A culture of teamwork — and transformation

Student-mentor relationships are the root of UWL’s research prowess

UWL senior Annie Panico with mentor, Anton Sanderfoot, associate professor of Biology. Sanderfoot's lab students conduct experiments with green algae, a one-celled plant. Panico has expanded the research to pursue her environmental interests. She is using green algae to better understand the effects of nitrates in drinking water.

Posted 3:03 p.m. Friday, July 29, 2022

Rewind more than 2,400 years ago to ancient Greece. Education was not yet institutionalized. Universities, as we know them, didn’t exist.  

Mentoring was how knowledge and inspiration were shared.  

Everyday concepts of life today from ethics to science and mathematics began with the wisdom and experience of one great thinker passed to the next. Socrates mentored Plato. Plato built on those ideas, wrote famous works, founded what many consider to be the first Western university, and became a mentor to Aristotle.  

Today, this tradition of passing and expanding knowledge through mentorship continues. We seek out mentors in business, arts, science, parenthood and personal struggle. At UWL, mentorship is one of the cornerstones of the university, says Chancellor Joe Gow.  

“Because we're not a huge university, our faculty and staff have the ability to devote personal attention to our students,” notes Gow. “I've always felt our faculty and staff are great role models, and the fact that we've hired so many UWL alumni is a clear indication of how well our system works.” 

UWL student Annie Panico examines green algae in the lab. Panico, who earned a biology degree in May, will be working at Charles River Laboratories in Illinois doing in vitro toxicology to determine if certain products are toxic to cells. The work is similar to her UWL research.

For student Annie Panico, mentorship started her first year on campus. She was awarded an Eagle Apprentice scholarship that allowed her to work with a faculty mentor as a new, incoming student. 

Anton Sanderfoot ran a lab on the fourth floor of the Prairie Springs Science Center where a group of students was learning more about green algae, a one-celled plant often used in experimentation because how easy and inexpensive it is to grow. They learned how to grow green algae in a petri dish, nurture it in the right conditions, and break different parts of it at the molecular level to figure out how it worked. In other words, they learned how to be scientists.  

But Panico wanted a little more than that. She was interested in the environment and had been reading about nitrates in drinking water. It was inconclusive if they were detrimental to human health. She wanted to know if they caused cancer. 

It was a big question, and she shared it with Sanderfoot. It turns out, Sanderfoot explained, that what they had been doing in all those petri dishes could potentially help answer her question. While they couldn’t try the nitrate experiment on humans — moral philosophy reminds us of that — it could be tested out on the one-celled green organisms in the lab. 

Panico received undergraduate research and creativity grants to keep investigating her questions about nitrates throughout her four years as a biology student. All the while Sanderfoot listened to her questions, provided some answers, but also got out of the way.  

“Sometimes some of the best lessons are the ones learned the hard way — when the consequences are mild,” explains Sanderfoot.  

And while the university can’t afford to have a one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, professors like Sanderfoot are very conscious of the mentoring relationships they build with students. They keep their office doors open for questions and build classroom projects or labs that allow hands-on time with the academic material. The research culture on campus has grown to the point where any student who wants a research experience can have one.  

In fact, UWL’s diverse undergraduate research and creativity programs that give as many students as possible hands-on experiences are so strong that the university received a national award for it from the Council for Undergraduate Research in spring 2022.

The history of research on campus

UWL's undergraduate research focus started about 20 years ago when UWL initiated the first UW System Undergraduate Research Symposium and the Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship program was founded by Mike Nelson, former College of Science and Health dean. The symposium allowed students across the system to showcase their research publicly. The fellowship program made research experiences with mentors possible for talented students with interest in science. 

Professor Scott Cooper, UWL’s first undergraduate research and creativity coordinator

Undergraduate research experiences grew exponentially when Biology Professor Scott Cooper became UWL’s first undergraduate research and creativity coordinator in 2011. Cooper believed that every student who wanted a research experience should have one. He believed it so firmly that at any given time he has anywhere from 15-30 students working in his biology lab, helping him better understand the blood and hearts of hibernating ground squirrels. 

Outside of class, students were working on the big goal of gathering more information that could translate to treating human heart conditions and bleeding disorders. All the while they were also learning about the scientific process, teamwork and mentoring one another.  

“Working in Dr. Cooper’s lab helped prepare me more for medical school than any high-level biology class. Dr. Cooper facilitated a gradual increase in responsibility while encouraging critical thinking,” says UWL alum Michael J. Gyorfi, MD at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. “Most importantly he demonstrated how to be a great mentor, educator, and friend.” 

The research experiences across campus don’t all look like Cooper’s lab. It may be a one-on-one, student-mentor relationship or a class all working together to solve a problem for a community client. Sometimes a program helps underrepresented students warm up to research, mentorship and eventually graduate school. And sometimes a student simply attends a research symposium for credit for class with the assignment of asking a peer about their research. The commonality is that all of these experiences start with a simple relationship that shows students there is a doorway to higher learning, growth and possibility.


The program changed the trajectory of my life. It provided me access to a R1 institution. I had the opportunity to start seeing myself as a scholar and engage in the work that is important to me.” - José Rubio-Zepeda, '14 


A natural exchange emerges 

Panico recalls the first time she set foot in Sanderfoot’s lab. She was nervous. She had never met someone with a Ph.D. Would he be mean? Would he think she wasn’t smart enough? Should she ask a question or just keep quiet? 

