When Sarah Beckett Cleveland ’19 (CLAS), a biological sciences major, wanted to get involved in science research, she wasn’t sure she could make it work. She was financing her own education through academic-year jobs, and helping to support her mother in her hometown of Windsor.
But she heard about the McNair Scholars program for undergraduate research, and it opened up a door.
“The program seeks to put people like me, who might be funding their education on their own, or are a first-generation student, in a place where they can afford to have incredible experiences like this,” she says.
At the sixth annual McNair Scholars poster exhibition this week, 19 rising juniors and seniors from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering, and the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources presented the results so far of their summer research projects. The projects ranged from genetics and immunology to muscle physiology and an EEG-operated robot.
“The goal is for students to be sharing and presenting their results, so they can be a cut above when applying to graduate school,” says Renée Gilberti, McNair Scholars Program coordinator.
The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program is a national initiative federally funded by the U.S. Department of Education honoring the legacy of its namesake, an accomplished laser physicist and the second African American to fly in space, who was tragically killed in the Challenger explosion of 1986.
UConn is one of 151 colleges and universities that participate in the McNair program, which seeks to help low-income students, students from underrepresented backgrounds, first-generation students, and students with disabilities succeed in higher education.
The McNair program at UConn focuses on STEM fields, placing talented students into science and engineering research experiences, with the goal of preparing them for Ph.D. degrees and careers in academia.
“Our students have a real love for science, and they apply for the program thinking, ‘I want to go to graduate school, but I need the structure of the McNair program to get there,’” says Gilberti.
Students work under the leadership of faculty mentors, who not only guide the students in the laboratory, but take them to scientific conferences and help them network in the field. The program currently has 42 UConn faculty mentors.
Cleveland works in the laboratory of associate professor of molecular and cell biology Spencer Nyholm, her faculty mentor, with the guidance of graduate student Sarah McAnulty. Her work uses fluids from cells in the Hawaiian bobtail squid to help understand how symbiotic immune systems work. Cleveland says this work is the background she needs to pursue a career in immunology.
“I’m really interested in how we can use our own immune systems to fight cancer,” she says.
Richmond Apore ’19 (CLAS), a biological sciences and history major working with mentor Alfredo Angeles-Boza, an assistant professor of chemistry, is also interested in immunology, but from a chemical angle.
He’s studying how the element zinc binds to particular antimicrobial peptides. His work could help scientists – and eventually doctors – understand how to use zinc to help mitigate antibiotic resistance.
Originally from rural Ghana, Apore sees a career in medicine in his future, so he can help areas like his home country overcome diseases that have been long since been eradicated in the first world. He says his liberal arts coursework has been key to his chosen path.
“Science is what I study for the change I aspire to make, and history is my passion,” he says. “Studying history has helped me learn to take facts and mold them together to see a bigger picture, which is so useful in science.”
Apore and Cleveland both aspire to attend Brown University, one of three universities the McNair Scholars visited this summer to learn about graduate school options. Both know that it’s a competitive school, but are confident they can be strong applicants.
“It would really be a dream,” says Cleveland.
If you’re a faculty member who would like to be a McNair Scholar mentor, please apply here.