I know a lot of scientists who got their start from an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program. One summer as an REU has the potential to be transformational.
Advancing science in the US (and elsewhere) requires us to fund undergraduate research, and ensure that undergraduate researchers have thoughtful and attentive mentorship. We already spend a lot of money on training students – and I’d like to make sure that these efforts have the biggest bang for the buck. We are focused on broadening representation, but we haven’t seen the changes we need. Can we make REU programs* more effective?
But wait?! – you might be thinking – how can we take something as awesome as REU programs and make them more effective? After all, NSF does a great job of selecting REU sites, and an okay job of keeping them accountable. And if you look at the outcomes of REU programs, so many students go on to do great things! How can we fix the REU program?
I think there are a couple major design flaws in REU programs, embedded into the basic framework, that limit their effectiveness. These are not easily fixed problems. But they are quite real and are putting a low ceiling on the ability of REU experiences to transform the careers of junior scientists. Some of these design flaws in the REU program are there not by accident, but rather are built on the foundation of well-intentioned but counterproductive assumptions about the kind of support that students need, and the kinds of students that merit support.
The fundamental idea of the REU program – at least as I see it – is that one summer conducting impactful research in a research-rich environment can help provide undergraduates with the motivation, skills, and support that will help them further a career in STEM. A typical quality outcome is when a student enrolls in a graduate program that will result in a career of STEM research of some sort. I’m mostly on board with this fundamental idea.
A common feature of REU programs is that they are designed to serve the underserved – to give students an opportunity to work in an amazing research environment that wouldn’t be available to them during the academic year. I’m also on board with this idea. I’ll be the first to recognize that students who are enrolled in teaching-focused universities can benefit from working in a research institution for a summer. That’s why I’ve made a point to make sure my students have a chance to work in places where they can interact closely with doctoral students, postdocs, and PIs while doing cool original research.
Where’s my problem? It’s here: if you bring in a student from another institution – especially URM and/or first-gen students — one summer in an REU program simply isn’t enough. More specifically, my problem is that a lot of folks think it’s more wonderful than it is. Yes, it’s a good thing, but it’s not a mechanism for social change. Some folks are operating under the delusion that a 10-week experience for students subjected to structural disadvantages is going to give them a new platform upon which they can launch a STEM career. I understand that the REU is just a piece in a puzzle of support that students need. But that puzzle piece needs to fit into the rest of the puzzle, or it’s not much help.
But, but – if you look at the outcomes of these REU programs, these students who are first-gen and URM do quite well, and end up in great grad schools some of the time! That means success, right? Well, yes and no. Take a look at how students are selected for these programs. How many of them had a CV and pedigree that put them on a clear trajectory for success, regardless of the REU experience? I’m familiar with too many REU programs that focus on choosing students who have high grades and scores, and come with a CV that already looks competitive for admission into a PhD program.
When REU programs are assessing impacts, I’m not aware of any that have a control group – applicants who were just as competitive but ended up not getting accepted into an REU program. (I’m not sure how this would clear IRB, anyway.) Would there really be a difference? Because if the students getting picked for a bunch of REU programs are already rated as top notch anyway, then they’ll manage to do just fine without the REU support.
While some folks run REU programs to pick the winners, I realize there are a lot of REU programs that are focused on providing opportunities to students who would benefit the most from having the experience and support of the program, including community college students. I don’t intend to drag everybody that runs an REU program for an elitist selection process. Based on the way that successes are measured, I can sympathize with PIs of REU programs that want to pick students who have prior research successes before bringing them into their program. And I also see why REU mentors may want to pick students who have prior experience and might offer a smoother mentorship experience. But I also see the role that the REU program is supposed to serve in the research infrastructure for our academic community as a whole, too.
Here’s the major design flaw that concerns me among all of the REU and federally-funded REU-type programs that I’m aware of: these programs have absolutely nothing to do with the home institution of the student. They don’t provide for ongoing mentorship or research involvement once the summer ends**.
Let me put this concern into some context. Last year, I interacted with REU participants from a lot of different programs, when I was visiting the posters at the SACNAS conference last year. I ended up chatting with many students in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at their posters, and didn’t get to as many as I wanted to during the brief poster session. One thing that I noticed about most of these students is that they were working on their own. They had come from small not-prestigious universities, like my own, and ended up doing an REU at a well-known field station or university. Most of them had good experiences with their projects and their mentors for the summer. And then they went home. And then, after that, support was pretty thin. To get their posters ready for SACNAS, some had a little input from their REU mentors, but most were flying solo. Their REU mentors were in some distant city, and their own professors at their home institution weren’t clued in to their projects. It is really, really hard to be an undergraduate following through on one’s research ambitions when your mentor only signed on for one summer.
