Undergraduate research program serves as career launch pad

June 16, 2023
Two women in lab coats and glasses in a chemistry lab work under a fume hood.
The PURS program teaches more than research skills. It also helps students learn how to succeed in graduate school and plan for their future careers. This image was not created using Generative AI.

The Presidential Undergraduate Research Scholars (PURS) program at the University of Oregon supports and enhances student engagement in research in the fields of chemistry, physics, computer science, and earth sciences. The program was launched in 2014 through a collaborative effort between Professor of Chemistry and Presidential Chair in Science Geraldine Richmond, and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI). Richmond, a longtime advocate for broadening participation in science, elected to use the funds from her Presidential Chair in Science position to create the PURS program. Shortly after its inception, Michael Haley, Richard M. & Patricia H. Noyes professor of chemistry, rounded out the leadership team.   

The program selects a small cohort of six to seven students each year who demonstrate strong academic potential and intend to enter graduate degree programs. Preference is given to students who come from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in their disciplines. The selected scholars conduct research in a UO laboratory and participate in a course that provides instruction and training on topics including scholarly writing, research communication, graduate school preparation, and professional development.  

What they're saying about the program
Parker Morris, PURS 2019-20, Amanda Cook Lab; PhD, chemistry, UC Santa Barbara; NSF GRFP recipient
“First and foremost, PURS completely unlocked the potential to conduct research while studying as an undergraduate student. Beyond financial flexibility though, the program introduced me to the possibility of graduate school and facilitated an understanding of what graduate-level research might look like with regards to the work done outside of wet chemistry. I was so much better equipped to handle the pressures and time management stresses of graduate research because I had participated in PURS. Before I ever considered graduate school, the PURS program helped me balance the wet lab work, data analysis, and literature searches required for successful research. Despite all these benefits directly tied to my comfort as a graduate student, one of the most salient benefits of PURS was the access to general information about life after undergrad — irrespective of my future plans. While we were encouraged to consider grad school, the panels from successful scientists who had followed career paths that did not include a doctorate were so impactful. I knew very little about what opportunities lied beyond a bachelor's degree in chemistry, but the PURS program showed me how useful my degree would be and helped me discover all the different options that I had after I graduated.”
Ashley Mapile, PhD candidate, chemistry, Richmond Lab; PURS co-instructor 2021 to present

“PURS is a unique program at UO because the ‘research skills’ class allows undergraduate researchers from a variety of disciplines to share their work with others and learn from other perspectives. It’s rewarding to see a computer science student, for example, show interest in and adapt their own work after listening to a geology student present their results in a different, new way. Even as a graduate student teaching the course, I learn in both content and communication from these skilled and driven undergraduates.”

Makenna Pennel, PURS 2018-19 Jim Hutchison Lab; PhD Chemistry at Stanford; NSF GRFP recipient

“The PURS program gave me an incredible opportunity to dive into research and the confidence to pursue a PhD. The mentorship I received was invaluable and I loved our regular cohort meetings; we bonded over our enthusiasm for all things STEM and really built a community. It was the highlight of my week!”

Konnor Jones, PhD candidate, chemistry, Richmond Lab; PURS co-instructor 2021 to present

“In the PURS program we introduce the students to the broad strokes and nuances of applying for funding, reading literature, and presenting their work to a variety of audiences in written and oral formats. To do this, we must be familiar and competent with each of these aspects ourselves; however, the PURS students help me refine these skills because they think about these topics differently and ask questions that make me see things from a different perspective. I’m consistently discovering ways to tweak a talk or write a paper to communicate my ideas more effectively. Teaching the PURS course has left me more prepared to leave graduate school and start a career.”

Defining success in undergraduate research programs is dependent on the program’s objectives. The goal of the PURS program is to prepare promising undergraduates for graduate education and career success through a combination of financial support and a curriculum focused on career preparation. The initial hope was that the program could serve as a career launch pad for nascent scientists; based on the achievements of program alumni, that goal has been overwhelmingly achieved.  

Alumni Achievement 

PURS program alumni have been highly successful in entering top graduate programs in the United States, winning nationally competitive fellowships, and entering careers related to their academic and research interests.  

45 person icons, 35 of which are yellow and 10 of which are grey, are used to symbolize the success rate of the PURS program.
Seventy-eight percent of program alumni are pursuing graduate education. This image was not created using Generative AI.

Seventy-eight percent of program alumni are currently pursuing graduate education at institutions including University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Irvine; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Georgia Tech University; Harvard University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California, Santa Barbara; Stanford University; Yale University; and Columbia University. The remaining 22% are in research-related careers at organizations such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Genentech, the Broad Institute, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Nike, and Precision Analytical. Others have co-founded start-ups including Open Climate Fix and Insight Optics.  

Of those who pursued graduate education, 22.9% received competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships (NSF GRFP) and an additional 20% received honorable mention. To put that in perspective, the NSF GRFP acceptance rate is approximately 16%. 

The PURS program leadership recognizes that the program is not solely responsible for alumni achievements, but when there is close alignment between the intended goals of the program and alumni achievements, it is noteworthy.  

The success of program alumni is beneficial in multiple ways. Not only does it demonstrate the value of the program, but alumni are regularly invited to meet with current participants to give journey talks, graduate school insights, and career advancement advice. The participation of alumni in program activities affirms the value of the hard work that current students are putting in, gives them confidence in their ability and identity as scientists, and builds community among generations of scientists coming through the University of Oregon.  

“I measure the success of our program in the multitude of successes our PURS alumni experience after ‘graduating’ the program," Haley said. "One of my favorite classes is when we invite back some of the former PURS participants to meet and interact with the current cohort of students. The insight and wisdom the former students offer to the current class is invaluable, plus getting to hear from the former students about what exciting things they are currently doing makes this a rewarding experience for me as an educator.” 

Collaboration is Key to Success 

The PURS program is unique in a few ways, from its administration to its instructional approach to the design of its curriculum. At the core of these attributes is collaboration. Combining expertise on research excellence and broadening impacts with expertise on experiential learning and undergraduate research program administration, the Richmond Science Group and UROP were able to put together a comprehensive initiative with high-quality content and student services.  

The course associated with the PURS program is taught collaboratively by graduate students in the Richmond Science Group and UROP staff, with oversight by Richmond (up until her appointment as the Undersecretary of Science and Innovation at the Department of Energy) and Haley. This instructional approach allows for integration of a variety of topics, from scholarly writing to soft skills development, which would be difficult for one individual to effectively teach. This approach benefits both the undergraduate and graduate students, providing the latter with a unique teaching and mentoring experience.  

Scholars leave the program with extensive research experience, a toolkit of research communication skills, an expanded network, and clarification about their career goals with the corollary knowledge and skills to achieve them.  

For more information about the PURS program visit https://research.uoregon.edu/apply/apply-internal-funding/purs. Applications for the 2023-2024 academic year are currently being accepted and are due June 30.  

By Karl Reasoner, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation