Above and Beyond

McNair Scholars Program prepares graduate-school hopefuls

8/13/2010 - By: Natalie Savidge

As many undergraduate students took a break from their studies this summer, one small group of the University of Nevada, Reno’s “best and brightest” juniors and seniors spent much of the summer looking ahead to and preparing for graduate school.

The Program

Eleven junior and senior University students completed the 2010 McNair Scholars Program at the end of July after seven weeks of team-building exercises, mentor-guided research and intense-study sessions in preparation for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the standardized, graduate-school entrance exam.

Participating in research can be transformative for students. Through a national initiative to support the advancement of underrepresented students in higher education, qualified undergraduate students join with faculty mentors to devise and conduct research. The students in this summer’s cohort plan to acquire a doctoral degree.

“TRiO programs, including the University’s Upward Bound and McNair Scholars, help students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to higher education, offering hope and support to those who need and desire it,” said Marsha Dupree, assistant director of the University’s McNair Scholars Program.

The Prep

Students are required to take a four-week GRE-preparation course taught by McNair staff members. During the course, they learn how to approach the verbal, quantitative and writing sections of the examination, including the construction of each scholar’s personal statements. The summer institute also includes a two-day workshop on preparing graduate school admissions applications.

Before the students even begin GRE prep work or research, they hang out at the Project Discovery Ropes Course in Lake Tahoe. There, they learn team-building strategies and how to approach difficult physical and mental obstacles.

“Much of what they learn on the ropes course can be applied to the obstacles they’ll face in graduate school,” said Heather Penrod, GRE prep verbal and writing instructor, who has been involved with the McNair Scholars Program for the last seven years.

Throughout the summer, students also work on a research project with a mentor of their choosing, which concludes with an oral or poster presentation at the 18th Annual McNair Symposium, this year held at the University of California, Berkeley, Aug. 5-8. Over the course of the symposium’s four days, more than 250 McNair Scholars presented the culmination of their McNair research before an audience of academics, peers, friends and relatives; met graduate program representatives and learned more about graduate admissions. After the symposium, scholars complete a final draft of their research paper for publication in the McNair Scholars Research Journal.

All seven of the program’s cohort from last summer graduated and were accepted into various graduate programs in schools such as Columbia University, UC Davis, Penn State and University of Alabama. All are enrolled to begin instruction this fall and, combined, earned nearly $170,000 in funding awards, including stipends, grants and scholarships.

The Scholars

2010 McNair Summer Scholar and neuroscience major Megan Tillman presented her research project, “The efficiency of using color to improve memorization,” at the program’s closing luncheon July 23.

“Research on the relationship between color and memory is significant because it could present students and teachers with ideas on how to create more effective study tools using color and therefore improve the performance of students in their classes,” Tillman said. “Basically, I examine the differences in the ability to memorize words and statements based on whether they are in color, like red and green, or in black and white.”

Tillman encourages anyone eligible for the McNair Scholars Program to “seize the opportunity.”

“The program’s staff is willing to aid the scholars, whether it is extra GRE help, tips on how to improve your application, or writing a letter of recommendation,” she said. “Their diligence to get all of their scholars to graduate school is tremendous.”

Another scholar, psychology major Yeeymmy Giron, explains why she chose her mentor, Associate Professor Larry Williams of the University’s Behavior Analysis Program.

“He has experience and knowledge in the field and in my research topic,” Giron said. “He impressed me initially when taking a course with him. It has been a pleasure working with him and he seems really interested in my study.”

Giron’s research topic takes a behavior analytic approach to a weight-loss program, studying obese young women and the opportunity to engage in self-monitoring and behavior management. Participants monitor caloric consumption, physical activity and weight measurements online and receive feedback through an “e-program,” in hopes of decreasing their body mass index.

Senior chemical engineering major Nazrul “Naz” Mojumder who participated in the program also found the McNair Scholars program very helpful.

“The McNair Summer Scholars Program provides its students many resources to help them be successful applicants when applying to programs. It’s helped me focus on a few of the things I needed further improvement on, such as the verbal and the writing sections.”

Mojumder’s project focuses on understanding structural and functional properties of Nickel Superoxide Dismutase (NiSOD), a catalyzing agent associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Mojumder has also studied abroad as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Morocco, building a computer lab in a local high school there and providing healthcare services.

The Future

McNair scholars study and work hard throughout the summer, all with a plan to pass the GRE and be accepted into a graduate program of their choice.

“The summer program went very well and the students are now in the midst of taking their GREs and preparing for our trip to UC Berkeley,” Dupree said. “Each has goals they strive to meet, many in very different fields.”

Tillman plans to work toward a doctorate degree in neuroscience and study Alzheimer’s disease, then pursue a M.D. or work in a research clinic for patients with Alzheimer’s.

Giron would like to work closely with social services to improve the system. She would like to contribute to the cost-effective, empirical interventions for foster youth with behavior deficits and to improve foster-parent training.

To further explore the work he is doing in his summer research project, Mojumder wants to enroll in a dual M.D./Ph.D. program and do research in neurodegenerative diseases and then go on to volunteer with Rotary International in the healthcare sector.

The Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program was created by Congress to increase the number of underrepresented persons pursuing teaching, research and administrative careers in higher education. Since the program’s introduction to the University of Nevada, Reno in 2003, it has prepared first-generation, low-income and underrepresented Nevada undergraduates for doctoral study and is federally funded at $231,000 per year.

For more information about the McNair Scholars Program, eligibility criteria, photos of the scholars and abstracts of their research projects, visit the McNair Scholars website.


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