Using tiny electrical shocks and a miniature maze, one undergraduate trained fruit flies as part of an experiment to test cinnamon’s effects on Alzheimer’s disease.

Another student converted a Kodak slide projector and a digital camera into the beginnings of what became a high-tech medical device company.

A third toiled with fellow classmates to perfect a video game in which blobs of food tumble through a cartoon intestine while players zap the morsels with enzyme guns.

These projects and thousands more are part of UCI’s innovative Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which funnels nearly $1 million a year in grants and fellowships to about 2,500 students working on academic investigations and creative ventures under the guidance of faculty mentors. Open to all majors, the program aims to give undergrads a taste of UCI’s research culture by showing them how to write proposals, analyze data and exhibit their results at an annual symposium.

Founded in 1995, UROP has inspired similar efforts at other colleges. It has spawned companies, altered career paths and imparted valuable lessons.

“The benefits go far beyond the knowledge gained from the projects themselves,” says UROP director Said Shokair. “The purpose of this program is to transform students, to expand their minds and to make them more competitive in whatever they decide to do in the future. Those who participate develop skills – critical analysis, problem-solving, project management, communication, etc. – that they use throughout their lives.”

They also explore a fascinating galaxy of topics.

Over the past year, UROP research has ranged from “The Psychology of Trash” to “Detection of Enamel Demineralization Using Autofluorescence Imaging.” Student projects also included a comedy festival, a waterproof orthopedic cast, invisibility stickers that mimic the camouflage abilities of squid, snakebite anti-venom and a look at how learning Italian can help singers.

A Coat With a Brain

In a UCI workshop filled with dangling wires and strange machinery, a team of mechanical engineering majors started off wanting to build a real-life Iron Man suit but eventually devised something more down-to-earth: a robotic jacket that could help athletes recover from shoulder and elbow injuries.

“It makes your arm feel weightless, which reduces pain and improves mobility during rehabilitation exercises,” says senior Alexander Alvara, who co-developed the coat with three classmates – Mark Jakovljevic, Elena Vazquez and Juan Lopez – under the supervision of faculty mentor David Reinkensmeyer, professor of mechanical & aerospace engineering, anatomy & neurobiology and biomedical engineering.

Alvara and his fellow team members – all transfer students from Pasadena City College – brainstormed their antigravity jacket concept in the summer of 2015. The idea was to create an affordable and lightweight home alternative to the complex rehab machines used by some physical therapy centers. Instead of gears and motors, their rubber-infused prototype employs “soft robotics” – belts, straps and thermoplastic components – to redirect weight and pressure away from injured joints.

“We’re not fashion designers,” Alvara concedes, but the final product should resemble a regular jacket.

Make that a regular jacket with a brain. It’s lined with electronic sensors that monitor muscle strain and range of motion during therapy exercises, then forward the data via Bluetooth and a smartphone app to a doctor’s office. The students also wired a batting glove to track the wearer’s lifting ability.

“UROP and the Campuswide Honors Program helped me find a career path I didn’t expect. … I am so grateful.”

As the patient progresses, the level of weightlessness provided by the jacket can be adjusted, Alvara notes. The coat could also someday lighten the load for workers who do a lot of hoisting, he says.

The next steps for the patent-pending jacket include adding a stylish fabric shell that hides the robotics, testing everything in clinical trials, seeking investors and – if all goes well – bringing it to market.

In May, Alvara and his colleagues unveiled their work in progress at UCI’s 23rd annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, a daylong event at which UROP participants formally present their scientific studies, artistic endeavors and inventions. Think of it as show and tell for the college set.

Lights, Camera … Contraption

The symposium can also serve as a springboard. Each year, several projects are selected for publication in the UCI Undergraduate Research Journal. Others spark job offers, internships or even full-blown companies.

In 2001, physics major David Cuccia and postdoc Frederic Bevilacqua – a jazz pianist and biomedical optics specialist at UCI’s Beckman Laser Institute – began tinkering with a slide projector and a digital camera to create a tool that can see beneath the surface of human skin to analyze tissue health. Nicknamed “a thousand points of light,” the technology was showcased by Cuccia at UROP’s 2002 symposium. He continued refining the concept as a graduate student at UCI and, after earning a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, formed Modulated Imaging Inc. to market the invention. The Irvine-based firm has hired four additional UCI grads and pumped $1 million back into the campus for research programs, Cuccia says.

“UROP and the Campuswide Honors Program helped me find a career path I didn’t expect,” he says. “But I truly love it, and I am so grateful.”

Similar success stories abound.

One of UROP’s longest-running enterprises is “Down With Food,” an educational video game for kids that takes place inside the human digestive tract. Created in 2011 under the auspices of UCI’s Multidisciplinary Design Program (a joint venture of UROP and the California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology), it has been handed off like a relay baton to an ever-changing cast of students trained in digital arts, English, global cultures, psychology, computer science and more.

“This project creates an environment that encourages its members to become innovators,” says James Gamboa, who graduated after the game’s inaugural year and instantly parlayed his involvement into a job as a software engineer.

Two other “Down With Food” veterans presented a paper about their experience at a national learning game conference three years ago in Wisconsin. The talk was a smash hit, says faculty adviser AnneMarie Conley, an assistant professor of education: “People were standing along the walls, sitting on the floor; there was no room left. … [And] it’s almost unheard-of for undergraduates to have papers accepted at this conference.”

Some UROP students delve into topics ripped from today’s headlines, such as immigration, autism, school violence, even El Niño. Senior Belen Cairo, an Earth system science and urban studies double major, is exploring the effects of climate change and El Niño on marine phytoplankton off the coast of Newport Beach. With a red bucket tied to a rope, she collects specimens three times a week, stores them in an ice chest and then analyzes the organisms in the UCI lab of faculty mentor Katherine Mackey, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Earth System Science. Cairo is scheduled to present her findings in October at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos & Native Americans in Science conference.

Another headline-related project follows up on studies showing that cinnamon may improve memory and learning. Pharmaceutical sciences major Hanh Pham is tinkering with fruit flies and a maze to narrow down which compounds in the spice might be most effective.

National Role Model

Thanks largely to UROP, “close to 50 percent of all students graduating from UCI in recent years have participated in independent or group research projects,” says program director Shokair.

That track record has spurred considerable admiration and attracted federal funding. “We’ve been a national model for centralized undergraduate research programs,” he says. “And we’ve consulted with and assisted four other UC campuses launching similar ventures.”

A key factor behind the success of UCI’s endeavor is Shokair himself. With his no-holds-barred style and infectious energy, UROP’s guiding light prods, chastises, praises and challenges his young charges.

Alumnus Jordan Sinclair, a software designer and developer, says Shokair’s approach was the perfect antidote to a bout of career indecision: “He asked me the right questions, the hard questions. He saw right through the BS, forcing some serious introspection.”

Born in Syria, Shokair graduated from UCI in 1990 with a degree in electrical engineering. After working as a math counselor on campus, he helped craft the proposal for what is now UROP and became its founding director.

From the beginning, he’s made it his mission to shake up how people learn. “For too long, we have taught students how to memorize, how to master standardized tests,” Shokair says. “We condition them to focus on the process, to wait to be taught.”

UROP’s goal, he says, is to shift undergraduates “from dependent learners to independent learners.”

At a Glance: UROP 2015-16

  • Students: 2,500
  • Grants: Nearly $1 million
    (not including funding from federal agencies)
  • Faculty mentors: 450
  • Research projects showcased at annual symposium: 711
  • Research projects since 1995 founding: 15,000
  • Alumni: 20,000

Anna Lynn Spitzer contributed to this story.

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of UCI Magazine