A photo of 11 people standing on grass.
Back Row: Penelope Sayago (McNair Scholar), Stanley Cheatham (McNair Graduate Assistant), Aceyonna Watkins (McNair Scholar), Ayana Carter (McNair Scholar), Nyla Anderson (McNair Scholar), Saron Bereket (McNair Scholar), Cindy Vigil (McNair Scholar), Jamie Graves (McNair Scholar). Front Row: Juanita Agbenouwope (McNair Scholar), Skye Thurston (McNair Scholar). Front Center: Shay Lumpkin (McNair Program Coordinator). (Photo by Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

First undergraduate McNair Scholars at VCU use summer research program to propel doctoral dreams

Recent federal grant promotes graduate studies for underrepresented students, and their interests cover a range of disciplines.

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Breaking barriers in their families, a group of students are breaking ground in research labs this summer as Virginia Commonwealth University’s first cohort of McNair Scholars – a program that aims to increase graduate degrees from underrepresented segments of society.

With projects ranging from social sciences to computer science, from microbiology to public relations, nine undergraduates are participating in the McNair Summer Research Institute. They are first-generation college students with financial need and members of underrepresented groups in graduate education, and they are being prepared for potential doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activity.

“The goal is not for paired faculty members to convince the student to pursue their field or to convince the student to do their type of research, but it's to help them understand all the possibilities of the world of research and academia,” said Shay Lumpkin, VCU’s McNair coordinator. “I always say I'm not here to sell you a dream and I'm not here to convince you of anything. I'm here to help you identify for yourself what your dreams are, and I'm here to help you identify what impact you want to have on the world.”

The Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, as it is formally known, is a federal TRIO initiative that serves students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Named for one of the country's first Black astronauts in space, who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, the program is funded by the Department of Education at more than 200 institutions in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. VCU received its $1.3 million McNair grant in October 2022, and its program began in January 2023.

Lumpkin’s office is within VCU’s TRIO Department which is a unit of the Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success division. With a background in counseling, Lumpkin is eager to spread the word about the McNair Scholars program. A total of 25 undergraduates were part of the first cohort, including six who graduated recently.

Chimene Boone, Ph.D., executive director of TRIO programs at VCU, gets emotional when speaking about TRIO and the McNair program. As an alum of a TRIO program in New York, she benefited from TRIO on her own path to a doctoral degree – and she has similar hopes for new students.

“They're just so eager and hungry for knowledge,” she said. “It just makes me happy to see that we are able to expand our services. It really makes an impact on our students. When I get to see how much more service we can provide to increase their resources to really give them the confidence that they can go into graduate program just like any other student, it makes my heart smile.”

Elements of the McNair Scholars program includes coursework in research writing and presentation, workshops in preparing for graduate school, intense sessions on the research process, faculty mentorship, participation in conferences and symposiums, and a stipend for the 10-week Summer Research Institute. VCU News spoke with some of the institute participants about their McNair experience.

Skye Thurston, who is majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in dance, came to VCU via the Virginia Union University dual-enrollment program. She aspires to pursue a doctoral program to create prosthetics to help dancers and other performers. This summer, Thurston has focused on coding in the lab of her mentor, Lane Carasik, Ph.D., a mechanical and nuclear engineering assistant professor in the College of Engineering.

As a first-generation university student, Thurston appreciates how TRIO and McNair are helping her navigate higher education.

“Both programs have helped me to understand the process of school – TRIO more of the on-campus VCU [part], but McNair is preparing me for graduate school,” she said. “And since both of my parents, including my grandparents, didn't go to [college] at all, I wasn't even sure how to start the process of trying to find grad schools or what I really needed.”

As a McNair Scholar, Thurston has learned about creating a personal statement and a CV, identified universities at which she might pursue graduate studies and connected with like-minded students from similar backgrounds.

“I've learned a lot so far to help me get into graduate school,” Thurston said. “And also there  have been other people come in that are in fields that we're interested in and talk about their careers, which has been very helpful and eye-opening.”

Juanita Agbenouwope, a rising junior majoring in mass communications with a public relations concentration, transferred to VCU in 2021 from Northern Virginia Community College. Her summer research with assistant professor Baobao Song, Ph.D., in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture has focused on mental health disparities among minority students in higher education.

Agbenouwope’s project investigates what variables might encourage or discourage students in seeking mental health services.

The McNair program has been crucial in helping her better understand how to apply to graduate school.

“It's been very beneficial,” Agbenouwope said. “I'm dipping my feet into what is research and thinking about things in the future. McNair is something that we didn't know we needed. I feel very appreciative of it. And it's also helping us build connections with people at VCU, with staff and faculty who have been through all this.”

