The CUNY Research Scholars Program: The First Ten Years

by Ron Nerio and Veer Shetty

This article has been published as part of the Special Edition of Ad Astra, which features the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP) across The City University of New York. The issue is accessible at

Introducing the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP)

In 2014, the New York City Mayor’s Office forecast a growing need for a scientifically and technologically trained workforce to meet the needs of the region’s burgeoning technology sector. They provided CUNY with funding to design a program that would prepare STEM students for the broad range of opportunities that would open over the next decades. Aware of a growing body of evidence that undergraduate research experiences provide transformative and long-lasting impact (Fechheimer et al, 2011; Kuh, 2008; Russell et al, 2007), the CUNY Office of Research developed a program that involved 150 students in a year-long mentored research project. What stood out about the program was its focus on associate degree students. The CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP) became the largest funded URE for community college and other associate degree students in the country.

The Office of Research developed general guidelines for the program, requiring that each participating student would spend 400 hours over the course of two semesters and a summer working on a research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Each of the ten CUNY associate degree-granting colleges1 would appoint a director who would select suitable candidates for the program and design professional development workshops for the students. The program would culminate in a summer symposium during which all students would present the results of their research on posters and each college would select a student who would give a featured oral presentation to an audience of CUNY faculty, administrators, and students.

CRSP, now in its tenth year, has provided immersive mentored research experiences for 1,958 students. As the program took root in each of the colleges, it adapted to and contributed to the specific culture of research at those colleges. With feedback from mentors and students, directors developed recruitment strategies they believed worked best at each college level. They developed frequent workshops with their CRSP cohorts in mind and, when technology made it possible, opened some of those workshops to students from each of the other nine colleges (see Table 1 for examples). Mentors have cultivated the talents of their students. They have provided them with hands-on research experiences and developed their scientific communication skills. CRSP faculty have provided their students with opportunities to participate in local, regional, and national scientific conferences and to publish with them in peer-reviewed journals.

Table 1: Sample of College-Based CRSP Workshops.
Laboratory safety
Building a Career
Abstract Writing
STEM in Art and Popular Culture
Team building
Library Databases and Citation Tools
Public Speaking
Transfer Opportunities
Reading a Scientific Paper
Women in Science
The Importance of Keeping Laboratory Records
Stress Management


Our assessments show that CRSP provides associate degree students with many tangible benefits. Enrollment in the program reflects the diversity of the University as a whole: 53% of CRSP students have been women and 53% are Black and Latino. Our 2019 study (Nerio, et al) of the first three years of CRSP showed that CRSP students, when compared with a closely matched group of students with similar academic and demographic characteristics, were significantly more likely to graduate with an associate degree or a baccalaureate degree (59% vs. 50.2%). They were also more likely to graduate with associate degrees in STEM disciplines and to remain in STEM disciplines 17 months after completing the program.

In focus groups and in interviews, mentors attribute the success of the program to several of its unique features. They most frequently cited the year-long duration of the program. Whereas most URE’s operate for a semester or a summer, CRSP extends over two semesters and a summer. During a full year, mentors report, they are able to get to know their students in greater depth than is possible over a summer. They have time to train students systematically, familiarize them with scientific literature, and acquaint them with the laboratory equipment, field research techniques, or software needed to carry out their work. Most important, during the course of a year students learn the importance of tenacity. They have the time to conduct experiments or to gather data and to interpret and analyze results. When faced with a failed or inconclusive experiment, or when research plans change, CRSP students have the opportunity to start a new experiment or to work with their mentors to revise strategies.

CRSP students receive a $5,000 stipend to engage in research. Many mentors noted that the stipend is another key to the program’s success. It signals to students that research is valued. The stipend also holds them accountable. Though it may not be sufficient to enable students to give up outside work, the stipend may relieve the pressure on students to take multiple jobs or to work an excessively high number of hours.

The year-long duration of the program and the stipend help to explain the students’ self-reported gains. In end-of-program surveys, students indicated an increased sense of belonging in college. In an early (2017) program survey, for instance, 59% of CRSP students reported that they felt more connected to their college than they had before entering the program. The part of the program that they felt most strongly about was their relationships with their mentors. Eight-five percent (85%) of students responded that their mentors had helped them develop their scientific knowledge and their skills, while nearly three-quarters (72%) felt that their mentors genuinely cared about them as people. More than half (62%) felt their mentors deepened their sense of self-confidence (Nerio, et al, 2019).

One of the aims of the program is to equip students with the ability to transfer to and succeed at four-year colleges and beyond. Our 2019 study showed that CRSP students were more likely to transfer to four-year colleges than their counterparts in the comparison groups. One intriguing pattern was that more than half of CRSP students who transferred went to the CUNY’s two most research-intensive colleges (City College and Hunter), as compared to 31% of students in the comparison group. Among students who transferred to colleges outside of the CUNY system, 70% went to R1 colleges while only 39% of comparison group students did so. Program directors attribute these patterns to the guidance offered by mentors and to the self-confidence that students develop during their year in the program (Nerio et al, 2019).

