Amanda Esquivel is pushing student research into its next phase at UM-Dearborn

March 25, 2024

Undergraduate research has some solid momentum at UM-Dearborn. With her 2023-24 Provost Fellowship, the associate professor of mechanical engineering is focusing on how to keep it going.

A headshot of Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Amanda Esquivel
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Amanda Esquivel

Amanda Esquivel knows firsthand how having an opportunity to do research as an undergraduate can change the course of your life. When she was a young engineering student at UM-Ann Arbor, she went in with a plan to get her bachelor’s degree and find a solid job in the automotive industry. But during her first year, she got a heads up about a program that the campus had started to recruit more undergraduates to work in research labs. Esquivel remembers leafing through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program’s “huge book of 400 research projects” that students could apply to work on, and she landed a spot in a lab where she’d end up spending a year and a half. “That was my first experience seeing that there are undergrad students, master’s students, Ph.D. students and faculty all working together to make these things happen,” she says. “I mean, I had no parent, no aunt or uncle who had any sort of job like that. So until then, I didn’t really think of ‘research’ as a job — like, as something you could do with your life.”

After a brief stint in an ill-fitting automotive engineering job, Esquivel did indeed decide to make research the thing she’d do with her life. She enrolled in a master’s, then Ph.D., program at Wayne State University — a life move she likely wouldn’t have considered without her prior lab experience. She knows not every student who does undergraduate research is going to follow that path. And she thinks it’s totally OK if students try working in a lab and decide it’s not for them — or choose to apply what they’ve learned to their lives or careers. But Esquivel believes strongly that every student — especially students, like she was, who don’t have someone in their personal life guiding them toward these opportunities — should get a shot to do this kind of work. Throughout her career at UM-Dearborn, Esquivel has poured her energy into making this happen. In her own bioengineering lab, undergraduate researchers power much of the work, and she’s watched several continue into master’s and Ph.D. programs, in part, as a result of their experience. (She jokes that the only reason she recently and reluctantly joined LinkedIn is because it’s the best way to keep tabs on all the great things her former students are doing now.) And a few years back, she was part of the team that launched the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, a cohort experience that provides paid student research positions in faculty labs across campus, along with a variety of skill development workshops. 

By nearly every measure, Esquivel says SURE has been a huge success. It’s grown every year, and it’s attracted the diverse pool of applicants the program was intended for. But Esquivel believes the program — and undergraduate research in general — will need a steadier foundation if it’s going to continue to grow at the university. Right now, Esquivel says SURE is funded largely with contributions from the Provost’s Office and a recent contribution from Enrollment Management, as well as a dedicated fund that supports 10 students. “Luckily, we’ve been able to fund every student so far, but I think if we want to continue to grow the program, we need a more sustainable way to fund it," Esquivel says. "And the funding is so important because, in my opinion, if these student positions aren’t paid, they’re only going to be available to students who are in a financial position to be able to work for free.”

To that end, Esquivel is using her current Provost Fellowship to help shore up funding for SURE. She recently worked with Institutional Advancement to set up a dedicated fund for the program, a key bit of financial infrastructure that will help organizers fundraise and court donors. And she’s currently working on ideas to extend opportunities like SURE beyond the summer. “Especially for any kind of lab science, the longer that you can do it, the more you’re going to get out of it. With a summer experience, students are really just getting started and then it’s over,” she says. One other thing Esquivel is focusing on during her fellowship: Getting more faculty to apply for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Sites program. REU Sites provides funding for cohorts of 10 students to do work around new or ongoing NSF research awards, which a growing number of UM-Dearborn faculty are laying claim to. To date, just a handful of faculty have hosted an REU Site at UM-Dearborn, though Esquivel is hoping that the strong attendance at her March REU workshop for faculty is a sign that could soon change.

For Esquivel, it’s lots of little steps like this, more than big initiatives, that are likely to move the undergraduate research culture forward at UM-Dearborn. The reality is that funding for extras is always going to be a little tight. And we may never have a big book of hundreds of research opportunities that students can simply browse and pick from. Building on the current momentum will take creativity, pluck, generosity and people like Esquivel making the pitch that undergraduate research can be a life changer — especially for students who never imagined research was a thing you could do with your life.


Do you have a story about how undergraduate research made a difference for you? We’d love to hear about it. Drop us a line at [email protected]. Story by Lou Blouin