ASU school awarded seed grants to develop immersive online undergraduate research opportunities

November 8, 2021

The Arizona State University School of Life Sciences was recently awarded three Online Undergraduate Research Scholars (OURS) program seed grants from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and EdPlus at ASU.

The grants will support targeted initiatives to increase research opportunities for undergraduate ASU Online students in the natural sciences, providing group-based research experiences for the 2022 spring, summer and fall sessions.  ASU Online School of Life Sciences students attend immersive research program Students from School of Life Sciences Lecturer Susan Holechek’s online general genetics course attend a four-day immersive research retreat on ASU’s Tempe campus.

“These new initiatives from the School of Life Sciences demonstrate the creativity and dedication of the faculty and staff to advance online student success,” said Kenro Kusumi, dean of natural sciences for The College. “The OURS seed-grant-funded efforts in science education and cancer evolution will open up new opportunities for research, allowing online students new avenues for professional development that will allow them to advance toward their future careers.”

Studies have shown that undergraduate research experiences are critical for students pursuing careers in medicine and graduate programs in STEM. 

However, research conducted by the ASU Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence faculty team has found that 52% of the online students enrolled in introductory biology courses had not heard of any research opportunities available remotely or virtually, and 31% felt they were unqualified to conduct research as online students. 

With more than 120 online STEM degree programs currently available through ASU Online, designing opportunities and experiences to ensure student success is a top priority. 

"The OURS Program is delighted to support fantastic (School of Life Sciences) faculty like Katelyn Cooper and Carlo Maley who are willing to step up to the challenge and provide genuine, scalable research experiences to our online students,” said Ara Austin, director of online engagement and strategic initiatives for The College. 

“The commitment and attitude our faculty have towards engaging with online students are what differentiates ASU from other academic institutions that offer online degree programs. Research experiences play a direct role in student success and retention, and the online students will greatly benefit from the opportunities offered by our faculty."

The OURS program launched this fall in The College’s natural sciences division, with plans to expand to the social sciences and humanities divisions in the next academic year. 


School of Life Sciences Assistant Professor Katelyn Cooper was awarded $10,000 for her proposal “OCURE: An Online Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience in Science Education.”

“I think this support really demonstrates the commitment that both The College and EdPlus have to investing in innovative teaching efforts,” Cooper said. “Innovation isn’t just something that ASU talks about, it’s something that is fostered and championed among faculty.” 

The program will engage students in authentic science education research experiences from start to finish. 

Building from an introduction to an overarching topic in science education, students will be responsible for identifying a gap in the research literature; generating testable, novel research questions; designing a research project to answer their questions; collecting data; and using qualitative and or quantitative methods to analyze the data. 

Far from simply approximating a research experience, working together, each student will contribute significantly to a novel and broadly relevant research topic, culminating in a peer-reviewed publication with all students listed as co-authors. 

“The fact that SOLS not only delivers courses to online students but also presents them with opportunities to engage in high-impact practices, like undergraduate research and internships, certainly sets ASU’s online program apart from others,” Cooper said.

“Instead of just offering students a set of undergraduate courses, we are able to provide college experiences. These opportunities lead to additional benefits that can be hard to come by for online students, such as establishing professional networks and securing letters of recommendation,” she said.

ACE Scholars

School of Life Sciences Associate Professor Carlo Maley, graduate student Zachary Compton and research project manager Cristina Baciu were awarded $10,000 for their proposal “ACE Scholars Program: An interdisciplinary approach to mentoring college students in cancer evolution research.” 

The Arizona Cancer Evolution Center is a National Institutes of Health-funded research center based at ASU and composed of 11 institutions worldwide. 

“We created the ACE Scholars Program with the purpose of offering research opportunities and career and professional development support to STEM students who are interested in cancer evolution and more broadly biology research,” Baciu said. 

Divided into groups of four to six students, the ACE Scholars will work together to address research questions within the field of comparative oncology, the language of cancer, and science communication and outreach projects. Students will choose one or two projects to join, on a wide range of topics ranging from breast cancer across mammals to surveys of neoplastic disease in species of coral.

In addition to conducting hands-on research, students will engage in a dual mentoring program pairing traditional scientific mentoring with career and professional development. 

Compton will lead developmental sessions on traditional academic research topics such as designing a research study, analyzing and reporting data, and creating and presenting a poster. Baciu’s sessions will focus on career development topics such as creating a personal brand, developing a CV, crafting a personal statement and exploring personal values and strengths. 

