Undergraduates from underrepresented groups gain research skills and career aspirations through summer research fellowship

Advances in Physiology Education / September 2020

Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) have proven to be one of the most valuable approaches to increasing the number of underrepresented students earning degrees in STEM fields. However, there are many questions about how these impacts occur. Improving grades, experiencing laboratory work, and working with research staff are important components, but developing a “science identity” is integral to this process. In this qualitative study, interviews with 25 past summer research fellows who are members of groups underrepresented in STEM (underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities, first-generation college, and persons with financial or social disadvantages) provide insights into this process. The conversations validate that their summer research experiences helped them attain each of the program objectives, but their experiences differed, in part, based on their prior research experiences. Their narratives emphasized the strong impact that the program had on skills (e.g., research design, data analysis and presentation, time management/organization, writing, speaking, network development, math/statistics), confidence, motivation, and research career aspirations. As fellows learned more about research, they saw its relationship to medicine, and many integrated basic or clinical research into their career plans. Three central themes resulted from the discussions: the need to customize program goals for diverse participants, the pivotal role of the research mentor-student relationship, and the powerful impact of participating in a national scientific meeting. Recommendations for URE programs are proposed.