Three CAHNR students selected as McNair Fellows

Jacqueline Cuevas Gonzalez, Kasidy Quiles, and Lavar Johnson
Jacqueline Cuevas Gonzalez, Kasidy Quiles, and Lavar Johnson

Three students from CAHNR have been chosen as UConn McNair Fellows for the fall 2020 semester. Jacqueline Cuevas Gonzalez has just completed her sophomore year in the Department of Allied Health Sciences (AHS), while Kasidy Quiles and Lavar Johnson have just completed their freshman year in AHS.

The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, funded through the US Department of Education, is designed to prepare low-income, first generation, or underrepresented students for the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. degree in STEM fields. First- and second-year students apply during the spring semester to become McNair Fellows the following fall semester. Sophomores and juniors can apply to become McNair Scholars.

“Students in the program will spend three to six hours a week shadowing in a research lab for the fall 2020 semester, exploring various techniques while learning to budget their time as an independent researcher,” says Renée Gilberti, program coordinator for the UConn McNair Scholars Program.

Jacqueline Cuevas Gonzalez
Jacqueline Cuevas Gonzalez

Jacqueline Cuevas Gonzalez is interested in how diseases affect our health and genes and is considering a career in the medical field, possibly as a physician assistant or nurse practitioner.

She volunteered in the Dominican Republic, shadowing doctors in a hospital setting and distributing medicine at clinics in rural communities. Cuevas Gonzalez is an honors student and serves as a mentor with the METAS Peer Mentoring Program, is a member of Alpha Lambda Delta honor society and participated as an intern in an eight-week research project alongside a chemistry graduate student.

She says, “Being able to participate in the McNair program will help me get a better understanding and look into what research is and how to approach it. I am looking forward to learning more about my faculty advisor and their research.”

Kasidy Quiles is interested in neuroscience and psychology and is considering a Ph.D. in neuroscience or pursuing work in an emergency department as a physician assistant. She volunteered at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Lord Chamberlain Nursing Home and with the Bridgeport Caribe Youth leaders. Quiles is a member of the Pre-PA Society, Alpha Epsilon Phi and First Generation Society.

Kasidy Quiles
Kasidy Quiles

She says, “I can now call myself a McNair Fellow! This is such an exciting opportunity, and I am immensely grateful to be a part of something so big. I can’t wait to start this new journey.”

Lavar Johnson is intrigued by the study of mood disorders and health psychology. He says his career aspirations vary between becoming a health psychologist or diving deeper into public health with epidemiology or health education.

Johnson was a volunteer with Aid for Puerto Rico and a math and science tutor at Prosser Library in Bloomfield. He’s part of the UConn Honors Program, received the STEM Scholar Award and is a member of the UConn Fridays For Future Club. He first learned about the McNair program from his sister, who was a participant in the first cohort of McNair Fellows in May 2013 and the second cohort beginning in January 2014.

He says, “I truly and deeply appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the McNair Fellows Program. I look forward to working alongside students and faculty who will provide me with the hands-on experience necessary to explore scientific inquiry.”

Lavar Johnson
Lavar Johnson

The McNair program is named for Dr. Ronald E. McNair, a recognized expert in LASER physics and mission specialist astronaut with NASA. He was the second African American to fly into space during a Challenger mission that completed shuttle satellite deployment and flight testing of rendezvous sensors and computer programs, as well as the first flight of the manned maneuvering unit and first use of the Canadarm, operated by McNair, to position a crew member around Challenger’s payload bay. He was killed while on the 1986 Challenger mission. McNair was very involved in promoting educational programs for underrepresented students, particularly from impoverished areas.

McNair Fellows take a one-credit First Year Experience course entitled Exploring STEM Research 101, taught by Gilberti. The course covers professional development, graduate school and research writing. Before students begin lab work, they complete online safety training sessions specific to their research group.

The original UConn McNair Fellow program entailed a two-week experience immediately after the semester ended, but last year Gilberti moved it to the fall and extended it for the entire semester. “Two weeks was too short a time period for most students to truly learn if being a researcher was in their future,” she says.

Students may choose to apply to the McNair Scholar program, which follows them throughout their remaining undergraduate career and includes an on-campus summer research program. Gilberti works with each scholar individually year round to guide them through the rigors of undergraduate research while preparing them for post-graduate studies. She helps prepare the Scholars to submit competitive graduate school applications and professional portfolios, including practice interview sessions, and plans visits to graduate school programs at various institutions for unique networking opportunities.

“Most of our McNair Scholars do go on to pursue graduate education,” Gilberti says. “It’s very rewarding work to see the students come into their own, and learn how they are persevering through their graduate studies, too!”

By Kim Colavito Markesich

Article originally appeared on Naturally@UConn.