At the end of this comprehensive training experience, students will walk away with a robust portfolio showcasing their work. Both Compton and Baciu will work closely with the students, holding weekly group development sessions as well as one-on-one mentoring discussions to ensure students are progressing in their learning objectives

“I believe that we must design opportunities and experiences for all students, regardless of campus or modality of engagement,” Baciu said. “Initiatives such as the OURS seed grant perfectly reflect ASU’s charter, ‘measured not by whom we exclude but rather by whom we include and how they succeed.’”

Research Immersion Program

School of Life Sciences Lecturer Susan Holechek was awarded $10,000 in additional funding to continue her program, “Research Immersion Program in Molecular Biology/Genetics for Online Students.”

“Our online student population is steadily growing, and it is up to all of us to provide them with the best opportunities we can,” Holechek said.

Holechek piloted the group-based program during the summer of 2021. 

Fifteen students from Holechek’s online general genetics course traveled from around the world to attend a four-day immersive research retreat on ASU’s Tempe campus, where they learned and practiced common molecular biology techniques in the framework of two authentic research projects in the area of population genetics.

“For them, this was a one-of-a-kind experience as they worked in the framework of two real research projects,” Holechek said. “Many of them came back this fall, and now they are part of the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) Program, which I direct.

“This is the first time that we have a cohort of online students in SOLUR, and we hope to double the numbers next semester. These students are incredible, and they are truly passionate about research so I think we should give them an opportunity to explore a topic they love.”

The research program included opportunities for both group and individual work, culminating in a series of student presentations. The students also had the opportunity to attend student panels, research presentations and networking events, hosted by faculty and university leaders.

Through grant funding from The College and EdPlus, she was able to host the session again in the fall and will continue into 2022. 

Each recurrence of the program is a little different and centers on a different concentration. The summer session focused on molecular biology and genetics; the fall on cell culture and immunocytochemistry.

“We are finalizing the details for the spring, which will bring a different set of techniques,” Holechek said.

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences


Lifelong learners in north Phoenix to have new ASU home

OLLI at ASU to offer classes at university’s Health Futures Center classes

November 8, 2021

Lifelong learners in Phoenix's northeast Valley will have a new ASU location where they can take non-credit classes, hear lectures, attend events and interact with each other starting this spring.

The Osher Lifelong Center at Arizona State University, or OLLI at ASU, already has locations on the Tempe, Downtown Phoenix and West campuses, but has moved in and out of several spaces in the northern part of the Valley over the years, said its director, Richard Knopf. ASU Health Futures Center, January 2021 The ASU Health Futures Center in northeast Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News Download Full Image

The use of the new ASU Health Futures Center will give OLLI at ASU a presence in this part of town with state-of-the-art classrooms, in a facility near 64th Street and Mayo Boulevard, which houses the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University Alliance for Health Care, Knopf said.

The shared goal of the alliance, according to the Health Futures Center website, is "bringing the brightest minds together to accelerate cutting-edge research discoveries, improve patient care through innovation and transform medical education to enhance health outcomes at individual, community and national levels."

OLLI at ASU engages learners age 50 and older with a wide variety of educational opportunities in several fields without the usual evaluations involved in most university-level classes, meaning there are no grades, exams or prerequisites.

People who sign up for classes, called members, also may participate in campus events as well as join local affinity groups and get group discounts to local arts and cultural events as well as social media networks.

We asked Knopf, a professor in the School of Community Resources and Development based at Watts College for Public Service and Community Solutions, about OLLI’s new presence in the community as the institute begins to offer classes at the Health Futures Center in spring 2022.

Note: Some answers have been edited for length and/or clarity.

Question: How did having OLLI at ASU events at the Health Futures Center in north Phoenix come about? Where else is OLLI at ASU based?

Answer: Two dimensions to that answer. One is that it has always been a dream of mine, and therefore for OLLI, to have sites that, in addition to our normal universitywide offerings, would bring focus to some sphere of knowledge. Like maybe downtown, arts and culture; Tempe, education; that sort of thing. At HFCHealth Futures Center, we will be centering on providing older adults looking deeply into cutting-edge research and breakthroughs in medicine, psychology, caregiving, mindfulness and wellness. When I saw that Health Futures Center coming on line — and it’s been in the works for a few years — I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be part of that facility? Wouldn’t it be terrific to co-create with HFC a big component of their mission to go to the external community and promulgate insights from health and wellness research? ... If you go to the HFC website, you’ll see that education plays a big role up there so I thought, maybe OLLI has a role in that.

