Discovering Passion Through Academic Research

At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), excellence in research is one of the major cornerstones of campus culture. Even amidst a global pandemic, UCI continues to uphold its commitment to introducing its student body to the world of academic research. 

Through programs such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), students across all schools and disciplines are encouraged to collaborate with faculty members and pursue their own research and creative projects. With the goal of integrating the undergraduate population into UCI’s research culture, UROP creates opportunities for students to connect with faculty members, develop research and professional skills, apply for funding, and present and publish their work.

As UROP’s Director Said Shokair explains,

We believe that engaging in the research process is one of the best ways for students to discover their interests and proceed with confidence into their future. We encourage all UCI students to get involved in research because it helps them gain valuable skills that they can apply regardless of the type of profession or academic undertakings they wish to pursue after graduation.

For some students, exposure to UROP and the possibilities of academic research comes early in their college career. This was the case for fourth-year psychology major and management minor Karyssa Courey. Karyssa first recalls hearing about UROP during her freshman year when she began researching with Dr. Donald Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Sciences. As the faculty recipient of the School of Social Sciences Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research in 2002, a member of UROP’s Faculty Advisory Board from 1995-2007, and UROP Faculty Mentor of the Month in December of 2009, Dr. Hoffman was well acquainted with all the fantastic opportunities that UROP could offer students.

The following year, Karyssa applied for UROP and was also accepted into the Honors Program in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, an advanced educational and research program for outstanding undergraduate students. Through one of her classes, she connected with Dr. Michael Lee, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, and joined his lab. That quarter, she submitted a UROP proposal for “Mate Selection as a Full Information Optimal Stopping Problem in a Changing Environment” with Dr. Lee as her faculty mentor.

Following her first UROP proposal, Karyssa also received funding to continue her research through UROP’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). Students who successfully become SURP Fellows receive a stipend from UROP to support the time and effort they invest in their research projects over Summer. This research project with Professor Michael Lee culminated in a research article recently published in the “Computational Brain & Behavior” academic journal.  

Karyssa is now working on another research project through UROP. She describes, “I am currently researching student evaluations of teaching at UCI. More specifically, we are looking at the individual response styles as well as comparing how participants and students use different types of scales to evaluate professors.”

This project, titled “What’s on the scale? An examination of different evaluation scales and their effects on biases in ratings of professors,” was also approved for SURP funding last week.

Karyssa notes that working with UROP has been beneficial in several ways. Not only has it allowed her to connect with faculty and challenged her to think more critically, but it has also provided her additional opportunities.

“I was the Research Coordinator for Students for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP),” she says. “Without my experience doing research and earning grant funding, I would not have held this position.” During her time as Research Coordinator, Karyssa led two UROP projects that both received grant funding. She has since gone on to become President of the SIOP.

When asked if she would advise other students to get involved with UROP, Karyssa explains she has already recommended the program to other students in SIOP. She encourages other students to check out UROP and reminds them not to be afraid of speaking to professors and pursuing a research topic that interests them.

One of the things that Karyssa emphasizes is that her experience with UROP has helped her decide what she wants to do in the future. After graduating from UCI, Karyssa has big plans to continue research and earn her Ph.D. in Psychology. While the experience she gained working with UROP has helped to make this goal possible, what’s more important to Karyssa is that it helped her discover her true passions.

“Conducting research projects with the support of UROP and my advisor, Professor Lee, has allowed me to discover my passion for research, conducting experiments, seeing projects through, analyzing results, and sharing my findings with others,” she explains. “I have grown so much, and I wouldn’t have been able to develop as a researcher if I hadn’t taken that first step.”

If you are a UCI student that is interested in learning more about UROP and how the program can help you explore the world of academic research, then visit UROP’s website here or reach out to the UROP team at urop@uci.edu.