Here are two things about REU participants and their home institutions, that I don’t think get enough attention when we think about outcomes:
- The support that a student gets at their home institution is critical, regardless of what happens during a summer REU. No matter how amazing an REU experience is, on its own this is probably not enough to alter the professional trajectory of a talented student who isn’t receiving other substantial support.
- There are a bunch of faculty and graduate students who mentor REU students who come from lesser-known universities, who think little of the quality of research experiences and mentorship that are available to their mentees after the academic year ends. When I say “think little,” that could be mean that they don’t think much about it, or they don’t think very highly.
This year, several students from my department did REUs. None of the faculty in our departments had any involvement in their research experience to the slightest degree. And when it comes time to write up a poster, or prepare a manuscript, or apply to graduate programs, or develop a fellowship proposal, then our capacity to support them will be limited as a result. The REU was a great experience for (some of) our students, but then it didn’t do much to help them out once getting home.
Let me put it this way. Consider how research labs identify as a community, with PIs, postdocs, grad students, and undergrads? You’ve seen these happy photographs on lab web pages, and people have “their” students. But who are the REUs, where do they fit in to these happy pictures? They’re usually just temporary interlopers – who may have been well loved but then quickly disappeared. They are transient members of the academic community that they joined. Under these terms, then this introduction may have only served to show them how they don’t really fit in. This is particularly the case for students from underrepresented groups, who were fully aware of how they were different from the moment they were brought in. I know that folks truly wish the best for their REUs, and prioritize doing right by them, but in the end, they go back home and life goes back to normal for all parties.
If we’re going to be taking students into our labs with the idea that they are joining our research community, then could we actually go to the trouble to allow these summer REU students to join our research community for real, instead of just being done when the summer is over? Right now, REU programs are not structured to provide participants with a long-term sense of belonging to the research community, and the support that goes along with this membership. How the heck could we change that?
I don’t think it’s enough to just tell REU mentors that they need to be better mentors for a longer period of time. It would help, though, if REU mentors were provided with resources to be engaged with their mentees for the academic year following the project, including presenting and publishing the work, and to advance the careers of the mentees. But that’s not entirely realistic, either. Because, as I’ve said, what happens at the home university of the REU participant is really important for a positive outcome. REU programs can benefit from the engagement of mentors back at the home universities of participants.
I think there are a lot of mechanisms that we could consider, that would give REU participants the support they need after the summer is over.
One possibility is for REU students to apply to REU programs with a professor at their home university as a “sponsor,” who will commit to (and receive support for) advising the student after the project is over. In an ideal scenario, these sponsors will already have a collaborative relationship with the labs that the REU students are working in. That way, they can have open discussions about the science and once the student gets back from the summer, they maintain a clear connection to the community that they had just left.
Another possibility is that REU sites could be developed with a discrete set of partner institutions. Once the PIs from the partner institutions get to know on another and work together, then it will be a lot easier to develop a mentorship arrangement that will look after the professional development of the students in the long term. I regularly get asked to send minority applicants to REU programs – but they tend to be more interested in what experiences the students will be having over the summer, rather than what the student will be doing for the next 1-3 years. If someone proposed a partnership that would help the students out into September and beyond, I’d be thrilled. But that takes an alignment of research interests and/or additional financial support.
I’m open to ideas here. I don’t know how to fix this problem. The bottom line is that I see a lot of REUs having a nice summer, but then after 10 weeks in their host lab, they go back home and they don’t have the support to take their research to the next level. This isn’t because their own universities suck, it’s because the REU experience isn’t structured to provide for any role of the students’ home university before, during, or after the experience. How do you think we can address this? We need to think more about finding quality experiences for students beyond the 10-week window of the REU program, if we want the effects of the program to take root.
*I’m using the term “REU” here broadly, in reference to externally funded undergraduate programs that bring in undergraduates from other institutions in to do research in the summertime. In the technical sense, “REU” refers to a specific program funded by the National Science Foundation. There are other programs within NSF that fund similar experiences (such as NAPIRE, IRES, LSAMP), and also other agencies fund similar programs, such as the Department of Energy, Homeland Security, and so on. For the purposes all of these are REUs, in the sense that they are research experiences for undergraduates.
**except for IRES programs, which can have real partnerships between a PI and the host lab. (This is how I ran my IRES programs, at least, while I was the PI of four IRES awards to date).