McNair Scholars hone their skills as they prepare to apply to graduate schools

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McNair Scholars at the 25th annual Undergraduate Research Conference, hosted by the University of Buffalo, with interim program adviser Tiffany Menard (far right). Among them are Kyle Thompson (center, sixth from left), Nicole Johnson (third from right) and Breanna Jones (second from right).

By Bonnie Blankinship

Twelve Bowling Green State University undergraduates are a significant step closer to graduate school after a summer of intensive, independent research and scholarship followed by participation in the 25th annual Undergraduate Research Conference, hosted by the University of Buffalo, in Niagara Falls. The students are part of the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, designed to support and encourage students who come from backgrounds where they may experience barriers to attaining advanced degrees.

Working with their individual faculty mentors, the McNair Scholars developed their research proposals during spring semester and then spent eight weeks over the summer conducting their studies and preparing their presentations. Attending the conference were Najah Biggs, Breanna Jones, Coniyah McKinney, Jeremy Miller, Jazmyne Rice, Kyron Smith, Kyle Thompson, Jayla Conner, Nicole Johnson, Gyona Rice, Marquett Samuels, and Cornasia Sandford.

Tiffany Menard, interim McNair Scholars program adviser, said, “This is an amazing group of students. It’s been great to work with them, and I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do. We recruit for the program at the beginning of each fall semester, and we are currently accepting applications from juniors for our next cohort of scholars. The application is available on our website or at our office.”

The group is on the road again for another McNair program research conference, this time to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Gaining experience in research and presentation has proven invaluable, they said, especially in terms of readiness for graduate school.

“I’m so thankful for McNair,” said fourth-year student Kyle Thompson, a sociology major with a minor in psychology who came to BGSU from Pickering Central High School. “A lot of people don’t really get the opportunity to do research and present it. It’s been so supportive and it’s helped me find opportunities, and also to find the passion in myself. It’s been interesting to discover the new dimensions and see it all unfold.”

Bridging his interests in policy and activism, Thompson’s exploratory project, “Methods of Nonprofit Advocacy for Black People in Columbus, Ohio,” involved surveying the mission statements of various social service agencies and then seeing “what that looked like in the community and how their mission statements reflected that.”

His mentor was Dr. Steve Demuth, an associate professor of sociology, who shares Thompson’s interest in social justice. Thompson said while it was “nerve-wracking” to prepare for the conference, he practiced his presentation to the point that he could feel confident. He would like to eventually combine his multidisciplinary interests in economics, political science, philosophy and sociology, and sees himself pursuing a career in higher education.

The McNair students’ research topics varied widely. For Breanna Jones, the project provided the opportunity to explore an aspect of domestic violence, which ties into her career goal of becoming a licensed social worker and clinical therapist working with troubled youth. A senior from Detroit who graduated from University High School, she is majoring in social work and human development and family studies. She is an on-call advocate for the Cocoon Shelter for women and families and a passionate believer in the value of therapy in helping people overcome challenges and trauma.

She took a creative approach with her study, “Perceptions Over Time: The Portrayal of Domestic Violence in Black Films,” for which she analyzed four films from the 1980s to 2010, identifying negative stereotypes and representations of black women and families.

“With only six major companies controlling most of our media, their beliefs and perceptions are influencing what we see,” Jones said. “The media is becoming our teacher. We have to learn not to let the media control our minds and attitudes.”

Jones’s mentor was Dr. Peggy Adams, chair of the social work program, who was extremely supportive, she said. But although she had done her research and prepared diligently for her oral presentation at the conference, “When I saw the long line outside the door I was nervous. But I remembered what Tiffany (Menard) had told me: ‘You’re the expert in the room.’ She helps us a lot with getting ready, and she’s always available. She’s very honest and she pushes you to go farther. I never thought I would have the confidence and courage to present, but I did.”

Senior biology major Nicole Johnson also is concerned with health, but from a different angle. Her career goal is to be a genetic counselor. A graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio, she said, “I’ve seen a lot of families who have had problems. I’d like to help provide preventative care with planning ahead and during pregnancy with some counseling.”

For her McNair study, she utilized her additional love of chemistry. She chose to assess the purity of a variety of brands of virgin olive oil commonly found in area grocery stores. Working with mentor Dr. Paul Morris, professor of biological sciences, and his graduate assistant Carren Burkey, she prepared the samples, separated the fatty acids and used chromatography to analyze their chemical composition. Only one of four was actually pure olive oil, she found.

“I wanted to see if we’re really getting sold what we think we’re getting,” Johnson said. “I had read of cases of people getting sick from impure olive oil.”

Calling Morris “amazing” and saying Burkey provided “a ton of help,” Johnson said the research experience was very valuable.

She said that, like Jones, “I was really nervous about the oral presentation because I hate public speaking, but Tiffany helped me groom for that. It turned out really well. People had a lot of questions about it because this is something they’re putting in their bodies.

“I didn’t know much about graduate school and what you need for it before McNair. It’s a really excellent program. It helps you with writing and public speaking. I’ve gotten to meet people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s been so helpful.”

Being in a community of other McNair Scholars has also been beneficial, she said. “We’ve kept each other focused.”