by Kristina Beatty

This fall, MSU’s Pathway to Research Program (PTR) was selected to receive a grant from the Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion’s Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant Program to provide funding opportunities for students participating in the Pathways to Research program. This funding will assist PTR in removing barriers students face when pursuing research opportunities, particularly historically excluded and marginalized populations.

The Pathway to Research Program is a mentor-facilitated program that guides students through the process of identifying and securing a research mentor. First piloted in the summer of 2021, PTR is a three-week intensive program that assists students in:

  • Identifying their interest areas for research and scholarship
  • Selecting possible research mentors to pursue those interest areas
  • Preparing students for contacting and interviewing with mentors with the goal of securing a research position

The program is offered several times throughout the academic year—twice in the fall, twice in the spring and once over the summer. All students, regardless of major or program, are eligible to apply to participate. “One of the things we’ve been very intentional about with participation is recognizing where the data shows we are not capturing or engaging students,” said Mordecai Harvey, assistant director of Undergraduate Research and PTR program director. “While we’re recruiting and getting the program application in front of students, we’re very intentional about engaging those populations we aren’t seeing participating in research as much, so transfer, first-generation and international students, but also historically excluded and minoritized groups like Black and Latino men.”

For many students, while there is a desire and frequently a need to secure a research position, there are often several barriers to their success. “Research is very personal,” explained Korine Wawrzynski, assistant dean for Academic Initiatives and director for Undergraduate Research, “so for faculty to engage undergraduates in their research, it’s a big commitment. It can be very challenging for an undergraduate student to approach a faculty member, and that’s where a lot of our students are intimidated, or they don’t know how to narrow down research interests.”

But there is very often a financial barrier that prevents many students from pursuing high-impact research opportunities. “It can be really tough for students to just volunteer for a research position,” Wawrzynski clarified, “during the fall or spring semesters, students spend between 10 to 15 hours on a research experience. Combining 15 credit hours plus 10 to 15 hours of volunteering can be a lot to take on for a student without funding.” For many students, other paid opportunities, often outside of research, take precedence.

The PTR program works to directly address these barriers to students. It provides a highly supportive space for students to tackle the challenges of finding a research mentor, with peer mentors who provide accountability, advice, feedback and tools for success. With this one-on-one support, students learn how to craft important emails to faculty members, understand how to articulate their research interests, and in some cases, learn how to overcome rejection or non-responses from possible research mentors.

With the Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant, the PTR program will be able to address some of the financial barriers students face. The CIEG, “provides funding to colleges, as well as other academic and administrative units, individuals, and groups, to engage in efforts that will enhance the overall learning, living and working environment for students, faculty and staff at MSU.” The program specifically asks for grant proposals that align with MSU’s mission and values as well as the institutional priorities surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion. “Because we want to pull in students that we don’t typically see based on our program data, so the historically marginalized or underrepresented students, it really informed a lot of the reasons we wanted to pursue this grant that recognizes efforts like this,” Harvey said.

With access to the funds granted by the CIEG program, PTR plans to provide paid research opportunities for at least six students the summer of 2023. And because of PTR’s intentional focus on recruiting students who are from historically marginalized populations, not only will the funds advance MSU’s mission of conducting world-class research, but it will also align with MSU’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion and provide MSU with more diverse research participation and involvement.

Harvey is excited at the current success rate of the program. In the 2021 – 2022 academic year cohort of students, 72% of those participating in the program successfully secured a research position (88/121), with 47% of those positions going to historically excluded populations. Participation in the program is also increasing, and Harvey is aiming for a similar success rate for students participating this academic year. “I’m excited about our growth and capacity to serve students. Interest was high this past fall and we came close to having to waitlist students, but we were ultimately able to serve all students who applied. I’d like to continue to see our participation increase,” Harvey noted when speaking on the future of PTR. “I’m also excited about the program sustaining itself – we’ve had students complete the program and come back asking to take on a role as an advisor for students to help other students succeed.”

And for PTR, it’s what the students say that provide the biggest gauge of success, “After every session we complete of the program, we do a reflection session with the goal in mind of pulling out themes and seeing what students are saying,” explained Harvey. For students participating this past spring, motivation, confidence, discovery, community, preparation and fear were some of the biggest themes. And in one student’s words, “I learned that I can accomplish things I didn’t know were possible if I open up and openly ask questions.”

Visit the Pathway to Research webpage to learn more about the program and how students can get involved.