Published: Feb. 24, 2020 By

CU Boulder program makes undergraduate research accessible, teaching students to follow their curiosity and reframe their failures

Amy Martinez didn’t think it would take so long to start her research on Latinx identities. As a junior, she received a research grant from CU Boulder’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), but she struggled to earn separate approval from CU Boulder’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). 

Amy Martinez

Amy Martinez

Because she wanted to study human subjects, she needed IRB’s OK before collecting data.

“There were so many questions and details that the IRB required me to write about that I didn't even have answers or solutions to yet,” says Martinez, who graduated in December from CU Boulder with a BA in anthropology and communication. 

“It really required me to think outside of the box and make tough decisions about where my research would take me.”

It took time for Martinez to address IRB’s stringent requirements. The complication extended her project timeline, which meant she had to change her summer plans and collect data. 

She completed her project and defended it as an honor’s thesis in December. Her research documents the struggles of bicultural, bilingual youth who try to maintain Latinx identities while meeting the expectations of mainstream, white-dominant U.S. culture. 

I learned that I can, really, do anything. It just takes a lot of really hard work.”​

Notwithstanding hardships these youth face, they succeed as resilient, adaptable individuals who feel secure in their Latinx identities. 

Undergraduate research fueled Martinez’ self-confidence as a scholar, and she is exploring graduate school. 

But this outcome was no foregone conclusion. Three years ago, she would not have considered applying for a university research grant. 

She’d heard about UROP but figured “that’s not something that someone like me does. … That’s what some other crazy, determined student would do.”


Redefining ‘research and creative work’

Martinez is not alone. According to UROP, many undergraduates have difficulty seeing a path to research and creative work.

“A huge issue is what the word ‘research’ evokes,” says Joan Gabriele, who directs CU Boulder’s Special Undergraduate Enrichment Programs (SUEP), which houses UROP. 

“When we do workshops, I just love to ask the question, ‘What images come to mind when you hear the word research?’ It’s usually science. It’s usually labs. And if you’re not in that world, then research does seem like something that (only) scientists do.”

Other students don’t pursue research and creative work because they think they’re unqualified.

“A desire we’ve had is to avoid that language of hierarchy that says ‘only the best and the brightest should do research.’ Those definitions are pretty slippery,” says Gabriele. “Recognizing that potential looks different in different students, that’s one of the reasons that UROP is available to everyone.” 

Since its 1986 beginning, UROP has sought to recruit and support more student research with a relatively flat budget. Four years ago, Gabriele and her staff examined every facet of the application and funding processes, then changed ineffective procedures. 

For example, they removed eligibility requirements for a minimum GPA and credits earned and removed the restriction on simultaneously earning CU Boulder credit while receiving UROP funding.

“Take about any aspect of the program, and we’ve really tried to say, ‘How can this be easier? How can students make more sense of this and how can they get started faster?’” says Tim O’Neil, assistant director of UROP. “We are getting it into a position where we’ve cleared out as much of the bureaucracy as we can.”


The circuitous path toward a scholarly idea

With a simpler application process in place, O’Neil is helping students see how faculty and students generate ideas.  

“Students don’t see it (the path to a research outcome) when they see a faculty member in the front of their class with a lot of credentials and a lot of success often highlighted in terms of disciplinary success,” says O’Neil. 

“They don’t know that the person up there has taken a far more circuitous route to that destination than they realized. And it has been sign-posted by failure as far back as they can go. The turns are often serendipitous, and in every case, someone helped.” 

In the case of Martinez, she heard about research and creative work as a first-year student and again as a sophomore, but she thought she needed a focused problem or idea. She had neither. Instead, she knew she loved cultural anthropology field work and wanted to know more. 

She took a class in practicing anthropology at CU Boulder and was introduced to GENESISTER, a program that supports the siblings of pregnant and parenting teens. While observing the program’s strategies to support Latinx teens, she reflected on her past. 

“I had these personal questions about my own cultural identity and why I wasn't given the opportunity to experience some of it,” says Martinez, who is the great granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. “I’ve always had those questions, and then I was introduced to the (GENESISTER) program.”

A faculty advisor in anthropology helped Martinez form her questions into a potential project. She then applied for and received a grant from UROP. 

Martinez’s project met unexpected barriers from the outset. Conducting research over the summer challenged her ability to collect data and affected the scope of work. But she adapted, completed her project and successfully defended it before a faculty panel. 

You can have the most general, overarching idea. A word or a concept. Just meet with professors and as many as you can,”​

UROP invests in stories like Martinez’s that stress both the result and the process of coming to that result. Another initiative called the Lightbulb Moment uses videos to describe students driven by curiosity, strategies they deploy to overcome challenges and pathways to results. Staff members with UROP and other programs within SUEP believe that showing research and creative work as a process helps students understand a facet of scholarship that many undergraduates misunderstand—failure.

“We’re getting high-achieving scholars who a lot of times are stuck in these narratives about who they are as learners,” says Jim Walker, teaching faculty in SUEP. He notes that many feel pressure to avoid failure, which discourages them from taking risks. 

O’Neil says self-forgiveness is critical. 

“If (students) only see the final outcome and a linear path to it, whenever life presents a turn or a failure, that seems catastrophic,” says O’Neil. “They don’t see how you can turn and actually end up some place better than you had hoped.”


The hardest part is getting started

Martinez’s UROP experience built her confidence as a student, a scholar and as a graduate exploring her next career step.

“I feel like I can do more. I want to go to grad school, and I’m thinking about PhD programs,” says Martinez. “I learned that I can, really, do anything. It just takes a lot of really hard work.”

Martinez believes her confidence grew as a result of her UROP experience. She encourages fellow students to apply, even if early in their academic careers.

“You can have the most general, overarching idea. A word or a concept. Just meet with professors and as many as you can,” says Martinez. 

“It can be really scary to show up to someone’s office hours and say ‘I kind of want to do this, but I also have no idea what I’m doing.’ But that’s what they’re there for. They want to help you figure it out. The hardest part is making that first decision of ‘Am I going to do this or am I not going to do this?’” 

Her advice is succinct:

“Just do it.”