in STEM. Elyias Asfaw was one of them. When asked how the Genentech Foundation’s support helped students like him in the program, he responded, “It’s exactly my case. Really.”
Thanks to his mentor, U-M associate professor Dr. Oliver He, Asfaw got to work on a project analyzing every cancer vaccine that has ever been created – all 632 of them – to build a cancer vaccine database. Not your normal summer project, Asfaw’s contribution carried into the fall where he contributed to publication of a paper on the research. “All of that was possible because of the Foundation. The financial aspect is important but it’s mostly the opportunity for research and support it provides students. I’m just one example.”
Helping reach shared goals
The Genentech Foundation has funded UROP fellows since 2008, supporting 8-12 students each summer for research, mentorship, and a way to connect their academic and professional experiences.
Envisioning a world where health and prosperity are accessible to all, the Genentech Foundation hopes to realize this vision by challenging and dismantling systemic barriers to create pathways into sustainable careers in science and medicine. Going into an uncertain economy, the Genentech Foundation increased their support of the program this past year from $30K to $50K a year, funding additional students in the summer of 2020.
“The Genentech Foundation aims to create more equitable on-ramps to the fields of science and medicine,” said Kristin Campbell Reed, Executive Director, Genentech Corporate and Employee Giving & The Genentech Foundation. “By ensuring that the life sciences workforce reflects the patient populations we serve, we will be better positioned to deliver innovative medicines that meet their unique needs.”
The Foundation supports programs like this at 14 universities. In 2019, the Foundation increased their funding based on feedback from university partners and the overall success of these programs. However, as 2020 hit and the pandemic emerged, the Foundation offered all their partners support and flexibility around their grants, recognizing the many challenges and emerging needs they all faced as a result of COVID-19. The Foundation spent much of 2020 listening and responding to the needs of the field and their university partners to ensure students were supported throughout these unprecedented times.
U-M UROP made some changes as well: they were able to support 100% virtual research programs this summer, thanks to a strong commitment from faculty mentors and funders. While virtual research presented its own challenges, the students and faculty developed successful projects, all of which culminated in a virtual research symposium at the end of the summer.
The ability to do virtual research was a lifesaver in many ways. Students were counting on the experience and paycheck. Researchers were largely pivoting to projects related to the coronavirus. The resulting fellowships meant that many health science undergraduates got to work on novel research related to a very critical and timely research topic.
And it helps companies as well: “Industry is paying attention to where the needle of research is headed. Novel, interesting avenues to continue pursuing are top of mind when working with U-M researchers and students. This year, with the pandemic, was no different,” shares Dr. Michelle Ferrez, Director of the Undergraduate Research Program.
There were distinct things that make a virtual summer more powerful, and one was the summer research symposium. This year, it (as with everything) was remote. Says Ferrez, “What a wonderful space this ended up being, because everyone got to give an oral presentation, we could invite a broader audience from afar to see the research these students worked on, and all of it could be online for future reference.”
This was particularly helpful for Genentech. Instead of one foundation representative traveling to campus, the program was shared with the Foundation board to watch or read about the students they supported online at their own convenience.
The Genentech Foundation was impressed and grateful to UROP for their ability to find creative and substantive solutions during the pandemic to share and celebrate the students’ work in a time where they needed it most.
Summer lives on
More than half of UROP students continue working with their faculty mentors, working part-time during the school year in a research scholars program, sometimes presenting at conferences and contributing to publications. That is the same with Genentech Fellows, as in Asfew’s case, and often their mentorship with researchers continues after the summer as well.