An astronaut who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster is inspiring today’s college students to explore new fields.
The Ronald E. McNair Scholars program began in 1989 and now serves thousands of students nationally, providing opportunities for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented undergraduate students to work on research with faculty mentors. The goal is to help these students move on to graduate programs and become researchers or university faculty, according to Donte McFadden, interim director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s McNair program. McFadden earned his doctorate at 26 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1990 UWM became one of the first universities in the country to receive funding for the program from the U.S. Department of Education. McNair was an African American and a NASA astronaut.
During the weekend of Nov. 11-13, UWM hosted the 20th Annual National McNair Research Conference, bringing nearly 500 students from across the nation to Lake Geneva to present their research. Ronald McNair’s brother, Carl, spoke to the students about his brother’s legacy. Ronald McNair had earned his doctorate in physics before becoming an astronaut.
The UWM program has 15 McNair scholars, and a number of them presented their research at the national conference. McNair scholars have the opportunity to not only conduct high-level research, but also receive guidance during the graduate school application process.
“I am Mexican-American, and my parents are from Mexico,” says McNair scholar Daniel Monge, a junior majoring biochemistry. “They didn’t have many opportunities. In fact my dad had to drop out of school in the fifth grade to work.
“I grew up pretty poor and the McNair program has helped me in so many ways. One thing is the experience and familiarity with the graduate school application process. Also, it’s given me the opportunity to meet a lot of intelligent, dedicated people who I can relate to a lot more than the ‘average’ student.”
“The biggest benefit (of the program) is definitely being involved in undergraduate research,” says Alison Becker, a senior mathematics major. “Before the program, I had no idea what was involved in math research, and now I have an idea of what it is like, and a sense of what it would be like to research in grad school.”
Having a mentor to work with was invaluable as well, said Corey Klinzing, a senior in English who is interested in genre fiction. “Besides the monetary benefits, the biggest benefits to me were the one-on-one time with my mentor, Dr. George Clark. My area of study is English, specifically creative writing, so I needed the time to work through a few short stories of mine that I plan on using as a part of my graduate school applications.”
“The biggest benefit from the program I would say is the level of connections and relationships that you make while being a McNair scholar. Whether it be peer to peer or mentor to student, with more connections comes with more resources which lead to success, says Peng Yang, a sophomore in engineering.
Students in the program get a chance to explore their own research interests, whether it’s science fiction (Klinzing); interdisciplinary research on quagga mussels (Monge); Latino veterans’ memories (Ariel González-Millán, architecture); the role of women in Sicilian crime families (Luiggi Francalanci, sociology), or carbon-epoxy composite materials (Yang). In addition to those mentioned above, other UWM students who presented at the national conference were Flor Rivera, biochemistry; Kenneth Blacks, communications major, who did his research project in information studies; and Cynthia Aguas-Fernández, education.
“My plans for the future are a Ph.D.,” says Monge.
He also plans to follow in the footsteps of Ronald McNair. “I want to go into outer space as well as found my own technology firm.