By Charles Hallman
Eighteen students from the Twin Cities and Duluth University of Minnesota campuses, Carleton College, and Macalester College this summer participated in research projects in hopes to convince them to pursue graduate degrees in the various sciences.
The students — first-generation college students, students of color and low-income students who have nearly completed their undergraduate course work — were participants in the U of M Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, a 10-week summer research apprenticeship program where students are paired with a school faculty mentor and also paid a $3,000 stipend.
“Many of the McNair Scholars that I was in school with are now faculty members and full professors in higher education,” reported Dr. Katrice Albert, the school’s equity and diversity vice-president. “I think McNair is so important for building the pipeline of people of color, women, and other underrepresented fields, and [getting] first-generation students into the graduate pipeline.”
“The McNair program across the country is the premier research activity for students of color at the undergraduate level who want to go into largely STEM fields,” added U of M President Dr. Eric Kaler. “The success rate nationally is enormous. It might be close to 100 percent, and some programs are 100 percent — every student in the program goes to graduate school.”
More than 60 percent of the U of M McNair Scholars have enrolled in graduate programs since 1992. Albert and Kaler both spoke to the MSR July 31 at the poster presentation ceremony at Coffman Union, where each of the 18 students displayed their research findings on posters.
Albert remembers as a high school senior visiting a college campus, and a professor quickly quizzed her: “He asked me, ‘Young lady, do you plan on getting married?’ Yeah, I guess so. And he said to me, ‘Hypothetically, you marry [her boyfriend at the time] — wouldn’t you appreciate the phone ringing and someone asking to speak to Dr. [so and so], and you’re asking which one?’
“From that moment on, I said I’m getting a Ph.D.,” said Albert.
Kaler added, “I didn’t think about going to graduate school myself until probably [my] sophomore year in college. I just figured I [would] get a bachelor degree and get out. Once I got there, I realized there was more school to be had.”
Black students and other students of color and first-generation college students should look at pursuing a doctoral degree, stated Albert. “When we don’t see things in our community happening, we don’t see people with Ph.Ds, then we don’t know what a Ph.D. in genetics actually does for a living if we don’t see that naturally occurring. Somebody has to say to us this is a possibility.
“I also think the McNair program demystifies the graduate experience,” continued Albert, “to give undergraduate students an opportunity to do research from start to finish. That is the time as an undergraduate student to start thinking about graduate school. The undergraduate degree is definitely a possibility, but also be thoughtful about getting the terminal degree and becoming an expert in your field.”
She believes that research can be fun, too. “You hear all the chatter of them being excited to tell the outcomes of their research,” noted Albert of the students.
Ambrosia Smith of St. Paul, a biology, society and environment major at the U of M, researched how hormones may make women more suspecible to drug addiction. “I’ve been working on the project for 10 weeks, and this is the very beginning,” said Smith. “I’m imaging that this is a project that could be extended for years. It was very cool.”
“This research…made me realize my passion for it,” added Luc Desroches, also of St. Paul, who is majoring in mechanical engineering at U of M, Duluth. “I can now say definitely I am going to be a material scientist” as he explained his project on experimental determination for asphalt binder.
Both students say they plan to apply for graduate school. “It’s been a fantastic opportunity to get research under my belt, knowing that it will really aid me in my applying for graduate school,” said Desroches. “I’m applying for MIT, but the University of Minnesota is in my five top schools.”
“This program has pushed me to look at graduate [school] options,” said Smith. “I was looking at medical school for a while. [Now] this program has me realizing that maybe I do want to be a researcher.”
Indicating that they were McNair Scholars on their graduate school applications is, according to Albert, “the highest recommendation [for the school] as someone you want to strongly consider,” said Albert.
Kaler says he’s proud that his school is an annual participant in the McNair Scholar program, and hopes it will help to increase the numbers of students of color attending graduate school, especially at the U of M.
“I think McNair is so important for building the pipeline of people of color, women and first-generation students into the graduate pipeline,” said Albert. “We know that we have work to do in terms of replenishing those students of color in graduate study, and McNair is one way to do it.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].