UC Berkeley program allows undergraduate students to work with on-campus researchers

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According to Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program manager Stefanie Ebeling, URAP is the biggest campuswide program for undergraduate research.

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UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, or URAP, offers students a direct working line to research with faculty and other on-campus researchers, which many students said allowed them to explore their academic and professional interests.

According to program manager Stefanie Ebeling, URAP is the biggest campuswide program for undergraduate research. Created in 1991, it is also one of the earliest of its kind nationally and originally began with only 20 professors and 30 students. Now, it connects 350-400 mentors and 1,800-1,900 students per semester.

“As an apprentice, you can work on faculty research and learn advanced research skills, explore fields that interest you, and find out what it is like to be an academic at the world’s premier research institution,” the URAP website states. “Each semester, projects from a wide range of disciplines are open to new applicants.”

This fall, offerings range from projects in agriculture and anthropology to sociology and Spanish and Portuguese, including everything in between.

The application

Ebeling said due to fall instruction being remote, she expects even more students to apply to URAP than during a regular semester.

With most projects being virtual for the fall semester, the current number of available mentors is 313, as of press time, which is less than the typical number for a regular semester, and mentors have between one and four open projects. This could increase the number of applicants facing rejections from the program.

URAP research can be taken as a pass/no pass course for one to four units, which enables students to determine their own availability and schedule for the semester

Many students said they found the URAP application process fairly streamlined and simple, with which Ebeling agreed.

According to Ebeling, the available projects are posted to the URAP website approximately six weeks before the online application opens. Then, students have just under two weeks to complete it. For the fall semester, the projects were listed online in late July with the application opening Aug. 19. The deadline to apply was Aug. 31.

A portion of the application consists of personal information, including name, class standing, majors and GPA. Students are allowed to apply for projects under three individual mentors at most, although they can ultimately only work on one project.

Each individual application requires a list of coursework that is relevant to the research, along with a statement of interest.

Ebeling said the statements are meant for students to elaborate on who they are, why they are interested in specific projects and their past research experience. She recommended that applicants research the mentors and their departments or labs and show genuine interest and enthusiasm for the research project in their statements.

As a former URAP participant who has also applied multiple times, campus junior Taylor Worley said the URAP applications feel incomplete and only allow her to discuss certain portions of what she has done. She said she never knows the right combination of information to add, despite usually spending more than a weekend completing her application.

URAP participant and campus senior Robin Stewart agreed that the application can be daunting and that the hardest part is knowing what to write.

The undergraduates, however, are not left to face the application alone, according to Ebeling.

URAP offers information sessions during the week before the deadline, where both peer and student advisors help with the application and discuss their overall experiences with the program.

Campus sophomore and URAP participant Saffanat Sumra said these sessions and workshops helped her with the application and that she learned some very valuable tips.

Once the applications are submitted, they are made available to the mentors, according to Ebeling. Then, it is up to the mentors to reach out to students, schedule interviews and make their decisions.

Getting into and participating in URAP does not always come without complications, however.

Worley said she doubts that mentors read her application the majority of the time and that she has waited for rejection emails that never come. She also said her friend was once forced to schedule an interview with late notice, resulting in a conflict with one of her classes.

“She had to go because she couldn’t risk not getting the opportunity,” Worley said.

Some mentors also believe that applying to URAP may not be as accessible or straightforward as they believe it should be.

Classics associate professor and URAP mentor Kim Shelton believes that most students do not discover URAP until too late, often in their junior years. She said she wishes for incoming students to be more accurately informed about URAP.

Similarly, energy and resources associate professor Isha Ray, who is also a mentor, wants URAP to be made known to more students, especially first-generation undergraduates and those lacking research backgrounds.

Art history professor and URAP mentor Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby agreed and said URAP is less accessible for undergraduates who are not as financially privileged as some of their peers and may be unable to afford unpaid volunteer positions.

Though URAP does provide summer funding for some students on a nomination basis, Grigsby said it has become more competitive in recent years with more faculty participating in URAP, which is why she wants URAP participants to have some kind of work-study compensation.

The increase in competition for URAP research has not been limited solely to funding. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics URAP research projects are more competitive than humanities research projects, according to URAP participant and campus senior Chloe Akazawa.

After the decisions are made, URAP itself does not get involved again until the end of the semester, when students fill out evaluation reports for their mentors and mentors submit grades.

“So, we’re basically the connector,” Ebeling said. “We do a lot of reminding and probing and everything to both sides.”

Why URAP?

Ebeling believes students apply to URAP for many reasons. She said one is to discover “the reality of research” in specific fields and to take advantage of UC Berkeley’s reputation as a top-tier research institution.

Another is that students may wish to explore their interests, whether that be strictly connected to their academic careers or not.

Sumra echoed Ebeling’s sentiments and credited her own URAP experience with helping her navigate the health care industry.

She said she had to apply to URAP twice until she was selected for UCSF associate professor Jeff Belkora’s Patient Support Corps program, where she served as a waiting room intern in the neuro-oncology department. Her duties entailed interacting with patients and handling their paperwork.

“This specific URAP project, it taught me a lot of what actually goes on in a clinical role that you would otherwise not watch on videos or even read about in textbooks, because there are some basic etiquettes that … any person in the health care industry would have to follow, especially people in medicine,” Sumra said.

