From 'aspiring' to 'Aspirnaut' U-M program connects future scientists to the lab, the university and their goals

As a high school sophomore in spring 2018, Diogenes Lopez-Urioso had already set his sights on attending the University of Michigan, while inwardly believing he had almost no chance of getting into his first-choice school.

From his hometown of Fennville on the west side of Michigan, Lopez-Urioso saw more barriers than just physical distance between himself and U-M. The fall 2019 freshman class alone was four times as big as the entire population of Fennville, and few students from his rural school district enroll at U-M. Cost, too, was a major concern.

“At that time, I’d never heard of the Go Blue Guarantee,” Lopez-Urioso recalls, referring to U-M’s tuition support program for in-state residents. “I just knew, with my financial situation, that I needed to aim for schools where I could get scholarships or financial aid. But I thought my grades were too low, I wasn’t a good enough test-taker.”

Somebody else saw his potential differently, however. An adult in his school who served as what Lopez-Urioso calls his “de facto college advisor” thought he had the intelligence and creativity to be a scientist, and she encouraged him to apply to a new summer program at the U-M Life Sciences Institute.

Lopez-Urioso applied and was accepted. In the summer after his sophomore year, and again after his junior year, he spent six weeks living in a U-M dorm, exploring the city and learning about college life, all while conducting hands-on scientific research.

“Before, I just kind of felt there was no way I was going to get in,” he says. “But then I was able to talk to people who were there and see that the people in my lab are all coming from very different backgrounds, and my anxiety about applying just fell away. It’s one of the main things that really made me apply to U of M — being an Aspirnaut.”

A little more than two years later, he was settling into his dorm as part of the Michigan Research and Discovery Scholars (MRADS) learning community in the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts, a member of the U-M Class of 2024.

Expanding access to real-world research

The Aspirnaut program at the University of Michigan brings students from across Michigan to the Ann Arbor campus, where they immerse themselves in the role of researchers at the LSI.

Through this paid internship program, students work in LSI labs full-time during the week and participate in social activities and college-preparation development during evenings and weekends. In addition to a stipend for students, the program covers all housing and meal expenses while the students are on campus.

Recruitment efforts focus particularly on top high school science students from under-resourced areas in the state, including rural or socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and regions from which the university does not typically enroll many students. In its first three years, the program has drawn students from areas ranging from Detroit, to Flint, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The fact is, we know that scientific talent and passion are not concentrated only in geographic areas that happen to have a large research university nearby.

Aspirnaut at U-M is an outgrowth of the Aspirnaut program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where LSI Director Roger Cone, Ph.D., first became involved with the program as a faculty mentor. When he was recruited to lead the LSI in 2016, he worked with the Vanderbilt program directors to establish a version of the program in Michigan.

“The fact is, we know that scientific talent and passion are not concentrated only in geographic areas that happen to have a large research university nearby,” says Julie Hudson, M.D., who cofounded the Vanderbilt program. “We have designed this program to be replicated, with the hope that we can connect as many aspiring future scientists as possible to the resources that will enable them to achieve their goals.”

Shifting self-perception

The hands-on research that anchors the Aspirnaut program serves not only to give participants more experience in the lab, but also to foster their belief that they can be — and already are — talented scientists.

“We specifically recruit a diverse pool of students with the interest and potential to be scientists. Our goal is to empower them to achieve,” Cone says.

They can go to college. They can get support and help when they need it. And if they want a great career in a STEM field, they can succeed.

LSI Education Outreach Coordinator Adam Iliff, Ph.D., who serves as the program’s academic advisor, believes this confidence-building element is among program’s most impactful outcomes.

“Many of our participants arrive feeling that they were lucky just to be selected, even though we’re recruiting them,” he says. “After just six weeks, the growth in their self-confidence is noticeable among program mentors and among the students themselves.”

An evaluation by the U-M Center for Education Design, Evaluation, & Research (CEDER) has confirmed this trend among Aspirnauts. After participating in the six-week program, students reported that they felt more comfortable in the lab, felt more strongly that science skills and knowledge would help them in their future careers, and more strongly identified as scientists.

“I’ve always liked the thought of working in the lab setting,” Lopez-Urioso says. “But then after really experiencing lab life, I felt a lot more comfortable in telling myself, ‘Yeah, I want this as a future. I’d like to be doing this on a daily basis.’"

Being an Aspirnaut just made me realize I really can do this.

Building bridges to U-M

To equip aspiring scientists for the next step in their journey, a major aspect of the Aspirnaut program focuses on college preparation. The majority of Aspirnauts are future first-generation college students, so programming is tailored to improve their comfort with the college application process, their awareness of college opportunities and their knowledge of potential STEM-related careers.

“One of the most valuable things in the program for me, outside of the lab, was the way it connected us with a bunch of different resources for actually applying to college,” says 2019 Aspirnaut Hailey Fiel. “Up to that point, I hadn’t had any exposure to that sort of thing at my school. They weren’t really walking us through the process. Having that exposure before my senior year started was invaluable.”

Beyond workshops about applying to college in general, the program also helps participants learn more about opportunities available to them at U-M specifically. Iliff has noticed that, like Lopez-Urioso, many incoming Aspirnauts don't know about the Go Blue Guarantee, although many qualify for this tuition support.

“Aspirnaut is really what led me to find out about Go Blue,” says Lopez-Urioso. “The programming we participated in helped me see how I could cross that barrier — how the university would help me cross that barrier.”

Across the 2019 cohort, the CEDER evaluation found a substantial increase in students’ desire to apply to U-M, their comfort with the college application process and their confidence that they would be accepted into college.

In fact, all six 2019 Aspirnauts ultimately applied to U-M. Four were accepted and began their freshman year in September. One student enrolled in Michigan State University this fall, and another enrolled in Northern Michigan University.

“Experiencing the environment of the campus, going into the lab and also just getting to connect with the other Aspirnauts — with people who really care about science as much as I do — all of it made me want to come to U-M,” says Keegan Hill, the first Aspirnaut from the Upper Peninsula. Hill turned down offers from several other schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, Northwestern University and Washington University, to join his fellow Aspirnauts at U-M.

“If we really want to get serious about expanding access to and representation across the scientific enterprise, we have to reach out across all of Michigan,” says U-M Provost Susan Collins, Ph.D., who is excited about the potential impact of this program for aspiring scientists throughout Michigan. “We need to connect the world-class resources and opportunities at U-M to potential future scientists all across the state. And we are already seeing the difference that this type of immersive, supportive program can make in helping more students pursue their goals.”

The Aspirnaut Summer Internship Program at U-M is a donor-funded program, made possible by generous donations from LSI Leadership Council members and friends of the LSI, including Terry and Victoria Rosen, Jim and Kerianne Flynn, Christopher Kirk, the Leuchter family, and Yoshiko and Greg Margolies. If you would like to help support the program, you can learn more and donate online.


Group photo by Stephanie King, Life Sciences Institute; lab photos by Adam Iliff, Life Sciences Institute; U-M aerial image by Roger Hart, Michigan Photography.