Ever since OLLI at ASU moved to the Watts College some 15 years ago, we have strived to be geographically distributed, and we’ve always strived to have a northeast Valley presence. We went from venue to venue each year knowing full well that the venue would not last long for us. I bet we’ve been through six or seven venues out there. ... Then this building came along ...

This sense of being on an ASU facility to deliver OLLI at ASU offerings is powerful. That’s what our members want, that’s what’s good for ASU and that building is exploding with synergy among a vast array of disciplines making real change in the advancement of health. There is cutting edge research by Mayo Clinic, by ASU and a fusion of the two globally renowned entities. You can bring those innovators and scholars straight into the classroom. The inevitable bonding of older adults with the ASU and Mayo Clinic enterprises is an impactful thing.

Q: Describe the facilities at the Health Futures Center and what they will provide for your lifelong learners.

A: First, this is interdisciplinary, interorganizational fusion at its best. ... I can’t tell you how many, but there are at least nine or 10 academic entities within ASU, all coming together in that space. ...

What’s going on in that building is people who don’t normally hang together are doing so and doing this ideation, becoming knowledge entrepreneurs, testing new ideas and exploding the limits of current understanding. Another piece is the incredible state-of-the-art research infrastructure there. You go from room to room and you’re just blown away by your glimpse into the future of research apparatus, tools and technologies packed into that building. And, students and faculty alike brainstorming on ways to make a better future for all. Much of the building design reflects the aspiration for investigators to interact and connect with each other, for people of all research perspectives and skill sets to converge on the ultimate mission of providing better health futures for all.

There are other things about the inspirational qualities of the building. They have a huge auditorium; it seats 190 at a minimum. So we can co-create unique and innovative programs such as recruit national and global experts on healthy aging and longevity to share their message of hope.

ASU Health Futures Center, auditorium, January 2021

The auditorium at the ASU Health Futures Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Q: OLLI at ASU has been noticeably successful at moving its classes to Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. Will OLLI having a presence at the Health Futures Center allow for more classes to be offered in person?

A: We already have 11 on-site classes ready to be launched in the spring semester. The classes will be taught, as all ASU classes are, with dual modality — providing large-scale access while still enabling face-to-face teaching for those who desire it. Dual modality solves a long-standing historical challenge for OLLI at ASU — how do we continue to expand ASU’s service to a wide range of older adults scattered throughout a vast geographic spread. We now have the best of both worlds: live courses with all of their community-building potential and online streaming with all of its own unique mechanisms for building community as well.

This new facility will never interrupt our huge capacity for online presence. It will enhance it. It will give more people access to the phenomena transpiring in that building.

Q: Does this new location allow for the creation of new classes that have not been previously offered or more sections of existing ones?

A: There will be a sprinkle of past successful OLLI at ASU classes that speak into issues of life quality. But the big answer to that question is, by all means! We are going to have not only courses, but special events and opportunities that have never been part of our portfolio in the past. We know that our older adults have amazing gifts. My dream is for having opportunities for them to pair up with HFC faculty in the creation and conduct of impactful research. And importantly, to serve as life and research coaches for the preponderance of ASU students that will be gracing the building. There’s going to be much more on my radar; let’s see if we can make it happen.

Q: How does the new facility fit in with ASU’s mission?

A: It all has to do with ASU’s capacity for innovation, its entrepreneurial spirit, its resolve to be an agent of positive societal transformation. OLLI at ASU is an important vehicle for the kind of community embeddedness that President (Michael) Crow has instilled within our institution. OLLI at ASU’s mission is to showcase the brilliance of ASU as a local, national and global leader. We are integral to ASU’s mission of lifelong learning in the fullest understanding of the concept — learning that never ends as we all seek to cultivate our potential and find spaces to contribute to the whole of society. The new facility adds amazing texture to this mission.  

Q: Tell us about the “storytelling event” that OLLI at ASU will hold at the new location this spring. What will happen then?

A: Two of our members who are very gifted in the creative arts are teaming with a faculty expert at South Mountain Community College in the healing process and legacy-leaving potential of storytelling. They decided to hold an event at HFC in their state-of-art auditorium as a way to serve as a “ribbon cutting” for our presence at HFC and participation in its mission. Storytelling has a huge presence in Phoenix. We will work with other organizations to turn this into a signature event for the entire region. A great side benefit is that OLLI at ASU will continue to fuel the creative energies of our wonderful metropolitan area while promoting the mission of the HFC.

More information on the storytelling event will be available soon at

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions