The URA program grew out of suggestions by former Faculty Senate Presidents Tom Fomby (Economics) and Caroline Brettell (Anthropology) that the University establish a program to involve undergraduate students in faculty research enterprises. With the enthusiastic support of Associate Provost Tom Tunks, the initial parameters of the program – then called the Undergraduate Research Associate program – were outlined during AY 2004-2005. The cooperation and funding provided by the staff of the Office of Financial Aid, especially by Marc Peterson and Mary Beard, proved to be significant in implementing the URA program.
In AY 2005-06 the URA program moved into a “beta” test phase, involving a limited number of departments. Although other departments initially were invited to participate, in the end only Anthropology, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, and Physics were able to commit matching funds. These five departments allocated their URA awards in different ways. Some students worked for a single semester, others worked for the fall/spring terms, others worked only during the summer, and a few worked from fall throughout the 12-month period.
An oversight group (consisting of representatives of participating departments, the Provost’s office, and the Financial Aid office) agreed to review the program during the academic year. The goal was to evaluate the program's effectiveness and work toward expanding the program in the coming academic year. Prof. Robert Van Kemper led the URA Steering Group from then through 2009. Under his leadership, the number of URAs expanded by 150%, becoming an important element in the overall SMU offering for undergraduates interested in research.
Starting in 2012, SMU has initiated a formal full-time Summer Research Assistantship (SRA) program. Fourteen students were supported.