Program introduces students to research careers

August 27, 2009

Casey Cook aspires to be a researcher, but her experience in the lab had been somewhat lacking. She wanted a program that would truly prepare her for a career in research by introducing her to all aspects of the research process. This summer she was given that opportunity as a participant in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP).

Cook, a dietetics major at Miami University of Ohio, said that SROP not only “gives students the nuts and bolts of what it’s like to be at graduate school,” but it also “gives students the encouragement and confidence to go out and apply for graduate school.”

Established in 1986 by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), SROP was designed to alleviate the ethnic and racial representation gaps that exist in many graduate school research programs. Offered at Penn State for the 17th year through a partnership between the CIC and Penn State’s Office of Graduate Educational Equity, the program introduces students to the world of research and lets them learn “about all aspects of the research process,” said Cook. Through SROP, she became involved in activities she could not typically do as a research assistant: writing, coding data and performing statistical analysis.

The focus of SROP is to complete a research project -- students become proteges under a faculty member, learning about their mentor’s research and also pursuing a topic of their own. The program also provides students knowledge and guidance on how to apply to graduate school. This summer, 41 students participated in the program at Penn State, and four of those students worked with faculty in the College of Health and Human Development.

Cook worked under Kasia Kordas, assistant professor of nutritional sciences, learning about lead exposure in Uruguayan youth and how that impacts parent-child relationships.

“I had a great mentor when I was in college,” said Kordas, “and I wanted to share that, especially with underrepresented students.”

Valuable Mentorship

Cultivating a close relationship can enhance the mentorship experience for both mentor and protege. Rebecca Lara, another SROP participant this summer, found that she had many similarities with her mentor Mayra Bamaca, assistant professor of human development and family studies.

A native of Guatemala, Bamaca participated in the SROP program when she was an undergraduate student.

"It was very helpful, and it made me want to give back,” Bamaca said.

“[Bamaca] is a Latina like me, and she understands what it’s like to be away from family,” said Lara.

The mentor/protege pair also found out, after the program had begun, that their lives were more intertwined that they knew: Bamaca had worked with Lara’s older sister in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Lara and her sister, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States, are first-generation college students.

To find her research topic, Lara looked through a survey Bamaca uses to gather data (for a project involving developmental issues among Latino youth). Bamaca asked Lara to find, from the survey of hundreds of questions, topics she was most interested in, and Lara easily found one: how depression was related to father-daughter relationships in females of Mexican origin.

After Lara chose her topic, Bamaca said “she became part of my research program,” helping to recruit participants, performing data entry and coding. “She wasn’t only involved with me, but I made sure she was connected to other members of the research team, especially the graduate students,” said Bamaca.

“The program is great,” said Lara. “It gives you the chance to see other universities, and a chance to see the resources universities have to offer. It helps you get out of your comfort zone, see what work you’re capable of doing, and really test the waters of the research world and graduate school.”

Better the Second Time Around

Because of how much they learn in the program, it’s not uncommon that students enroll in SROP for multiple summers. Jennevie Olivieri, a Puerto Rican native who studies psychology at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, was one of those students. She performed research in Penn State’s clinical psychology graduate program. It was there, she said, that she realized her true interests were in human development. Her mentor at the time, Jose Soto, assistant professor of psychology, helped her find a program that better suited her interests. As a result, Jennevie reapplied for the SROP program this summer, landing a spot working with Douglas Teti, professor of human development and family studies (HDFS) and psychology, on SIESTA, a longitudinal study examining the relation between parenting and infant sleep patterns. SIESTA gave Olivieri the chance to study what she was truly passionate about: child development.

“I tried to integrate Jennevie into every aspect of the project, giving the same mentorship that I give to my graduate students,” said Teti. “[My goal was to] make the research come alive and show how interesting research can be,” he said. "You need to be ‘in the trenches’ working with families directly to see how your research truly impacts them.”

As part of the program, Olivieri visited homes of the SIESTA participants, helping to set up equipment and brief parents on the details of the project. That experience reinforced the fact that “not every family does the same things,” she said, noting the many parenting styles and sleep rituals of the families she visited.

Olivieri hopes to return to Penn State again, but next time she wants to stay for several years; she has already decided to apply to the HDFS graduate program.

Traveling and Networking

Talani Bertram, a kinesiology major at Penn State, also participated in SROP for the second-straight summer (last year working at the University of Michigan). She worked with Danielle Downs, associate professor of kinesiology, on a project that analyzed how self-perceptions of body image impact pregnant women’s health and motivations to exercise. For Bertram, networking with students and faculty in the research community was one of the benefits of the program, and the end-of-program events provided the best opportunity for this networking.

Students in the program give two major presentations. First they travel to a CIC-wide poster presentation and symposium, which was held at the University of Michigan this year. The symposium is designed to provide students with the opportunity to meet SROP students from other institutions and participate in various planned social activities, including a roundtable discussion.

“The symposium was very interactive,” said Bertram. She said it provided the SROP students a great networking opportunity. Eleven of the 12 schools from the CIC had representatives at the symposium, ready to answer any questions students may have about admissions, their institutions and applying to graduate school.

After that, the Penn State SROP students deliver presentations to their peers at The Nittany Lion Inn on Penn State's University Park campus. The poster presentations give the students “a taste of what it’s like to be a graduate student,” said Kordas. Even some graduate students don’t get a chance to present their research in this way, she said.

A Holistic Approach

While the program revolves around completing a condensed research experience, those who coordinate the program take more of a “holistic approach” to educating students, said David Perez, doctoral candidate in higher education and co-director of the SROP program this summer. Students attend a weekly enrichment night, designed to give them guidance and support with figuring out how to apply to graduate school, how to develop personal statements and obtain letters of recommendation, and how to present themselves—themes that were all “very useful,” said Bertram. Students also hear from a panel of graduate students, including Perez and Megan Rogers, a graduate student in genetics and another co-director of the SROP program, who relay their graduate school experience and tips for applying.

Students in SROP also participate in social and community service events, this year working with Habitat for Humanity. This experience gave students “a chance to see what the State College community was like,” said Bertram. The students also chair committees with each other, and are in charge of various activities such as coordinating travel to Michigan for the final presentations.

“It’s not just about research,” said Perez, “we want students to learn how to be part of the social fabric of the University.”

“One of the hallmarks of the program is that there are so many layers to it,” said Joyce Hopson-King, director of diversity enhancement in the College of Health and Human Development. “It helps students in so many ways, and there are so many people involved: deans, graduate students, faculty, administrators -- the program really thrives on their support and involvement.”

Perez agreed with this perspective of the program, modifying the well-known phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child." “We think of it more as, ‘It takes a university to raise a scholar.’”

For more information on the program, visit online.

  • SROP was designed to alleviate the ethnic and racial representation gaps that exist in many graduate school research programs. Click on the photo above for more information on the program.

    IMAGE: David Perez
Last Updated November 18, 2010