In contrast, campus senior Emily Kinnaman, a molecular and cell biology major who is also minoring in history, applied to her URAP project under Shelton because it was different than her other academic pursuits.

Under Shelton and through UC Berkeley’s Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology, she helps maintain a digital archive of artifacts excavated from a dig site in Greece, using Adobe Illustrator to create digital copies of the artifacts.

Similarly, campus sophomore Allira Bellawala, another one of Shelton’s URAP students, is a cognitive science and media studies double major but applied to pursue her personal interest in the classics field.

“It’s been so cool to learn about all the different kinds of artifacts and the history behind it, and it’s been awesome for me to be able to step outside of what cognitive science is,” Bellawala said. “While I was actually doing it, I found a lot that can apply to what I actually want to do with my cog sci and media studies degree.”

Additionally, according to Ebeling, many students also apply to URAP with the desire of finding “a niche on this sizeable campus” and hope to work more closely with professors despite UC Berkeley’s large student-to-professor ratio.

Akazawa, who worked under Grigsby during her time in URAP, credited the program with allowing her to grow comfortable with the professor, whom she had first found “so intimidating and scary” when she was enrolled in one of Grigsby’s courses prior to working in the URAP program.

Campus senior Dane Reeb said Grigsby advised him on pursuing professional endeavors and on how to conduct himself in academic and professional settings when he worked on her URAP project.

“Research gave me the chance to work one-on-one with Professor Shelton. I work with her two days a week for the most part, but we’d have conversations,” Bellawala said. “She worked with me. It was never far away. Her office was down the hall, really.”

It is not just professors that URAP students are able to form connections with, however.

Often, URAP professors take on several undergraduates at once or have some continuing URAP students.

Thus, many participants find themselves working in small teams or in close proximity to other students. Essentially, they find that URAP works quite well for networking and increasing collaborative and communicative skills.

Additionally, some URAP projects open students up to unique and immersive experiences that allow them to venture outside of Berkeley.

According to Bellawala, Shelton takes some of her research assistants and graduate students to her archaeological site in Greece in the summers, during which they work for many weeks.

“It was really cool to be able to live in a different country, and we were there for five weeks, so really got to experience it,” Kinnaman said. “Also working on the excavation, it definitely gave me an appreciation for how we understand and gain historical knowledge.”

Bellawala was set to go this summer, but her trip was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not every URAP participant shares Kinnaman’s perception of the program, and URAP experiences vary.

Worley described her time in the program as “really disappointing” when she worked on a project through the Haas School of Business. She said she lost contact with her mentor, a graduate student, halfway through the semester and received limited follow-up from her supervising professor and URAP.

Additionally, Worley said URAP should not be depended on solely for research experience and advises students to “just use it for practice.

In a similar vein, campus senior Christina Kearny, who participated in a URAP project last year, found that it ended up “being a little too unstructured” for her but appreciated the room she was given to be creative and take initiative.

The mentors

Many professors involved with URAP advocate for the program and said they appreciate the undergraduate assistance they receive.

Ray, who has been a mentor for several URAP projects over 15 years, said she was introduced to the program by a senior colleague soon after her arrival at UC Berkeley.

One of Ray’s earlier projects involved her URAP students studying whether a majority of communities of color were served by a specific water system.

More recently, her URAP students helped translate several articles and journals from Chinese to English for work that Ray and her postdoctoral student were doing on water quality in rural China.

Similarly, Grigsby has been involved with URAP since almost immediately after she was hired in 1995 and estimated that she has had about 45 URAP students work with her thus far. Many of her URAP students have contributed to researching and compiling bibliographies. 

Ray believes the research projects are a great way for students to work closely with individual professors and their postdoctoral or graduate students, which she said also benefits professors.

“It’s a great experience for the professor if they get a really good student keen to learn, keen to work outside of their comfort zone and push the boundaries and really kind of excited about doing a mature, valuable piece of research in the world or in the field,” Ray said.

In addition, Shelton recommended URAP for undergraduate students “to get their feet wet” in research in academic fields they are interested in or might consider careers in.

When Shelton selects her URAP students, she looks more for genuine interest in the research rather than specific skills, although she mentioned that students having some experience could be a plus for her work.

For Ray, the skill sets she searches for in students vary from project to project, but she emphasizes the importance of her URAP students learning quickly and having a good reason for wanting to work on the project.

She said she also looks for students who are able to dedicate time and mental energy to the project because “research needs time,” as does the student to build up valuable skills they might want for future careers.

Reflections on the program

Despite some complications with URAP, many students and mentors remain appreciative of the program.

When considering a job offer from Yale University, Grigsby said she questioned whether the university had a program similar to URAP, which she regards as “invaluable” to her publications.

Kearny said she makes a point to tout URAP as one of the perks of UC Berkeley and its research whenever she gives tours as a student ambassador.

Berkeley is the top public research university in the world, and you should take advantage of these opportunities while you can,” Kearny said in an email. “Being a Berkeley researcher sounds, and is, impressive. Your time at Berkeley will not last forever, so make sure to grab these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

Contact Tarunika Kapoor at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tkapoor_dc.