Mentoring across difference and distance: building effective virtual research opportunities for underrepresented minority undergraduate students in biological sciences

Corey J. Knox, Faqryza M. Ab Latif, Natasha R. Cornejo, Michael D.L. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The National Summer Undergraduate Research Program (NSURP) is a mentored summer research program in biosciences for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Conducted virtually over 8 weeks every summer starting in 2020, NSURP provides accessible and flexible research experiences to meet the needs of geographically diverse and schedule-constrained students. Drawing from mentee reporting and surveys conducted within the NSURP framework involving over 350 underrepresented minority undergraduate students over three cohorts (2020–2022), matched with mentors, this paper highlights the potential benefits of students participating in virtual mentored research experiences. In addition to increased access to quality research experiences for students who face travel or academic setting constraints, we found that virtual mentoring fosters cross-cultural collaborations, generates novel research questions, and expands professional networks. Moreover, this study emphasizes the role of virtual mentorship opportunities in fostering inclusivity and support for individuals from underrepresented groups in STEM fields. By overcoming barriers to full participation in the scientific community, virtual mentorship programs can create a more equitable and inclusive environment for aspiring researchers. This research contributes to the growing body of literature on the effectiveness and the potential of virtual research programs and mentorship opportunities in broadening participation and breaking down barriers in STEM education and careers. IMPORTANCE Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) are established to provide platforms for interest in scientific research and as tools for eventual matriculation to scientific graduate programs. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person programs for 2020 and 2021, creating the need for alternative programming. The National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP) was created to provide a virtual option to REUs in microbiology to compensate for the pandemic-initiated loss of research opportunities. Although in-person REUs have since been restored, NSURP currently remains an option for those unable to travel to in-person programs in the first place due to familial, community, and/or monetary obligations. This study examines the effects of the program's first 3 years, documenting the students’ experiences, and suggests future directions and areas of study related to the impact of virtual research experiences on expanding and diversifying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024


  • bioinformatics
  • education
  • microbiology
  • research program
  • virtual

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Virology


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