Growing up with a statistics professor as a father, Sabrina Yen (Col ’18) inherited a tendency to think analytically. She spent part of her summer in 2015 searching for research projects that would allow her talents to flourish.
Now, through USOAR, the UVA Undergraduate Student Opportunities in Academic Research Program, she has a paid research position doing what she loves. Yen is reviewing academic literature and databases to determine the impact of sustainability challenges on business management and operations.
It’s enough to make an analytically minded person giddy. “I’m just so excited to be a part of this program,” she said.
Through USOAR, students engage in research investigations alongside faculty mentors who are renowned experts in their fields. Students not only earn an income for their research, they get first-hand experience in an area they’re passionate about. Many are offered opportunities after their USOAR year to continue their research in faculty labs, which is also a goal of the program.
Yen’s project focuses on the eco-wine industry and she’s joined by research assistants from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The team’s research includes analyzing the environmental and economic impacts at each stage of wine production. Her part of the project deals with eco-labeling, which indicates the sustainability of a service or product. In the case of eco-wine, Yen is conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the choices organic wine producers face when labeling their wines.
“It’s all about what information to put on the labels that from a societal perspective are considered sustainable,” she said. “For example, using organic grapes, or not using dangerous pesticides—these are some of the criteria eco-wine producers must meet. What are the cost-benefits for each of these labeling decisions?”
Yen credits her supervising faculty member, Mark White, associate professor of commerce and director of the McIntire Business Institute, with providing an environment that encourages learning through rigorous research. “The Commerce School teachers really care about the students,” she said. “Professor White always makes time for me, no matter how busy he is.”
White brings his enthusiasm to USOAR. “This project combines my background in teaching business and finance with my passion for sustainability,” he said, adding that Virginia is ripe for this kind of research, considering it is one of the largest wine-producing states in the country. White is hopeful that the research results will be published, having an impact not only on the regional wine industry, but influencing government policy, as well. “If you are producing sustainable wine, with public and environmental benefits, then the taxes on your wine shouldn’t be as high as those on conventional wine,” he said.
Student wages are funded through a combination of Federal Work-Study funds and grants provided by the Jefferson Trust and the UVA Parents Fund.
“I am extremely grateful for a Jefferson Trust grant that made USOAR possible. They believed in the program after a small pilot project demonstrated how meaningful the research experiences are for the student participants,” said Brian Cullaty, director of undergraduate research opportunities at the Center for Undergraduate Excellence and director of the USOAR program. “Additional funding from the Parents Fund has allowed us to provide opportunities to even more students. These grants have created valuable work opportunities while at the same time allowing students to pursue their passion for research.”
Jacob Resch, assistant professor in the Curry School of Education’s Kinesiology Program, is supervising a project studying clinical measures of sport concussion in young and adult athletes. “This is such a unique opportunity. It’s exciting to see undergraduate students getting one-on-one exposure in a laboratory setting. The ultimate goal is that by the time these students graduate, their research results in a first-author publication,” Resch said.
For Yen, USOAR has already helped her reach an ambitious goal—she received a 2016 Harrison Undergraduate Research Award. The Harrison award will allow her to travel to Germany over the summer to conduct a case study of German sustainable wineries, which are currently some of the best in the world.