Empowering young academics: U-M program humanizes research

University of Michigan psychology students Hailey Prokop and Irmgard Pallas are investigating the critical nuances of suicide prevention in young populations. Jack Droelle, a sociology student, is working on a project exploring the complex interplay between race and U-M’s evolving identity.

Both projects are part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which creates research partnerships between undergraduate students and U-M researchers and community organizations.

UROP students engage in research and creative projects with faculty mentors representing all 19 colleges and schools at U-M. All student researchers in the program will present their findings at the UROP 2024 Spring Research Symposium 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. April 24 at the Michigan League.

Combatting suicide among young adults

The work by Prokop and Pallas is central to advancing research and intervention strategies to combat suicide among young adults, with a focus on those experiencing serious mental illnesses and schizophrenia spectrum disorders.

Lindsay Bornheimer, associate professor of social work and director of the STaR (Suicide prevention, Treatment, and Research) lab, is their UROP mentor in collaboration with Nicholas Brdar, STaR lab manager and project coordinator.

"Over 48,000 people in the United States die by suicide each year, and suicide rates have risen by 35% from 1999 to 2022,- said Bornheimer, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry. "We’re dedicated to shaping suicide prevention programs and policies, thereby making a crucial impact on how services are implemented and delivered.-

Pallas specified that her research within the STaR Lab has focused on the relationships between impulsivity, intent and method of suicide attempts, particularly among patients with bipolar disorder.

"My study examines the complex interrelations between these factors, striving to identify clearer risk assessment strategies and more effective treatment and prevention approaches,- said Pallas, who noted conflicting reports on the relationship between intent and method due to various factors such as lethality awareness and method.

"Descriptive statistics from our work suggest an association between nonviolent methods and intent, and that a prior history of attempts is prevalent among patients with bipolar disorder.-

Prokop’s research focus within the lab has centered on the role of family dynamics in shaping risk, protective and precipitating factors in transition-aged individuals dealing with suicidal ideation and attempts.

"The preliminary findings of my project illuminate the significance of factors like social support and family cohesion, which are more common in individuals residing with married parents.- she said. "These elements are integral to building a supportive environment, which is crucial for those at risk of suicide.-

Both students highlighted the mentorship they received from Bornheimer and the significant contributions of Brdar.

"Dr. Bornheimer and Mr. Brdar went above and beyond with their mentorship by providing us with additional learning opportunities in the field of clinical psychology,- Prokop said.

Intergenerational racial progress

Droelle is working with UROP mentor Raůl Gámez, in collaboration with co-investigators, Angie Kim and Kati Lebioda, who believe that bridging the past and the present toward an equitable and just future at U-M has a long and multifaceted history with race-related activities.

"Jack has been an integral part of the team. He has played a pivotal role in developing interview protocols, recruiting participants, and leading focus group analysis,- said Gámez, a doctoral candidate in higher education.

Their project explores the complex interplay between race and U-M’s evolving identity by connecting alumni and current students. Through shared stories and dialogues in focus group interviews, the initiative seeks to uncover and comprehend the nuanced histories of racial dynamics at the university.

Grounded in photo-elicitation methodology, the "Portals of Possibility- initiative leverages artifacts like t-shirts and newspaper clippings to facilitate rich, intergenerational dialogues about race, identity, and inclusion. The work has not only helped uncover patterns of racial experiences that span generations but has also highlighted stories of resilience and community among U-M students of color.

"This study aims to inform the university on what they can do in the future to create a truly inclusive and welcoming environment,- Droelle said.

By placing emphasis on experiences and historical context, the project contributes invaluable insights to U-M’s strategic vision for the next 10 years. Notable elements of "Vision 2034- include diversity, equity, inclusion and community engagement-pillars that are closely aligned with the revelations from the "Portals of Possibility- focus groups.

Through his involvement in the study, Droelle said he has grown in confidence and understanding.

"I feel that this experience has encouraged me to feel empowered in situations that I may not have been as confident in before and has contributed to my understanding of the experiences that my classmates and peers of different backgrounds and identities have lived through at U-M,- he said.