Cindy Vigil, a rising senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations, is working with RaJade Berry-James, Ph.D., senior associate dean of faculty and academic affairs and professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, looking at the influence of external factors on crime and homicide rates in El Salvador.

The topic hits home for Vigil, whose parents are from El Salvador. Her participation in the McNair program is especially powerful because her parents are not familiar with the U.S. educational system and had to drop out of school to work in support of their families.

“There's no one in my family that I can talk to about these things or I can ask for advice,” Vigil said. “So being in the program and being exposed to how to write a personal statement or how to write your statement of purpose and getting that feedback from our mentors is very helpful.”

She added: “As a first-gen, I've always felt alone. I feel like no one understands how it is. So being in the program as well as meeting the other McNair Scholars and hearing their stories, it warms my heart.”

Jamie Graves, a third-year student majoring in medical laboratory science with a chemistry minor, embraces how the McNair program is pushing her in areas such as a personal statement, résumé development and GRE preparation.

“I would say the most challenging thing is they're making us look beyond ourselves from now,” Graves said. “Sometimes that's hard to do as a first-generation student, when a lot of our lives are right in the moment and we're trying to figure out what's going to happen tomorrow versus what's going to happen five years from now.”

Among the helpful program activities: identifying graduate school programs and visits that could support future studies.

“That's been lovely and helpful,” said Graves, who also attended a McNair conference in May.

Her summer research is in the microbiology and immunology lab of Michael Donnenberg, M.D., a professor in the School of Medicine. The project is investigating molecular interactions among essential bacterial type IV pilus machine proteins. Her top takeaway has been lab etiquette. She appreciates working alongside doctoral student Pradeep Singh to learn lab processes and methodologies.

“I think it's one of the things that I lack, especially as a first-generation student, just having an opportunity to be in the lab and working alongside someone who understands the lab,” Graves said. “It's easy to miss out on experiences as simple as knowing how to pipette. I've learned how nickel chromatography works. I'm working with machines like centrifuges I've never seen before.”

Saron Bereket, a rising junior double-majoring in biology and psychology, is working in the lab of Carlos Escalante, Ph.D., in the School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics.

“With my mentor, he was making us do the actual lab procedures ourselves, giving us a lot of autonomy and independence. That's something I am grateful for,” Bereket said.

At the beginning of summer, she initially felt intimidated with the lab procedures and specialized subject matter.

“But now that I'm starting to really understand what’s going on, I'm pretty far in the research that I'm doing – I think that it was all worth it,” Bereket said. “It’s something that I can apply to other aspects of my life, like when there is a struggle, or something is intimidating upfront. I know that as long as I take it step by step and actively pursue my goals, I'll be able to get somewhere.”

She appreciates how the McNair program fosters relationships with people “where it seems that they’re worlds apart,” and how it spotlights overcoming struggles to find opportunity and achievement.

“Especially in the STEM fields, being an African-American woman, especially of low-income background, imposter syndrome is definitely a thing,” Bereket said. “But I think now that I'm getting more experience and working in this lab, I feel like I'm getting more comfortable.”

Nyla Anderson, a rising sophomore majoring in biology, is currently the youngest McNair student. She conducted research in the lab of Jason Newton, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biology who studies neurodegeneration. Anderson said the experience has been eye-opening.

“I’m trying to understand the Ph.D. itself,” Anderson said. “We are currently working on doing a research proposal and our papers, and because I can continue working in his lab and I have time, my research proposal and paper will continuously be edited and updated with new information that was found – or possibly be scrapped and a new proposal will be made.”

Like many other participants, she expressed trepidation before joining the McNair program.

“It was very nice to come into the program meeting all these people and realizing, ‘Oh, this is going to be a great! This is going to be a good summer because I'm going to be around a lot of great accepting people,’” Anderson said.

Program coordinator Lumpkin said the camaraderie and conversations at the weekly McNair meetings are important.

“The students are able to share those experiences. And that sparks interest, sparks curiosity, like, ‘Oh, I didn't know that was an opportunity. I didn't know that I could actually do a work-study in the lab during the fall semester. I didn't know I could do an independent study with this faculty mentor and get credit for it,’” Lumpkin said.

And she is proud and impressed by the McNair Scholars' achievements this summer.

“To actually start off in January, February with most of them saying, ‘I don't know what research is. I can't do research in my field. I don't know how to communicate with a faculty mentor,’ to now seeing them literally leading their own research projects and joining a lab, and really working with grad and Ph.D. students on these topics that they had no idea existed before – students are really driving this themselves with their faculty mentors,” Lumpkin said. “Which has been amazing to watch.”