The Pandemic Pivot

The biggest challenge to the program arrived with the dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Laboratories closed and college campuses were shuttered. Directors wondered whether the program could continue to operate under those circumstances. But mentors and students rallied. Mentors met with students on virtual platforms. They sent equipment to students’ homes, developed simulations of projects, or worked with them on the analysis of existing data. Some mentors shifted their laboratory-based research with students to outdoor projects, such as measuring air pollution or mask-wearing patterns in public places. One mentor developed a virtual physics lab (Nerio et al, 2023). During the first three pandemic years, students recorded their presentations on video and presented at the symposium, which was held live on Zoom. Symposium attendance during each of those three years exceeded 90% of enrolled students.

In focus groups, more than half (55%) of CRSP mentors reported that virtual platforms such as Zoom had opened up extra opportunities to meet more frequently and more personally with students. They could schedule short meetings as needed, rather than wait to meet when both mentor and student were present on campus. They could also conduct close readings of scientific literature with their students, a tactic that about quarter of mentors (23%) in focus groups pointed to as a strong benefit for students in lieu of in-person laboratory research.

Prior to the pandemic, funding for the program increased and the number of students grew over the years from the initial cohort of 150 to a cohort of 247 by 2019. The pandemic strain on the University’s and New York City’s budget led to a reduction in overall funding. The Office of Research considered the best way forward. During the first two full years of the pandemic, the amount of the stipend was cut from $5,000 to $4,000 and the number of students was reduced. During 2021-2022 academic year, the Office of Research encouraged directors to begin recruiting students beyond the traditional STEM fields and to use the broader National Science Foundation (NSF) definition of STEM to include social and behavioral sciences. College-based directors reported that interest in the program grew despite the reduced stipend. Many of the colleges had to keep waiting lists of students interested in the program.

In 2022, colleges reopened and students returned to laboratories. The stipend rebounded to $5,000 during that academic year. After holding the symposium online for three years, we were able to host the first post-pandemic symposium in the summer of 2023. The event was held in-person at LaGuardia Community College and student participation approached nearly 100%. The display of enthusiasm among students and mentors was a testimony to the program’s resilience.

Expanding Opportunities

Building on its earlier successes, CRSP is about to become part of an unprecedented expansion in the number of research opportunities offered to undergraduates at CUNY through the Office of Research. During the 2023-2024 academic year, the New York Tech Talent Pipeline provided the CUNY Office of Research with funding to create the CRSP Tech Fellows program. One student in computer science or a related discipline was selected from each of the ten colleges to participate as a Tech Fellow. The CRSP Tech Fellows have been conducting technology-related research in areas ranging from “Web Solutions for Older Adults with Dementia” to “Universal Healthcare Information Exchange to Provide a More Informed Healthcare Sector.” CRSP Tech Fellows are required to participate in our new CRSP AI Lecture Series, to which all CRSP students are also invited. Themes have ranged from “Blockchain Technology,” to “AI, Quantum and Security,” to “AI and Social Justice.”

CRSP is also providing funding for program alumni to participate as interns in the new CUNY Climate Exchange during the summer of 2024. The CRSP Climate Exchange interns will work with local partners on climate-related projects. The program is coordinated through the CUNY Climate Consortium (C3), which aims to produce new generations of climate leaders and scientists.

The State of New York recently announced funding for an expansion of CRSP into the four-year colleges during AY2024-2025. The funding will be used to launch the CUNY Immersive Research Experience (CIRE) program at Baruch, Brooklyn, City, City Tech, Hunter, John Jay, Lehman, Medgar Evers, Queens, Staten Island, and York Colleges. Those colleges are currently beginning to recruit the 77 students who will participate. At this time, the CIRE program will run as a pilot and will operate for a full year. One CIRE student from each of the four-year colleges will participate as a CIRE-Climate Scholar. The CIRE-CS program will engage students in climate science workshops and also provide them with internships.

These new programs will join the growing network of undergraduate research programs offered by the CUNY Office of Research. For example, CRSP students who complete the program are eligible to apply for the Velay Summer Undergraduate Research Program (VSURF) and the Transfer to STEM Student Success (TS3) program. When they transfer to four-year colleges, CRSP students are also eligible to apply for the CIRE program.

Reflections from CRSP Directors 2024

Most directors have served in the program for many years and several have shepherded the program since its inception in 2014. In preparation for this introduction, we invited several of the directors to share their insights and reflections.

Katherine Acevedo-Coppa at Bronx Community College emphasizes that many freshmen, with no research experience, enter the program at BCC and “just roll with it.” She has enjoyed watching the students become deeply immersed in research and go on to succeed in four-year colleges and graduate schools. Examples include a student who transferred to Brown University and now returns to BCC periodically to speak to other CRSP students. Another CRSP student conducted lab work with her mentor at Brookhaven National Laboratories and is now working on a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences. A member of the 2021-2022 cohort entered BCC with only basic English skills and no knowledge of research and was awarded a full-ride scholarship to Stanford. He spoke on a panel for CRSP students in 2022.