Sanderfoot has gotten this vibe from students before. A Ph.D. isn’t a magical thing, he says. It means he’s been studying the stuff he is interested in for a long time. One of his favorite things is getting new questions from curious students.  

“That is part of what we do in science — you acknowledge the question, try to answer it, and science marches on,” he says. 

Panico says one of the ways she’s grown the most over her four years on campus is learning how to problem solve on her own while also understanding when it is time to ask a question. 

And then, somewhere along the way, the questions turn into more profound discussions between teacher and student. The assignments, grades and tests fade into the background, making room for genuine curiosity. 

The mentor and the student begin a natural exchange about the world and the way things are — just like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.


“For me graduate school wasn’t really in the picture until I went to an information session about McNair,” says José Rubio-Zepeda, '14. “The program changed the trajectory of my life. It provided me access to a R1 institution. I had the opportunity to start seeing myself as a scholar and engage in the work that is important to me.” Rubio-Zepeda, a former McNair Scholars Program participant, is currently the assistant director for retention at UWL.

National honors  

UWL received a national award for providing high-quality research experiences to undergraduates in April — the 2021 Campus-Wide Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments from the Council on Undergraduate Research.   

“It recognizes the countless, unseen hours of faculty working with students across many disciplines,” says Provost Betsy Morgan. “For many years we have been able to celebrate the outcomes in terms of scholarly research, presentations, and the graduate school and career options our students have embraced.” 

The award wouldn’t have happened without faculty mentors stepping up to work with hundreds of students through the years, says Biology Professor Scott Cooper. 

“It recognizes all the great things going on our campus with undergrad research,” he notes. “We hope it will attract more interest and attention in supporting this work.”

How UWL stood out among highly qualified applicants for the national undergraduate research award: 

  • Leadership in undergraduate research   
  • Outreach to audiences beyond the university   
  • Facilities dedicated primarily to undergraduate research   
  • Success with competitive external funding  
  • Strong dissemination through student presentations and co-authorship   
  • Effort to develop substantial foundation support for the undergraduate research program

How can alumni support UWL research and creative projects?

Where some campuses have had to cut research opportunities out of declining budgets, UWL has been able to grow them by coming up with multiple revenue streams to support research and creative programs. One of those primary revenue streams is from alumni and donors who support research with funds or time, explains Cooper. 

“I love being able to work directly with students through hands-on research projects,” says Amy Nicodemus, assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology.

Become a mentor to students: Even after you leave UWL physically, you can stay connected to the university through the UWL Alumni Association, UWL events or by partnering with the university through UWL Community Engagement at uwlax.edu/community/ — Click on “community partners” to see how you could partner with a student, faculty member or class.

Show your support through the UWL Foundation: A UWL Foundation endowment is set up to support undergraduate research grants for 80 students from all disciplines. Your funding could support an incoming student researcher, a student and faculty mentor pair or a course-embedded class project. “This funding has been critical with budget issues over the years as we have tried to get more students involved in research,” says Cooper. “An undergraduate research scholarship provides funding for a student’s research experience going forward into the future vs. a traditional scholarship that is for something they have done in the past.” 

Support an Eagle Apprentice: Annie Panico was an Eagle Apprentice. This program recruits and financially supports 25-35 students doing research with a faculty mentor in their first two years on campus. It is funded through Financial Aid, which awards students with a $1,000 research scholarship each year. Generous support from donors also helps fund Eagle Apprentice opportunities.  

 How UWL continually shows innovative research. 

  • UWL has supported Course Embedded Undergraduate Research projects, many that involve community partners as “clients.” 
  • In 1999 UWL Biology Professor Scott Cooper and Chemistry Professor Aaron Monte initiated the UW-System Undergraduate Research Symposium
  • Over 20 years ago, former UWL College of Science and Health Dean Mike Nelson began the Dean’s Distinguished Summer Fellows (DDF), a program that has recently expanded under the leadership of current Dean Mark Sandheinrich. 
  • UWL is one of few campuses nationwide to have hosted the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) twice, led by CSH Associate Dean Gubbi Sudhakaran in 2009 and 2013.    
  • Led by Tony Sanderfoot, Biology, UWL has been a partner with the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP) since 2008, serving underrepresented students in STEM disciplines.  
  • The McNair Scholars Program, a federal TRIO program that prepares undergraduate students for doctoral studies through research and other scholarly activities, came to campus under the leadership of CSH Associate Dean Roger Haro in 2009. 
  • First Year Research Experience (FYRE) program is an academic diversity initiative in the CSHwhere 15 undergraduate students of color have opportunity to participate in career and major exploration activities and enroll in gateway classes together.
  • Professor Victor Macías-González and Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion Barbara Stewart designed the Eagle Mentoring Program in 2008, a retention initiative for under-represented, second-year students. It offers students credit while they prepare for research, and explore and apply to graduate school programs. The program has continued with leaders: Former Associate Dean Charles Martin-Stanley from 2016-21 and Director of the Center for Transformative Justic Tara Nelson starting in 2021.