Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) – Empowering Students to Make an Impact Beyond the Classroom

Resource Spotlight
November 21, 2017 By Hai Truong

Said Shokair was supposed to be a doctor. His high school test scores qualified him for medical school, which he entered at age 17 in his native Syria. But six months later, after chatting with an uncle who was a pediatric cardiologist at UCLA, he decided to move to Southern California and enroll at UCI, where he eventually gravitated towards electrical engineering.

Several thousand UCI students and alumni have good reason to celebrate that serendipitous about-face; Shokair exposed them to an education they might not have otherwise experienced.

After graduating in 1990, Shokair began working with students at his alma mater. At first, he was a math counselor, a mentor for underrepresented students, and a grant writer/curriculum developer. Then, in 1994, he helped craft the proposal that redirected his career and, possibly, the careers of a myriad of UCI students who learned that the best education is often found in the world outside of their textbooks.

As founding director of UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Shokair has spent more than two decades designing efforts to get students out of the classroom and into the laboratory or field for hands-on experience.

For students in UROP, academic silos are verboten; collaboration is key. Shokair urges them to get acquainted–become familiar with each other’s lexicons and keep their biases at bay. His mantras are: practice personal responsibility, exceed expectations, take the initiative, and learn from failure. “Teaching students these real-world values is extremely important,” he says.

From an international perspective, Shokair recently launched the International Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (I-SURF). He has also collaborated as a bridge between international universities and UCI to explore topics such as entrepreneurship. Earlier this year, UROP and Applied Innovation came together for the UCI Global Innovators Experience, hosting a group of students from universities in South Korea for a winter residence program. The program mission was to provide students with an immersive learning experience that exposed them to business principles, innovative practices, and culture in the United States.

On the topic of faculty and student collaboration, Shokair sees a natural pipeline of innovation between UROP and Applied Innovation’s mission to help translate technology from the lab to the outside world to make a wider impact. “With over 450 faculty mentors across all UROP programs, we’re able to cultivate meaningful relationships that can last a lifetime as students progress through their careers. Within this collaborative ecosystem, we want to equip both undergraduate and graduate students with projects that give them the hands-on experience needed for their future–whether that involves working for a company, conducting research, or becoming an entrepreneur and launching a startup,” Shokair says.

In light of Wayfinder startup Syntr Health Technologies’ recent award of $300,000 from the National Institutes of Health, Shokair recalled his first encounter with the company’s CEO and co-founder Ahmed Zobi. “Ahmed told me he first heard me speak at a Discover UCI event even before he started here as an undergraduate. He shared with me that my talk on how to work on your interests and not be a robot is what got him excited to get into research. Years later, continuing to improve on what began as an undergraduate project through UROP, he is applying what he has learned in the lab to solve very important real world problems for patients with diabetes through a company he has built with people he met here at UCI. This is what education in a research university should be about, giving them tools, experience, and, ultimately, the confidence to make an impact afterward,” Shokair says.

Wherever their futures take them, Shokair believes student researchers are likely to be successful after they graduate. “This program has shortened their learning curve and helped them engage the world outside academia in a more productive way,” he says.

He wants to ensure that students have considered their options. Shokair likes to use the metaphor of the proper angle for launching a rocket to get maximum range. “If you launch it at 0 degrees, it will blow your foot off. If you launch it at 90 degrees, it will come down on your head,” he tells students, usually to peals of laughter. “The optimum angle is 45 degrees. Your job is to set up the optimum launching angle for your career. If you haven’t done that already, start now.”

Inspired by Shokair’s efforts, the following startups have emerged from projects recently supported by UROP and are currently in Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder Incubator program:

  • BrainCheck – Easy-to-use interactive tests to immediately assess users’ brain health.
  • Voxel – 3D brain visualization and modeling to aid surgical planning for treatment of epilepsy.
  • Ycrutch – Ergonomic crutch device for improved support and safety.
  • Syntr Health Technologies – Therapeutic device that uses stem cells to treat diabetic foot ulcers at the point of care.
  • Closed Loop Plastics – Converting municipal plastic waste into useful 3D printing and supply chains.

To learn more about UROP, visit http://www.urop.uci.edu/.

This story was written in collaboration with Calit2 with sections from a story written by Anna Lynn Spitzer http://www.calit2.net/newsroom/article.php?id=2339.