In 2017, the CRSP program at BCC developed a relationship with Princeton when postdocs from the Modeling the Earth System Summer Internship contacted the college. Postdocs from that program now visit BCC each year to recruit students for the summer internships. Two to three CRSP students apply each year and there has been at least one CRSP student in the six-week summer internship every year but one since 2017.

“I could say that this is absolutely the part of my work at BCC that I have always enjoyed,” says Acevedo-Coppa. “I love the relationships that I get to build with the students and the faculty and just watching the students grow.”

Maria Ivanova, one of the CRSP directors at the College of Staten Island, explains that the program is especially important at comprehensive colleges (which enroll both associate degree and baccalaureate degree students). “In my opinion,” she says, “what happens at CSI is that freshmen are invisible in the eyes of mentors. I think it is this way in most four-year colleges. They prefer to have juniors and seniors. Juniors and seniors have learned to reach out and to look for opportunities. Freshmen and sophomores do not usually do so. So we reach out to them. We get them involved in their early years.”

Ivanova encourages students to email her as they move to the next stages of their careers. She recently received an email from a CRSP alumnus who is now a PhD/MD candidate and works at Central Texas Brain and Spine. Another received a neuroscience degree and is working on a Master’s in Public Health at Columbia. One is a software engineer at Audible. Another is working at Staten Island University Hospital, where he is a physical therapy student.

At Kingsborough Community College, Frances Samuel stresses that CRSP provides students–especially black and brown students – with opportunities to explore things they have never considered before. She also notes that Kingsborough’s CRSP cohorts have ranged considerably in age, with several participants in their thirties and forties. Among students from past Kingsborough cohorts is a student who won the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship and is now working on a Master’s in Molecular and Cell Biology at Yale. Another went on to conduct research at a major corporation.

Odaelys Pollard, the director at the Borough of Manhattan Community College told us that “coming to the [CRSP] workshops is the highlight of my week – it is nice to sit down and see students get excited about what they are doing.” Her colleague, Venita Andrews, reported that: “Campus-wise, CRSP has a big following. People know about it. That gives us a lot of attraction. It is our biggest and longest (year-long) research program. It is intensive more than other. We have BFF (BMCC Foundation Fund for Undergraduate Research) which is one semester, LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) is two semesters, CRSP is for an entire year.”

Andrews says, “For me, it has been nice to see students get comfortable in their roles and know what they are doing. They start off nervous, a little rickety, but once they get into the groove and they know what the protocol is, you see them grow up a little more, and figure out a schedule with a lab manager, and they have everything organized. You can see the growth. A lot of what they learn helps them outside: time management, confidence, making mistakes and persisting.”

Yoel Rodriguez, at Hostos Community College, also emphasizes the opportunities that CRSP provides. The program, he says, “is a spring for the students to go further, for them to think outside the box. To get into what they are learning in the classroom, but to gain all of the skills they need in the 21st century to move forward. Undergraduate research nowadays is one of the most important educational components a student can have… I have been with the program for many years – we have students who have gone all the way to Cornell and Princeton and we have students working for pharmaceutical companies.”

Rodriguez stresses that it “has been an enormous pleasure [to be a CRSP Director]. This is not only for the joy to work for the students, but to help the students get better and expand their knowledge. As a community college student, to have a mentor – to have a motivator – has been a key component to remain in the program.”

Sharon Lall-Ramnarine, a past director at Queensborough, also stresses the broad range of students who find opportunities in CRSP. “There is no other program quite like CRSP,” she says, “in the sense of the population of students that it gives the opportunity to do research. . . [with] most of the programs that exist for community college students – the target populations are permanent residents and citizens. At QCC in particular, we have a large population of students who don’t have that status. That is why, at QCC, we have almost double the number of applicants for the number of students we get funded for.”

Regina Sullivan, the current director at Queensborough, says: “We know there is so much evidence that a research experience adds to the students’ sense of belonging and increasing their confidence – because [through CRSP] they have accomplished so much… We provide them support and workshops but also ask them to deliver a product.”

What follows in the pages of this special edition of Ad Astra dedicated to CRSP are examples of those products. We thank the directors and mentors without whom none of this research could take place.


1. Ten CUNY associate degree-granting colleges: Bronx Community College, Borough of Manhattan Community College, College of Staten Island, Guttman Community College, Hostos Community College, Kingsborough Community College, LaGuardia Community College, Medgar Evers College, New York City College of Technology, Queensborough Community College.

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Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them and why they matter. Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Nerio, R., Shetty, V., & MacLachlan, E. (2023). “So, we found a way:” How changing modalities affected a year-long mentored research experience for associate’s degree students. CBE-life sciences education, 22, ar49, Winter 2023. doi: 10.1187/cbe.21-09-0278.

Nerio, R., Webber, A., MacLachlan, E., Lopatto, D., & Caplan, A. J.(2019). One-year research experience for associate’s degree students impacts graduation, STEM retention, and transfer patterns. CBE-life sciences education, 18(2), ar25. Doi: 10.1187/cbe.19-02-0042.

Russell, S. H., Hancock, M. P., & McCullough, J. (2007). The pipeline. Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science, 316(5824), 548–549. doi: 10.1126/science.1140384.