From the moment Socrates inspired Plato, a close mentoring relationship has been at the heart of the educational ideal. But for today’s students, whose undergraduate existence is often marked by long hours in large lecture halls, that ideal can be as fleeting and dimly perceived as the shadows in Plato’s allegorical cave.

While UCI is not immune to large classes for certain offerings, it does provide extraordinary – and well-recognized – opportunities for independent projects outside the classroom that closely connect undergraduates with faculty. In addition to sowing the seeds of collaboration, these projects sharpen students’ skills, amplify passions for learning and shape career paths. And while such opportunities exist across campus – in honors seminars, senior thesis projects, internships and field studies – there is no greater resource than UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. This flexible, student-focused endeavor supports research partnerships with both faculty involvement and university resources. The projects defy generalization, and so, too, do the research topics.

For example, a student may decide to choreograph a dance performance, or analyze the usefulness of emergency room imaging technologies. From music to politics, from the vast abstractions of philosophy to the physical properties of the smallest particle, students in the program engage in research, discovery and, ultimately, self-discovery.

“I had an interest in tying together my science background and my newly developed interest in law,” says Star Lopez, a political science major who, with two other students and faculty advisers Caesar Sereseres and Sherilyn Sellgren, examined the American phenomenon of expert court testimony.

“Coming into the project, I hoped my research would make me more competitive for graduate school,” Lopez acknowledges. “Little did I know that was the least of the benefits. I learned important leadership skills and treasure the lasting relationships I have formed with my co-investigators and faculty advisers.”

“The undergraduate research experience allows students to get to know faculty members, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in a way that can never happen in large classes,” says Susan Bryant, dean of the School of Biological Sciences. She proudly notes that 65 percent of all biological science majors who graduated in 2003 participated in UROP.

Much like the real world of research, the program offers grants and stipends to support students’ work. In 2002-03, more than 500 UCI undergrads received UROP grants to pursue their research with faculty guidance. The maximum grant was $1,000, with a $3,000 summer stipend available. Most students presented their findings at the campus symposium held each spring. Eight won the additional honor of having their findings published in The UCI Undergraduate Research Journal – widely recognized as the gold standard among such publications in the
UC system.

The students are proud of what the experience has enabled them to accomplish outside of regular courses.

“You never realize just how much you can handle until you throw 20 hours of research a week into an already busy schedule,” says neurobiology major Ted Yanagihara. “I’ve learned as much from the research as from my classes.”

Information and computer science major Ping Chen echoes that sentiment. “UROP enables you to know a field in much greater depth than is possible in any 10-week course,” he says.

And then there is the sense of validation a student receives. “When UROP supports your idea, no matter how crazy it might seem, it’s incredibly encouraging,” says dance major Dorothy Chang, whose project involved organizing the experimental Bare Bones Dance Theater.

For Said Shokair, director of UROP since its founding in 1995, these comments are music to his ears. “This is the beauty of what we have here at UCI – a culture committed to undergraduate research at the departmental, school and campuswide levels.”

“UROP truly is a jewel in UCI’s crown,” says Robert Newsom, acting dean of undergraduate education. “It capitalizes on our two greatest resources: our highly selective undergraduate program and our distinguished research faculty.”

Though the program prides itself on putting students first, the experience can be very gratifying for the faculty mentors. Richard Robertson, professor and chair of anatomy and neurobiology, says, “We are, after all, a research university – not a research institute. Teaching, and especially the one-on-one mentoring of under-graduate students, is one of the most important and rewarding parts of my job.”