Many successful scientists can trace their careers back to formative undergraduate lab experiences that sparked their passions for research. At CU Boulder, there are hundreds of STEM research labs run by world-class faculty, and many host undergraduates. Yet, there are many barriers preventing underrepresented or underprivileged students from accessing these pivotal first research experiences.
For example, many undergraduate students first volunteer in labs for several semesters before becoming competitive for traditional research scholarships such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). However, students from underprivileged backgrounds often lack the financial resources to volunteer, or may not even be aware such opportunities exist. To improve diversity in STEM, these early barriers must be addressed.
In 2021, a new undergraduate research scholarship program called Uplift was launched by the graduate student organization STEM Routes, a chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans. Graduate students Dana Stamo, Andrea Ordonez and Stephanie Plaza Torres led the charge, with the goal of providing mentored research experiences catered to the challenges faced by underrepresented and underprivileged CU Boulder undergraduates.
“The Uplift program is completely run and organized by CU graduate students, who are doing a phenomenal job creating these opportunities and communities for underrepresented students, all while conducting research in their own thesis labs,” said Assistant Professor Edward Chuong, who assisted the student organizers in securing funding for the program.
Undergraduate students must first apply to the program and show a demonstrated need (e.g., from an underrepresented background or first in their family to attend college) and interest in pursuing a career in STEM. Selected Uplift scholars then participate in a mentored research experience in a volunteer host STEM lab for 1.5 semesters during the school year.
Critically, students are paid $3,000 during this scholarship and are mentored by graduate students both inside and outside the lab to help them succeed. STEM Routes also holds 10 workshops throughout the year, covering both technical and sociocultural topics—such as demystifying academia and STEM careers—to support Uplift scholars in pursuit of their educational and career goals
As a final component to the program, all scholars present an elevator pitch and final project summary.
Uplift is currently generously supported by the Packard Foundation. CU Boulder Packard Fellows Edward Chuong, Jingchun Li and Ann-Marie Madigan applied for the funding from a Packard diversity, equity and inclusion initiative and received $150,000 to launch Uplift and fund 50 students through 2023.
In addition to Packard funding, several departments, including Bioengineering and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology have offered matching funds for labs hosting Uplift students. The STEM Routes organizers hope the value of the program becomes widely recognized by STEM departments at CU and that more departments will begin to set aside funds to help recruit diverse undergraduates into their labs.
The Uplift internship program is modeled after a highly successful graduate school prep program at CU Boulder named Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training (SMART), run by the Colorado Diversity Initiative. The SMART program aims to prepare underrepresented students for PhD programs nationwide, and provides summer mentored research experiences for approximately 25 students from institutions across the U.S. However, the SMART program does not serve underrepresented students currently enrolled at CU.
“Uplift fills an important need at CU Boulder to bring diverse students into STEM. We appreciate the welcoming scientific community the STEM Routes mentors create to support students,” Uplift advisor and professor Lee Niswander said of the program. Niswander chairs the Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology department at CU Boulder.
Uplift is designed to collaborate with and augment the established funded undergraduate research program community on campus that includes UROP, the Biological Sciences Initiative (BSI), Discovery Learning Apprenticeship (DLA), McNair Scholars Program and others.
The Uplift program piloted in summer 2021 as a mostly virtual experience. In fall 2021, a full class of 20 Uplift students started research and successfully completed the program. Many of these students now continue to conduct funded research with their lab or have graduated with impressive internships, graduate school opportunities and jobs lined up.
The 2022–23 application for students and labs opened Sept. 1 and will close Sept. 23. Learn more and apply.