Outside the Box

Director of UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program prods students to learn from the world beyond the classroom

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Said Shokair was supposed to be a doctor. His high school test scores qualified him for medical school, which he entered at age 17 in his native Syria. But six months later, after chatting with an uncle who was a pediatric cardiologist at UCLA, he decided to move to Southern California, enrolling at UCI, where he eventually gravitated toward electrical engineering.

Several thousand UCI students and alumni have good reason to celebrate that serendipitous about-face: Shokair exposed them to an education they might not otherwise have experienced.

After graduating in 1990, Shokair began working with students at his alma mater. At first, he was a math counselor, a mentor for underrepresented students and a grant writer/curriculum developer. Then, in 1994, he helped craft the proposal that redirected his career and, possibly, the careers of myriad UCI students who learned that the best education often is found in the world outside their textbooks.

As founding director of what is now UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Shokair has spent more than two decades designing efforts that get his young charges out of the classroom and into the laboratory or field.

For students in UROP, academic silos are verboten; collaboration is key. Shokair urges them to get acquainted, become familiar with each other’s lexicons and keep their biases at bay. Practicing personal responsibility, exceeding expectations, taking the initiative and learning from failure are his mantras. “Teaching students these real-world values is extremely important,” he says.

Wherever their futures take them, Shokair believes student researchers are likely to be successful after they graduate. “This program has shortened their learning curve and helped them engage the world outside academia in a more productive way,” he says.

His role is to ensure that students have considered their options. Shokair likes to ask if they know the proper angle for launching a rocket to get maximum range. “If you launch it at 0 degrees, it will blow your foot off. If you launch it at 90 degrees, it will come down on your head,” he tells them, usually to peals of laughter. “The optimum angle is 45 degrees.

“Your job is to set up the optimum launching angle for your career. If you haven’t done that already, start now.”