Gentle prodding and expert advice combined with unrelenting encouragement: That’s how Said Shokair and other staff members in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program empower students to venture into the world of research.
Launched in 1995, UROP helps about 2,000 undergraduates each year from all of UCI’s schools and disciplines learn how to write proposals, plan their project or creative activity, analyze data and finally present their results at the annual UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium. There are schoolbased research programs across campus, but as a unit within the Division of Undergraduate Education, UROP is the only campuswide entity that expressly supports undergraduate research.
As founding director, Shokair is UROP’s guiding light and energy. “Said works tirelessly to provide UCI undergraduates with a rewarding research experience,” says Dean of Undergraduate Education Meredith Lee. “He is highly ambitious, and it’s all for the students and the program.”
Shokair came to the United States from Syria in 1984, earning his degree in electrical engineering from UCI in 1990. He has championed the development of an undergraduate research program that receives accolades in the UC system and beyond.
UROP staff ensure that each student researcher is mentored by a faculty member, sometimes with assistance from a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar. The experience imparts valuable early lessons in critical thinking, research methodology and an ethical code of conduct that is essential in the research process, explains Shokair. Students learn to work individually, or with a team of people who have different opinions and backgrounds. They also receive grant funding and academic credit for their research.
“UROP is blessed with strong faculty support,” says Shokair. “The credit goes to them and the students for making the undergraduate research experience a success. UROP simply facilitates the process.”
That process culminates in a professional conference each spring with a keynote speaker, oral and poster presentations, and performances. The 10th Annual UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium in May drew more than 500 student participants, joined by hundreds of faculty, students, parents and other guests who packed the Student Center and surrounding areas.
Yet the symposium is just one aspect of the work Shokair and his staff do year-round to involve students in research. In 1998 UROP debuted The UCI Undergraduate Research Journal that showcases student projects in a professional format. A campuswide faculty advisory board reviews all the projects, and fewer than a dozen a year are selected for publication. Additionally, a 10-week Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) began in 2001, attracting about 100 students each year.
UROP also provides students a list of more than 400 research opportunities at other universities, in private industry and at national laboratories. Staff help students apply for and succeed in those positions, as well. In total, UROP efforts cultivate what Shokair calls “a culture of research” that follows young investigators wherever their futures may lead.