Growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, Cesar Martinez pored over articles in Nature and lit up in his high school AP Biology class. He came to UW-Madison with a strong interest in science and was delighted to discover that he could take part in research as an undergraduate, thanks to the Undergraduate Research Scholars program in L&S.

As a freshman, Martinez worked in a neuroscience lab, studying vesicle trafficking. He later investigated the impact of stroke on a molecular level and is currently probing the epigenetic role of a protein with a stem cell researcher.

While different in focus, these three research opportunities helped Martinez recognize that he enjoys the processes of gathering information and culling different perspectives — the steps that take place before he dons a lab coat.

“The main thing is putting things together,” says the senior majoring in neurobiology and French. It’s an important realization, as he applies to medical school and begins to weigh career options in health care. 

Research Leads to Self-Discovery

Such fine-tuning of skills and interests happens regularly with participants of Undergraduate Research Scholars, a program that connects first- and second-year students with research opportunities and thought-provoking discussions that put their study into a broader context. 

The program, which started in the late 1990s, allows students earn credit while gaining research experience and interacting with faculty, and it connects them with fellow participants and peer mentors in weekly group meetings.

“The idea was to create a campus-wide program for early undergraduates to be involved in the research and creative work of faculty and staff,” says director Amy Sloane. “And also to have a peer teaching, learning and mentoring component, to learn from peers who have had that research experience.” 

Contributing to groundbreaking work at one of the country’s top research universities is exciting — and, indeed, some students come to UW-Madison partly for that experience, Sloane says.

Right now, URS students are working on the Ice Cube project, analyzing literature from a 20th-century African American playwright and researching bilingual Spanish students, among other fascinating pursuits.

Yet Sloane believes it’s the skills that come with research — delving deep into a project, working collaboratively, solving problems across disciplines — that have the greatest impact on students.

“I tell them, ‘I’m not interested in you becoming a technician, but a thinker,’” she says. 

Faculty Benefit, Too

In the fall of 2014, Gloria Mari-Beffa, chair of the math department, took on three URS students to help her solve a problem that she intended to use in a paper. She devoted two hours a week throughout the semester to meet with the undergrads — who hailed from Vietnam, Maryland and Neenah, Wisconsin — and teach them proper research techniques.

In the spring semester, she let them loose on finding how to measure the way polygons curve in Lorentzian geometry.

“They did solve it,” she says. “They spent a lot of time and they were really into it.”

Mari-Beffa learned something, too. “I wanted to understand that type of geometry, so it was really useful to me. And those two hours a week to meet with them, to just do math — to me, it was like the best part of my year,” she says.

Broader impacts abound as well. When students have positive experiences with a department, they may consider it for a major, Sloane says. That can increase enrollment in a department and spur careers in the field. And because more than half of URS students come from groups historically underrepresented in higher education, these partnerships can also foster inclusion.

“It’s a way for faculty to mentor students traditionally underrepresented in higher education and help cultivate a more diverse community of scholars,” Sloane says.

​Digging into the URS experience

During the 2014-2015 academic year, I was involved in a geography research project with URS. I researched soil from northern Minnesota under the mentorship of Professor Joe Mason. The experience taught me how multifaceted and interdisciplinary research is. Although I was doing research in geography, I was using skills from other many other STEM fields. In addition, I learned the value of patience and precision.

Now, I love being a fellow because I get to create an atmosphere conducive to learning and critical thinking among my scholars in my own way. Sometimes seminar takes unexpected turns from what we (my co-fellow and I) planned, but I find seminar is more meaningful when we let the conversation take its natural course. 

 – Hawa Keita, a junior from Brooklyn, New York, who’s majoring in chemistry

Analyzing Impact

Each week, URS students come together in small groups led by a pair of fellows, typically juniors or seniors who have been through the program. These hour-long gatherings bring students out of their respective research endeavors to reflect on their work and talk about the world beyond campus.

“Every week, URS asks students to think seriously and engage with each other and challenge each other’s ideas in an academic way,” Sloane says.

For Martinez, who is now a URS fellow, these peer interactions have been as significant as the research in shaping his UW experience. He appreciates the open discussions as a counterpart to the typical college course in which a professor lectures to students.

After every discussion, students come up to ask about classes, graduate school and more — just as Martinez did as an underclassman. “They know that we’ve been through it and they respect our opinion,” he says.

This mentoring, paired with the research opportunities and the encouragement to think broadly and critically, can be life-changing for students.

“They start developing a more purposeful and intentional path for their education,” Sloane says. “They have a better sense of clarity in the decisions they’re going to be facing about jobs, internships and other opportunities. They think, what is the larger effect on this world I want to make?”