From Pilot to Permanent: Program Pays Student Researchers

May 8, 2024 By Laura Hoxworth, Laura Hoxworth,

With the success of a pilot program offering third-year kinesiology students paid practical research experience, officials at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development are working to make the program permanent.

The Kinesiology Undergraduate Research Program, which offers paid research experience for students, completed its first full-year pilot this academic year with a research symposium last week showcasing students’ final projects. Two students will present their work at national conferences.

Sue Saliba, professor and director of the program, said the pilot was designed to help kinesiology students, no matter their post-graduation plans, better understand the role that exercise science and physical activity play in overall health, and in rehabilitation of sports injuries.

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The students were paid for their work, in addition to earning course credit. By recruiting third-year students, Saliba said the program captured those who otherwise would likely not have the opportunity to work in a research lab.

“We wanted to prioritize students who may have had to work, or maybe weren’t aware of research opportunities early on in their college career,” she said.

During the pilot year, 12 students were each paired with a faculty mentor. Earning two credit hours and committing to about 10 hours a week of work, students met in their lab once a week to participate in ongoing research projects. They also worked on individual research projects, meeting together regularly to share progress and discuss topics like ethical research practices.

Some students collected or processed data for ongoing projects. Others analyzed data to explore a new question or helped recruit participants for studies. And some did a little bit of everything. 

Sue Saliba is engaging in discussion with students.

Sue Saliba, professor and director of the program, talks with doctoral student Nate Weeldreyer at a research symposium held last week to showcase the interns’ final projects. (Photo by Laura Hoxworth)

Saliba said one of the program’s main goals is to increase access to mentored research experience for undergraduate students. While undergraduate research opportunities exist at UVA, some are unpaid or only available for first- or second-year students. She said it can be challenging for students to know where to find these opportunities in their first years of college, or to find opportunities that align with their career goals.

Tess Synowski, one of this year’s students, worked with associate professor Chris Kuenze on knee injury research in the Exercise and Sport Injury Lab. She said a paid, for-credit research opportunity is rare to find as an undergraduate.

“A lot of students do have to work to pay for the things that they need, and I’m one of those students,” she said, “so I really appreciate that they took students’ needs into consideration.”

Research Into Practice

Although many undergraduates who pursue research experience aspire to careers in research and academia, Saliba said mentored research opportunities are beneficial for all kinesiology students, whether they pursue careers as researchers or practitioners, such as athletic trainers or physical therapists.

“What I hope is that students who complete the program will go into whatever they decide to do with the perspective that they use evidence-based science to make their clinical decisions,” she said. 

For Synowski, working on data entry showed her how much detail is involved in completing a study. 

“In kinesiology and other pre-health care majors, you read so many scientific papers, and it’s cool to see where that data is coming from and to be an active player in the data collection,” she said. “I have a new appreciation for research, knowing how much goes into it.”

“One thing that I didn’t expect was to work with so many people,” - Hailey Ramsey

Student Hailey Ramsey worked with associate professor Damon Swift on a project to help patients recover from bariatric surgery through aerobic exercise. She started out working on study recruitment materials and then took on other responsibilities, such as writing and editing regulatory documents, helping with a meta-analysis, and planning exercise sessions and outcome visits.

“We see headlines all the time, like ‘research is showing this,’ but now I feel like I have the skills to understand what that’s really saying to me,” she said. 

The benefits of research experience stretch far beyond the lab, Saliba said. Time set aside for the students to meet amongst themselves helped build support and community.

Candid Picture of Angela Smith.

Angela Smith, a third-year kinesiology student who participated in the internship program, presented the results of her research to faculty and student peers at last week’s symposium. (Photo by Laura Hoxworth)

“When students interact and share their projects with each other, they can help work through strategies when they get overworked or overwhelmed,” she said. “It decreases the stress, and they learn about how a community of researchers works.”

“One thing that I didn’t expect was to work with so many people,” said Ramsey, who collaborated with doctoral students and doctors in the School of Medicine. “I’ve been able to form a working relationship with people that I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to as an undergrad.”

Zachary Nagel, who assisted with projects addressing ankle instability and plantar fasciitis, said a doctoral student he worked with connected him with a friend to shadow in a physical therapy clinic. 

“I feel that I’ve really gotten a lot of connections that I wouldn’t have,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of the other {Kinesiology Undergraduate Research Program) students and we’ve formed study groups and stuff like that. It’s really helped me even beyond the scope of just the research.”

What’s Next

Saliba envisions the opportunities expanding as the program grows, with students attending more conferences or even publishing in peer-reviewed journals. But students said they are already reaping benefits from research experience.

“During my time working on this project, I have gained experience in understanding the research process and the impact research can have clinically,” Ramsey said. “I am grateful for the experience and look forward to incorporating research into my future career.”

Media Contact

Laura Hoxworth

School of Education and Human Development