POSTED: Monday, February 11, 2013 - 7:00am
UPDATED: Monday, February 11, 2013 - 7:04am
Baton Rouge, LA (NBC — It has been more than 25 years since tragedy struck the United States space program when seven crew members were killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion January 28, 1986. One of those aboard the Challenger was physicist Ronald Erwin McNair, America’s second African-American astronaut.
Although McNair’s death and those of his crewmembers were a national tragedy, this is not what distinguished them. McNair exemplified a life that knew no obstacles. He excelled academically despite the racial discrimination he experienced growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.
To commemorate his lifetime of accomplishments, the U.S. Department of Education, with funding from Congress, established the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage minority and low-income first-generation college students to enroll in graduate studies and acquire a doctorate degree.
One of the most successful Ronald E. McNair Research Scholar programs in the country is found at LSU, and this year, the program celebrates its 20th anniversary.
“What we’re about with the McNair program is helping the students reach their potential and really overcoming some major hurdles in doing so,” said Joseph Givens, director of LSU University College’s McNair Research Scholars. “We provide opportunity and education and the students realize their success through hard work and determination.”
The goal of the program is to increase the attainment of Ph.D. degrees by students from underrepresented segments of society. Students participate in undergraduate research projects and are supervised by faculty and research mentors from a variety of disciplines, giving them an abundance of individual time working with experts in their chosen fields.
“I see McNair Research Scholars as essential to the LSU 2020 Flagship Agenda of ‘transforming lives,’” Givens said.
“I am fortunate to work with a program with a 20-year history of success at LSU. I not only get to see the impact on LSU students day-to-day, but I also have the opportunity to witness the lasting impact through our alumni who are now professors, scientists and community leaders.”
LSU University College’s McNair Research Scholars program, which serves approximately 30 students per year, has some of the highest achieving students nationwide. Recently, 13 sophomores were inducted into the program, these include:
• Jean-Marc Bastien, civil engineering major from Baldwin, N.Y.
• Kristian Marquis Black, biochemistry major from Shreveport, La.
• Bryce Anthony Bourgeois, information systems and decision sciences major from Belle Rose, La.
• Christa Lynn Cook, civil engineering major from Mesquite, Texas
• Casey Lynn Duvall, biological sciences major from Gretna, La.
• Yoel Afeworki Gebrai, petroleum and civil engineering major from Snellville, Ga.
• Vilien Cordell Gomez, computer engineering major from White Castle, La.
• Franshetta Shawan Hibbler, computer science major from Itta Bena, Miss.
• Sierra Jackson, chemistry and biological sciences major from New Orleans, La.
• Giovoni S. King, electrical engineering major from Ashland, Va.
• Natasha Marie Lee, psychology major from New Orleans, La.
• Nayyir Ransome, English creative writing major from Baton Rouge, La.
• Yvonne Lynette Thompson, psychology major from Lawrenceville, Ga.
“The McNair Research Scholars program will afford me the opportunity to make new connections, to work with research and development, and to inform me on future opportunities to better myself, my education, and others,” said new scholar Natasha Lee.
According to Givens, there are two main components to the McNair program: research experience and graduate school success skill building.
Students participating in the LSU McNair program receive one-on-one time with faculty in the form of a faculty mentor and research director. McNair scholars are actively involved in hands-on research and scholarship on everything from sociological studies of the connection between crime and poverty to nanofabrication to analysis of the BP oil spill. Such in-depth undergraduate research experience not only thoroughly prepares these students for graduate school, but also makes them nationally competitive for admission into the best schools and consideration for highly-sought after positions.
“In my cell biology class last semester, a lot of the things that we learned in class, I was actually doing in the lab,” said McNair Research Scholar Charles Lewis, a junior microbiology major from Atlanta. “It gave me an advantage over the other students, where they were learning about the technique, but they’d never actually done it. I actually had a chance to do it first-hand.”
McNair students also get the opportunity to do undergraduate research away from LSU. In the past, students have conducted research across Louisiana and the Gulf South and beyond to places like Tokyo and Rome.
“We really encourage them to find those opportunities and pursue them,” Givens said.
Outside the research arena, McNair scholars are assisted through the graduate school application process and are given the tools to help them secure funding and financial aid to continue their studies.
“It was very important for me to get involved in this program because it’s a really big stepping stone for going to graduate school,” said new scholar Giovoni King.
The McNair program is a large community. There are thousands of students in the program across the nation. In addition to LSU, there are two other McNair programs in Louisiana and 165 total across the country.
“The McNair Research Scholars is a great program to begin networking and building relationships with other scholars,” said new scholar Yvonne Thompson. “The skills I learn in this program will not only help me throughout my educational career, but also my profession.”
McNair Research Scholars is funded through the Department of Education TRIO Programs, which are grants made available to colleges and other nonprofits for the purpose of increasing postsecondary educational opportunities. LSU has three TRIO Programs – McNair Research Scholars, Upward Bound and Student Support Services – whose combined efforts bring more than $850,000 of annual federal funding for the purpose of supporting postsecondary education opportunities at LSU and in the Baton Rouge community.
“As a former Upward Bound student, I know that TRIO programs will provide students the knowledge we need to be sufficient in our next challenge,” said new scholar Sierra Jackson. “The McNair Research Scholars program will help guide me through my undergraduate years by showing me step by step what I need to do to realize my dreams and aspirations.”
This past fall, the U.S. Department of Education awarded LSU a $1.35 million, five-year grant to continue funding McNair program. The program, housed in the LSU University College, will utilize the funds to provide undergraduate research opportunities, graduate school preparation activities, writing activities, academic counseling and professional development workshops in order to aid baccalaureate attainment and boost graduate school success for the targeted student groups.
“University College and LSU are truly fortunate to have received this five-year grant to continue the 20 year history of the McNair Research Scholars Program on this campus,” said Paul Ivey, executive director of LSU University College. “This renewal by the U.S. Department of Education is a testimony to the success of this program at LSU over the years. Joseph Givens and the McNair Research Scholars staff will continue their dedicated efforts to prepare our first-generation and underrepresented students for eventual doctoral studies.”