“Get involved—participate!”

As a first-year student, these three words seem to follow me wherever I go at UTM.

I’ve managed to hear that statement countless times from upper-year students, professors, and even Principal Deep Saini during his introductory speech on Welcome Day. There is no escaping it.

Experience? Extracurricular activities? Research opportunities? Thoughts like these plague my mind (and probably every other UTM student’s) on a daily basis as I rush from class to class, completing assignments and studying for my next test. But as a first-year student, what kind of research opportunities are there? Are first-year students even allowed to apply for research opportunity programs?

Questions like these were answered last Wednesday at the Research Opportunity Program Exploration Panel held exclusively for first-year students enrolled in the 2014 utmONE Scholar’s seminars. It was an opportunity to chat with ROP professors, former ROP students, and program staff about previous projects and advice.

The panel consisted of Soo Min Toh of the Department of Management, Sanja Hinic-Frlog of the Department of Biology, Arsalan Kahnemuyipour of the Department of Language Studies, Jennifer Storer-Folt, the experiential learning officer and ROP coordinator, and fourth-year political science specialist and ROP participant Murtaza Jalali.

Storer-Folt talked about the benefits of participating in an ROP. Aside from the hands-on experience and exposure to ongoing research, she emphasized the importance of the professor-student relationship.

“You need to have typically two academic references [when applying to postgraduate programs], from a professor who knows you well enough to fill out a long sheet on how well you think, the quality of your work, whether you have originality of thought,” she said. “If you haven’t worked with, or at least haven’t had a large number of interactions with a professor, then you’ll have a hard time getting a faculty reference.”

Getting involved with ROPs early on opens up further future opportunities such as possible work-study programs, attending conferences, published credits in research papers, or future ROP opportunities, she said.

As a previous participant, Jalali provided a firsthand perspective on the experience. Jalali’s first ROP was in urban forestry, and he is currently conducting a meta-analysis on hydraulic fracking for his second. He talked about how to balance ROP commitments with studies and what to expect.

“You’re doing the grunt work, basically the legwork of the research,” he said. “Which is fine, because it gives you a chance to get really familiar with the research. I’ve been reading about urban forestry for over 18 months, so now I know a little bit about that.”

ROP courses are a Y credit that involves about 200 hours in the summer session or one to two days a week in the fall and winter terms, though the commitment varies by project. But there are no exams, and students get a credit and invaluable experience that is, in the words of Toh, the best way to learn.

One of Toh’s ROPs focused on how newcomers adapt to Canada and enter the workforce. Her research included contacting adult learning centres in Mississauga and gathering data about these newcomers. Toh’s ROP student made about 200 calls over a three-month period. “It was arduous and definitely not the easiest task to complete,” says Toh. “I was really impressed. My ROP student worked really hard and got to see the dirty side of research—where you have to go out there and get the data.”

The panel discussed the qualities of an ideal ROP candidate. Besides good grades, emphasis was placed on motivation. For Toh, the deal-breaker is communication: applicants should be able to explain why they want a specific ROP.

The panellists agreed that research skills are not a necessity, since ROP students will master the skills along the way. On that note, Storer-Folt recommended experiences that develop core skills, such as time management and commitment, and to take part in the PART workshops offered by the Academic Skills Centre.

ROP applications open February 18 this year.