Looking Forward to Grad School
Research opportunities available for undergraduates
By Benita Whitehorn
he University of Mississippi offers programs that allow undergraduates a chance to acquire valuable research experience, all while getting paid and enjoying other benefits as well.
The Ronald E. McNair Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is one such option. It serves low-income, first-generation and underrepresented rising college juniors and seniors who are interested in conducting research and pursuing a doctoral degree in any academic discipline. The UM program partners with three other Mississippi institutions of higher learning: Alcorn State University, Rust College and Tougaloo College. Its 2014 Summer Research and Graduate Studies Program will take place May 22-July 8.
“The McNair Program was my first introduction to research and graduate school,” said Teressa Davis, a UM senior psychology major with a minor in African American studies, who participated in the McNair Program this past summer. “I must say it was very overwhelming at first, but the information I have learned and continue to learn is priceless.”
“There were so many rewards with the program,” said April Fuller, a 2013 McNair participant and UM junior English major with a focus on British literature. “We received GRE prep and free Kaplan books, a graduate course that helped us learn to research, library tours, tours to other campuses to view the graduate schools, all-expense-paid travels to McNair conferences, etc. I flew to New Mexico, slept in a wonderful hotel and presented at a conference that prepared me for critiques that I will receive when I attend graduate school.”
Jamarius Waller, a 2013 McNair participant and UM senior biochemistry major with a minor in mathematics, said, “The greatest reward of the McNair Program was the pure experience of being able to operate in a lab setting and learn new techniques and protocols. … The program really introduced me to the world of research and what potential I had in the field.”
Benefits of the McNair Program include:
- $2,700 stipend
- 3 credit hours
- Meal plan
- Campus housing
- The chance to present research nationally/locally
- Graduate school admissions assistance
- Academic/personal counseling
- Interaction with faculty and graduate student mentors
- Expanded library and research skills
Ronald E. McNair
Ronald Erwin McNair, Ph.D., physicist and astronaut, dared to dream. In 1971, he graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina AT&T State University with a B.S. in physics. In 1976, at 26, he earned his Ph.D. in laser physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. McNair soon became a recognized expert in laser physics while working as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory. He was selected by NASA for the space shuttle program in 1978 and was a mission specialist aboard the 1984 flight of the shuttle Challenger. After his death in the Challenger explosion in January 1986, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage college students with backgrounds similar to McNair's to enroll in graduate studies. The program is dedicated to the high standards of achievement inspired by McNair's life.
Besides showing a strong interest in obtaining a doctorate, each applicant must be a rising junior or senior, classified as a low-income and first-generation student or be from a group underrepresented in graduate education. In addition, he or she must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.7 (3.0 within major).
Over the past 18 years, about 393 students have benefited from the program, said Demetria Hereford, assistant director of the McNair Program.
“The biggest reward is seeing the ‘underdogs’ beat the odds, thereby changing the national academic statistics,” she said. “I love to see reserved students come into our program, thinking they will not complete it, and by the end, they overcome the obstacles and challenges of completing a research project, presenting a research project and writing a 15-plus-(page) paper.
“The biggest challenge is the six-week time frame to complete a research project. Added to that is a 3-hour mandatory class, GRE class three times a week, weekly and daily visitations with a mentor and McNair staff, and other demanding life events. The challenges amount to effective time management, prioritizing and creating a balance. The rewards include a stipend, networking and socialization skills, acquired departmental knowledge, enhanced research skills, presentation skills, conference travel and graduate school visits, finding a ‘lifetime’ mentor, being able to say ‘I did it’ when (they) didn't think (they) could, and graduate school preparedness.”
Another research program for undergraduates is the Ole Miss Physical Chemistry Summer Research Program. More than 50 UM students have participated in the program, which started in 2009. While in the program, students conduct research with UM faculty members.
“Each faculty member pays those students from their own research grants. Many of these grants are from the National Science Foundation,” said Nathan Hammer, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
The Ole Miss physical chemistry program's Research Experiences for Undergraduates is an additional component that started last year. It brings in external students to participate alongside the current UM students, Hammer said.
“REU summer programs are a great opportunity for students to get ahead in science as a career,” Hammer said. “They work at least 40 hours a week and participate in courses over the summer instead of relaxing at home or at the beach, but in the long run, these programs have a track record of facilitating success in these students. They are especially helpful in helping students gain admission to top graduate school programs.”
For more information, go to http://reu.chem.olemiss.edu.