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Undergraduate Research Program Increases Student Competitiveness

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Graduate schools and residency programs receive hundreds of applications each year for acceptance. According to Dr. Peter Koulen, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine Professor of Ophthalmology and Basic Medical Science, many of the students applying for these programs are the best and brightest in their graduating classes, and it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate students solely based upon their resumes and applications for enrollment.

Noticing this increasing trend, faculty from the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences, and Schools of Biological Sciences, Medicine, Nursing and Health Studies, and Computing and Engineering developed Project ADVANCER (Academic Development Via Applied and Cutting Edge Research), a program that will place undergraduate and professional students from underrepresented minorities into cutting-edge research programs. Project ADVANCER was recently approved as one of Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer’s seven strategic funding initiatives

“We want to enable our students to show a track record in research,” said Koulen.

In the Project ADVANCER program, students will actively participate in research studies, alongside faculty mentors, with measurable outcomes. Koulen says that “actively participating” means students will be significant contributors in the research process and have their findings published in peer reviewed journals. Many of UMKC’s academic programs are already nationally recognized by accredited organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, and having this opportunity to actively participate in research makes UMKC students more competitive when they apply for jobs or post-graduate education opportunities within their fields of study.

Undergraduate research is not new to UMKC. The university already has mechanisms that support undergraduate research. Project ADVANCER, Koulen says, is another jewel in the crown.  So how does Project ADVANCER work? What makes it so different than other undergraduate research opportunities?

Students and faculty mentors will collaboratively develop an idea for a research project, draft a proposal for funding and submit their proposal to a committee of representatives from the five partnering schools. Standards for proposal reviews and approvals will be based upon the same criteria as the National Science Foundation’s student fellowship standards.

Synergism is the key principle the program committee wants to drive. From drafting to the proposal to the research process, the committee want to see equal contribution from the student and their faculty mentor.

“This process also gives students experience in proposal writing and enhances their presentation skills,” said Koulen, adding that it’s also good, healthy competition. Up to ten students from each of the five schools will be accepted into the program within its three-year timespan. Koulen says the committee will not admit ten students in the first year as they want to ensure they have the right students for this program.

The program committee will also provide a modest living stipend for students whose proposals are approved by the Project ADVANCER committee. The stipend is meant to alleviate the financial burden for working students so that they will be able to dive into their research without having to worry about juggling a part-time job on the side. The committee understands that being actively involved in research takes a lot of time and many students still need the resources necessary to sustain their primary needs.

Koulen says the committee tries to be as broad as possible in the types of research projects they are looking to approve because they don’t want students to be limited in their research experiences.

“A lot of employers and post-graduate programs look at how involved students were in research, and we want our students to be able to speak to the research experience they’ve had through this program and explain what the outcomes were,” said Koulen.

The committee plans to market the program heavily to students in the near future. They anticipate its first crop of students by the end of 2016 with hopes to have students in research labs by the spring.

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