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How can we design research environments to be more accessible?

Imagine that you are a new PI. You are eager to establish your own research group and set up your research space. You are excited to mentor a diversity of researchers-in-training. You also know that to produce the best science, it is important to support each of your mentees as individuals. You want to do your best to create a research group whose equipment, protocols, and interactions are accessible to and inclusive of all mentees. Yet, mentees may come from different countries, speak different languages, vary in their race, gender, and ethnicity, and have different physical and learning needs, among other characteristics. Planning for this variation can feel daunting. Fortunately, you can use principles of universal design to help plan your research spaces and processes to support the engagement and success of a diversity of mentees with little need for special modification or specialized equipment. In this post, we explain what universal design is and outline strategies for applying universal design principles in research settings.

Universal Design
The central goal of universal design is to create environments, products, and systems that meet the needs of all people. Instead of centering design on the premise that an “average” human will use the building, product, or system, universal design reflects the reality of who humans are. We differ in our characteristics and have varied needs at different points in our lives. Let’s consider the case of automatic door openers, a classic example of universal design in architecture. Automatic door openers ensure that people using wheelchairs or walking devices, pushing strollers, or carrying large items may all enter and exit through the same door. Universal design has been applied to many fields besides architecture, including product design and education.

In educational contexts, such as research mentoring, there are two related and complementary frameworks of universal design: universal design for instruction and universal design for learning (Burgstahler, 2009; CAST, 2018). In this blog post, we focus on universal design for learning (UDL). We discuss how UDL can be applied in research mentoring. However, we encourage readers to learn more about universal design for instruction because it informs the physical design of research labs and experiences.

Principles of Universal Design for Learning
Universal design for learning (UDL) is a framework that aims to create accessible and inclusive learning spaces and is relevant to research mentoring. Originally created to enhance the accessibility and inclusion of students with disabilities, it’s now recognized that using UDL can benefit all students. The primary goal of UDL is to construct practices that can benefit the greatest number of people from inception, while minimizing the need to retrofit or modify the practices when it becomes clear that they compromise accessibility. Retrofitting or modifying can be costly in terms of time, money, and energy for both mentors and mentees. Using UDL can save time, money, and energy because it positions research mentors to be proactive instead of reactive. Being proactive also benefits mentees because they can focus their time and energy on their own learning and progress instead of troubleshooting inaccessible and non-inclusive practices.

UDL consists of three guiding principles:

  1. Providing multiple means of engagement.
  2. Providing multiple means of representation.
  3. Providing multiple means of action and expression.

Each UDL principle is broken into discreet guidelines and checkpoints. In total there are 9 guidelines and over 30 checkpoints. We will focus on just a few here, and we encourage you to check out the full UDL framework at to learn more.

Opportunities for UDL in Research Mentoring
Here we focus on three common scenarios that present accessibility issues that can be prevented using UDL. As you read these scenarios, consider what assumptions a mentor might be making about mentees and the research process and how UDL could be applied to make both research and mentoring more accessible and inclusive.

Scenario 1. Mentors demonstrate a research protocol or computational technique once and expect the mentee to then carry out the research protocol or technique successfully.

Scenario 2. Mentors send their mentees journal articles with little guidance or structure about how to read these sources and make meaning of the information in the articles.

Scenario 3. Mentors expect mentees to develop their own work schedules and research plans with little, if any, input from their mentors.

In the table below, we walk through each scenario. We explain why the mentoring practice in the scenario does not align to UDL and then we offer strategies more aligned with UDL.

