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

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.

November 08, 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. 

“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.

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