Students get into research before college starts with UR@UWM

Students in the UR@UWM summer research program present their research at the program’s culminating poster session in early August. Photo by Sarah Vickery.

Aimee Roekle spent her summer studying how mothers enunciate certain sounds to their infants. In August, she presented her linguistics research at a UWM poster session like any typical student – but Roekle is anything but typical. For one thing, she hasn’t even started college yet.

Roekle was one of the 27 high school graduates going through the Undergraduate Research @ UWM, or UR@UWM ( program this summer. Run by UWM’s Office of Undergraduate Research, the program is designed to help high-achieving students connect with faculty-led research opportunities before their regular classes begin in the fall.

This year, UR@UWM celebrated its tenth anniversary. Since its inception, the program has been a resounding success, according to Kyla Esguerra. She’s the Deputy Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and the creator of UR@UWM.

“It started as a way to get students started early who will hopefully stay involved in research and become ambassadors for our program. If they do stay involved, and many of them do, by the time they’re juniors and seniors, their outcomes are really impressive,” she said. “The students, by and large, thought it was a great experience and a good opportunity.”

Brookfield East High School graduate Connor Lynch stands in front of his poster during the UR@UWM summer research program poster session. Photo by Sarah Vickery.

UR@UWM works by pairing just-graduated high school seniors with a faculty member working on a research project close to the students’ academic interests. Each year, Esguerra invites high-achieving students who have applied to UWM to apply for UR@UWM. Many times, Esguerra said, the program tipped the scales when it came time for students to decide where they wanted to attend college.

In addition to performing research, the students stay in the campus residence halls during the program. The cost of their housing and meals are paid for by the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The application process is competitive; Esguerra typically receives 100 applicants and accepts a quarter of them. The students all boast impressive high school transcripts, excellent GPAs, and an average ACT score of 29.
The program culminates in a poster session where students present their research to their families, peers, and faculty advisors.

Roekle, a graduate from Neenah High School whose parents also attended UWM, wants to major in Linguistics. She worked with Linguistics professor Jae Yung Song on a project called “The Impact of Mothers’ Speech on Language Development,” which analyzed if the way that mothers pronounce “t” sounds changes whether they’re speaking to another adult or to their children. The theory is that the different enunciations play a role in helping children learn to speak. Roekle acted as a research assistant and helped graduate students analyze sound files.

“It was tedious, but it never felt unimportant,” Roekle said. “[Professor Song] never would have gotten as far as we did without someone helping her.”

That’s one of the benefits of the program, Esguerra said: Professors can connect with students who they might retain as a research assistant for years to come. And the students benefit too.

“UR@UWM was certainly worth the summertime I put toward it,” Roekle said. “It gives me a leg up on my education and gave me a good rapport with the Linguistic Department. I made a lot of friends and this is going to look really good on my resume.”

Students in UR@UWM who continue to do research can have great outcomes, Esguerra said.

“Many of those students did continue in research, and one of those students from the first cohort just got his PhD,” she said. “We’ve seen students be published as coauthors and attend disciplinary conferences. Continuing participating in academia, whether it’s going to conferences, publishing, or going to graduate school – those are outcomes that we see frequently.”

Roekle, for one, plans to continue working as a student researcher in the Linguistics Department. Someday, she too might pursue her doctorate, aided by her experiences in UR@UWM. In the meantime, she’s still waiting for her freshman year to begin.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science