Undergraduate research 101


Good GPA, campus involvement and an internship. Most students cite these among a checklist of qualities employers and graduate schools are expecting. But there’s another area that many students, particularly those majoring in STEM fields, can also explore to boost their chances of future success: research.

Graduate students regularly involve themselves in research. But at FIU, numerous opportunities abound for undergraduates to get ahead of the game even before graduation.


The Conference for Undergraduate Research at FIU (CURFIU) invites all undergraduate students to conduct their own research and present at the annual conference. The largest multi-disciplinary research conference on-campus, CURFIU features student presentations and faculty workshops. Recruiters are also in attendance.

Last year, senior Justin Franco presented his research project at CURFIU while taking a year-long Honors research class (Advanced Research and Creativity in Honors). Franco conducted his research project on how historical maps depict boundaries of South American countries and how these depictions can be studied as reflections of countries’ claims to territories and historical territorial disputes.

A biomedical engineering major, Franco says this opportunity benefitted him on multiple levels. He explored a topic of interest outside of his major in an interdisciplinary way while gaining the coveted research experience necessary to succeed in the biomedical engineering field.

“If you want a career doing research, you want to get into it as soon as possible,” Franco says. “It’s a real door opener. It can only benefit you.”

After presenting at CURFIU, Franco was selected to present at the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference in Tampa and at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Asheville, North Carolina last year – great networking events attended by recruiters. Afterward, he landed an internship at Mayo Clinic Florida. He feels his research experience played a crucial role in demonstrating his qualifications.

Research labs

Another way to get research experience: Find a lab. Many professors in fields like STEM and psychology look for student assistants who can help out.

The School of Computing and Information Sciences, for example, even offers a list of labs and professors readily available for students on their website.

For twins Shonda and Shalisha Witherspoon, Professor Naphtali Rishe’s High Performance Database Research Center at FIU presented the perfect opportunity.

The ladies, who are currently working on a master’s in computer science, started at Rishe’s lab as undergraduate research assistants.

“You learn a lot from research that complements what you’re learning in class,” Shonda says. “And the exposure learning from someone like Rishe is something you can’t quite learn in a classroom. You can actually become a research scientist.”

Their positions at the lab also propelled them to continue their studies.

“It’s the reason we’re in grad school,” Shalisha says. “Co-workers at the lab started asking us if we would attend grad school.”

Today, the sisters are graduate research assistants at the lab –  which means they have not only received a promotion of sorts, but they also receive the tuition waiver that comes with graduate research assistantships.

Looking ahead

If you’re interested in graduate school, undergraduate research can really set you apart. The Witherspoon sisters and Franco were able to further their academic careers because of it.

Franco says that coming from a public research university also helps; FIU offers more opportunities in this area, and it’s wise to take advantage of it. He adds, “it also helps build critical thinking skills, communication skills and writing skills since you have to get your ideas across effectively.”

Whether you find a research opportunity through a conference or a lab, don’t forget to soul-search and think about what the experience means to you.

“The most important reason to do research as an undergraduate is to truly identify your research interests,” Orlando Olano, a senior psychology major, says.

Olano is a research assistant for a legal psychology lab at FIU and he is also a research intern at the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Modesto A. Maidique Campus. 

“Being involved in research is going to expose you to different elements and topics and is going to help you figure out what you like. I think it’s crucial. It informs your next steps for grad school and what you want to do.”

Olano plans to apply for graduate schools later this semester.


Here are a few programs and opportunities that can help you learn more about research at FIU:

Undergraduate Research Database

School of Computing and Information Sciences research opportunities

CURFIU website

Honors’ Advanced Research and Creativity in Honors (ARCH) program

Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program at FIU

Department Of Energy Fellows/FIU Science & Technology Workforce Development Initiative

Applied Research Center

This article is part of our Secrets to Success series. From study tips to learning how to land an internship, these articles will help prepare and equip you for success during your time at FIU and long after you graduate.