As a member of the class of 2024, I began college at the University of Michigan during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I made the decision to do my freshman year from home, where the pressure to be the perfect pre-medical student pushed me into four core science classes during my first semester.

I got my first look at the scientific process through a screen (picture me receiving biology lab credit for “isolating a protein” with a laptop trackpad, animation software and a lot of imagination). Nevertheless, my virtual science labs cultivated a desire to partake in a new activity called “research,” and I became determined not to let the pandemic deter me from this goal. Up until this point, I had thought that undergraduates didn’t have the capacity to truly contribute to the creation of new knowledge — let alone the intricacies of wet lab, biomedical research. It wasn’t until I found out about — and missed the deadline for — UROP that I realized research is an attainable experience at Michigan.

Since access to the traditional UROP research pathway had closed, I was left with one option: cold emailing professors. I soon realized, after sending over a hundred unsolicited pitches to various Principal Investigators’ (PIs) inboxes at Michigan, that the pandemic was the least of my concerns. The majority of responses were valid rejections citing full capacity or limited funding as the reason I wasn’t offered a spot at the lab bench. However, I was surprised to discover that a handful of PIs were simply not interested in undergraduate mentorship altogether. A few of these researchers substantiated a strict, no-undergraduate policy by mentioning that their lab — syndicated and funded by our research-heavy University of over 32,000 undergraduates — was focused on “high-impact” and “undilutable” projects. Despite pitching myself as a motivated student willing to work unpaid, under a flexible schedule and toward administrative efforts, my standing as an undergraduate precluded me from making any sort of contribution.

Interested to see which projects warranted complete separation from the undergraduate touch, I did a deep dive into the PIs’ lab websites, PubMed profiles and Twitter pages. I quickly noticed a running theme: their labs were, indeed, fruitful in publications, postdocs, NIH funding and conference invitations. They had all the metrics of academic success imaginable, and I, too, was left wondering what I could’ve possibly helped them achieve by joining the lab. This realization diminished my motivation to stay in the hunt to conduct research, and I was ready to accept that I wouldn’t be working within arm’s reach of a microscope anytime soon. 

It was then ingrained in my head that there was an inverse relationship between a PI’s H-Index, a quantitative metric used to provide an estimate of a person’s overall impact, productivity and significance within their respective field, and the number of undergrads they let run around their lab. As it currently stands, H-index is calculated based on a researcher’s H-amount of papers, each of which has been referenced H-amount of times in H-level journals. The world’s most prolific scientists, for context, will have an H-index over 100 by the end of their career — such as Dr. Anthony Fauci at 229 and Dr. Stephen Hawking at 130. 

Finally, at the beginning of sophomore year I got a position as a classroom laboratory assistant at the Undergraduate Sciences Building. A few months experience of organizing beakers and cleaning fruit fly residues for various biology class labs beefed up my resume enough to land me a position as a part-time research assistant at a highly productive cardiology lab at Michigan Medicine.

With the help of undergraduate upperclassmen in the lab, I quickly caught on to these patterns — a peer would make the protocol, I would run the experiment and my PI would discuss the data’s clinical implications at the next lab meeting. Now, as a junior, I am currently completing my Honors senior thesis through this lab. Having been given near-autonomy over a 10-week long project involving the inhibition of atherosclerosis in mouse models, I have grown to be a published author, researcher and confident MD/PhD candidate. During the “in-betweens” of experiments, moreover, my PI hosts personal statement workshops, gives us research papers to read, helps us rehearse our poster presentations, lets us conduct shadowing visits during his clinic days and gives us so many more opportunities for unquantifiable career moves.

Education proves to be a guiding principle of this lab, as is proper at a research institution which happens to be inseparably joined with one of the largest educational institutions in the country. Most importantly, though, these kinds of researchers, professors and faculty demonstrate how colleagues unreceptive to facilitating undergraduates’ early research careers are sorely out of place at a University. Furthermore, if a U-M lab or research conglomerate has never hosted a UROP student since its inception, less funding and support from the University should be allocated.

I think back to my early rejections from U-M professors and researchers who were taken aback that a freshman would even consider soiling their holy, million-dollar ideas by joining their lab. To them I ask: Whom are you a Leader and Best of, exactly? At the end of the day, their drosophila (the species of fruit flies used in many labs) will die but the palpable enthusiasm of a Wolverine, cultivated by working in their lab, will not. Any opportunity we as undergraduates receive, in research or otherwise, leads to an exponential effect on our worldview and educational goals. Our current understanding of, and researchers’ obsession with, H-Index should include the measure of impact made on students and trainees in its calculation. 

The world of academia, here in Ann Arbor and abroad, recognizes that citations are a measure of the extent to which one piece of research informs the next. The politics of doctoral life, especially at a rigorous and prestigious center like the University, makes it easy to get carried away by the allure of acceptance to a top journal, international award or fancy funding. How often, between the fine print of a Nature or JAMA publication, do we appreciate how mentorship of young people informs the next generation of researchers? With every research project involving an undergraduate comes an unnoticed benefit years down the line. The silent slow-burn that is undergraduate mentorship influences the very plane, scope and trajectory of scientific fields in the same way citations do. 

By using college students as a medium, my PI will have materialized over a dozen avenues to further his cardiology research long after he chooses to retire. I, as one of his avenues, hope to one day use both my MD and PhD to pick up where he leaves off.

Researchers and professors here at the University who not only recognize the caliber of undergraduate students, but apply their plasticity and potential to research projects have, dare I say, the greatest H-Index. I urge those in positions of research leadership here at the University to consider the undergraduate as the tabula rasa (blank slate) they are. Introduce them to your research specialty — whether that be 20th-century Russian poetry or the failures of Themistocles at Sparta — and I guarantee that your impact, in the academic sense or otherwise, will multiply.

Namratha Nelapudi is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at