Scenario Issue UDL-Aligned Alternatives
1. Demonstrating a protocol once and expecting a mentee to carry out the protocol successfully. This practice is problematic because information is only provided in one way (i.e., watching a single demonstration).
  • Provide the protocol in advance and ask mentees to review it prior to the demonstration.
  • Include both written instructions and diagrams or other graphics to illustrate the protocol.
  • Ask mentees to make a video recording or otherwise take notes as they observe the demonstration.
  • Ask mentees to write down the questions they have before, during, and/or after the demo and discuss their questions with them.
  • Ask mentees to do the protocol while being observed by someone experienced with the protocol who focuses on giving developmental feedback (i.e., discussing what went well and what can be improved in the future).
2. Sending mentees primary scientific articles with little guidance on how to read or interpret the article. This practice is problematic because just one type of content is being shared (i.e., written scientific articles) and there are no apparent supports in place to help mentees interpret this information.
  • Identify and share videos (e.g., your own research seminars, videos from iBiology, HHMI Biointeractive, or Journal of Visualized Experiments) to help mentees develop background knowledge. Note: Videos should be captioned for full accessibility.
  • Start by sharing a review article to provide more context and history of a research topic. Explain what part(s) of the review are most relevant to the mentee’s project.
  • Ask your research group to generate a vocabulary list or glossary of terms that are commonly used and potentially unfamiliar to new researchers. Make this list easily available to the research group.
  • Invite the mentee to ask other group members how they like to organize scientific literature and their reading notes. Seeing a few examples of how researchers go about organizing their reading notes and making sense of complex information can help mentees develop approaches that best suit them.
3. Expecting mentees to develop their own work schedules and research plans with little, if any, input from their mentors. This practice is problematic because it assumes mentees know how much time it will take for them to complete particular research tasks. It also assumes that mentees will be able to navigate the lack of structure and effectively manage their time when they may have little prior experience doing this.
  • Create resources to help mentees budget time, such as a range of time needed to complete commonly used protocols and notes regarding protocol steps that are good stopping points for when mentees may not have budgeted sufficient time.
  • For bench work, encourage mentees to use timers and sticky notes to help track and manage multiple experiments or tasks concurrently.
  • For computational work, generate FAQs associated with commonly encountered problems when coding or running particular analyses to minimize the amount of time mentees spend looking for these resources on their own.
  • Encourage mentees to ask other group members about how they manage their time to find an approach that works for them (e.g., setting timers, using time block scheduling, etc.)


Here, we introduced the concept of universal design, provided an overview of the universal design for learning (UDL) framework, and provided examples of how research mentors can apply UDL-aligned strategies in their mentoring. The examples and strategies we presented here are not a panacea – they are a starting point for ongoing discussion. Ultimately, the most important thing to do is to ask your mentees what is working well for them and what changes, if any, would allow them to do their work better. By asking this question, mentors can get direct input about challenges or barriers mentees are encountering so that mentors and mentees can strategize together about how to structure the research environment to promote mentee engagement, progress, and success.


Interested in learning more about accessibility? Check out these AAAS blogs, which offer a great entry point to universal design in STEM settings:

Here are additional resources to learn more about the experiences of people with disabilities in STEM:

  • Feig, A. D., Atchison, C., Stokes, A., & Gilley, B. (2019). Achieving inclusive field-based education: Results and recommendations from an accessible geoscience field trip. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 19(2).
  • Friedensen, R., Lauterbach, A., Kimball, E., & Mwangi, C. G. (2021). Students with high-incidence disabilities in STEM: Barriers encountered in postsecondary learning environments. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 34(1), 77-90.
  • Gin, L. E., Guerrero, F. A., Cooper, K. M., & Brownell, S. E. (2020). Is active learning accessible? Exploring the process of providing accommodations to students with disabilities. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 19(4), es12.
  • Pfeifer, M. A., Cordero, J. J., & Stanton, J. D. (2023). What I wish my instructor knew: How active learning influences the classroom experiences and self-advocacy of STEM majors with ADHD and specific learning disabilities. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 22(1), ar2.
  • Syharat, C. M., Hain, A., Zaghi, A. E., Gabriel, R., & Berdanier, C. G. P. (2023). Experiences of neurodivergent students in graduate STEM programs. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.
  • Zaghi, A. E., Grey, A., Hain, A., & Syharat, C. M. (2023). “It seems like I’m doing something more important”-An interpretative phenomenological analysis of the transformative impact of research experiences for STEM Students with ADHD. Education Sciences, 13(8).

Do you have other ideas about applying universal design for learning to research environments? Email us at– your input may be the focus of a future blog post!

If you are interested in learning more about evidence-based practices related to undergraduate research and mentorship, please check out our other blog posts in this series (listed below) and stay tuned for future blog posts!

  1. Who gets to do undergraduate research?
  2. New researchers have arrived-now what?
  3. How do you know what your mentee knows?
  4. How do I set my mentee up for success in research?
  5. How do you support mentee independence in research?
  6. How can we provide effective feedback to our mentees?

About the Authors

Dr. Mariel Pfeifer is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Mississippi and a C-CoMP alum. Her group studies the experiences of students with disabilities in STEM settings and how early career researchers optimize their own training experiences based on their interests and goals.

Dr. Erin Dolan is a professor of biochemistry & molecular biology and Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education at the University of Georgia as well as C-CoMP’s Diversity Coordinator.


Burgstahler, S. (2009). Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples. Do-It.

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from