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Summer Research Opportunities Program helps students prepare for graduate school

Participants have access to labs and mentors, as well as professional development

Summer research opportunities, which provide undergraduate students access to lab experiences and faculty mentoring, can be unreachable for some due to limited research opportunities at their home institutions or financial constraints. This is something that Mary Stromberger, vice provost and dean for graduate education at The Ohio State University, experienced herself. Stromberger has a bachelor’s degree in biology and microbiology, as well as both a master’s and a doctorate in soil science.

“I was a first-generation, Pell-Grant-eligible student,” she said. “I was in a situation where I had to work to pay for my education, so I probably said to myself, ‘I can’t do that.’”

Mary StrombergerNow, Stromberger leads Ohio State’s chapter of the Big Ten Academic Alliance’s Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP). SROP enables students from underrepresented backgrounds to explore graduate study and academic careers, all with deeply reduced financial costs. Participants conduct research with a faculty mentor on a topic of mutual interest and participate in activities crucial to preparation for graduate school, including a professional development series.  

SROP covers the costs of travel, housing and dining for each student. Participants also receive a $5,000 stipend for their work. This funding allows students to focus on their research all summer – the program lasts nine weeks.

Research experience is crucial for graduate school applications.

“These students might be attending smaller universities that don’t have the same research opportunities,” Stromberger said. “In order to gain research experience that makes them competitive for graduate school, they need to go elsewhere. And that’s what SROP was designed for, bringing students to Big Ten schools [with larger research facilities].”

“I was interested in Ohio State University because, since day one, I knew that this institution offered the best opportunity to become the science professional I want to be,” said Paola Camacho, who studied entomology through SROP at the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences’ Wooster campus. In addition to helping with her specific research, the skills Camacho developed over the summer are transferable, she said.

“It is knowledge that can be applied to different areas by coming up with new projects that may have applications in the scientific world,” she said.

Beyond the work itself, SROP students often find a community that they have not experienced in other programs.

“What sparked my interest in SROP was not only the idea of conducting research over the summer, but being part of a cohort of individuals that look like me and share a passion for research across different disciplines,” said Jordyn Singleton, whose research at the College of Medicine focused on spinal cord injury and gut dysbiosis, an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.

“I have had nothing but great experiences with previous research programs,” she added, “but most of these spaces have lacked the racial representation I desired in these research spaces.”

Welcoming students from a variety of backgrounds is a key part of the program.

When Stromberger was in college, the highest goal she had for herself was an undergraduate degree. Once she’d achieved that she wasn’t sure what her options were.

“I did not know anyone who had gone to graduate school. I had no peers, no mentors,” she said. “The experience these students had this summer has shown them that they can do research. They can build things. They can analyze data. They can present their research. It’s such a confidence builder.”

SROP shows students what academic futures are possible and gives them the tools to reach for them, Stromberger said.

“The students take giant leaps in being prepared for graduate school,” she said. “They can see themselves in graduate school. I hope they’ll come to Ohio State but even if they go somewhere else, this has transformed their lives.”

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