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McNair Scholars conference sparks next wave of doctoral students

McNair Scholars conference sparks next wave of doctoral students

McNair Scholars conference sparks next wave of doctoral students
February 13
10:35 2014

Tim Cato / Web Editor

To help take his mind off the loss of his mother, Michael Jones had to do something.

He couldn’t take a semester off or he’d lose the scholarships helping pay his tuition. He was a first-generation college student with no real connections to his family. So instead, he decided to fling himself into the undergraduate McNair Scholars program in 2009.

Now a second-year doctoral student in the UNT Department of Chemistry researching drug design and development, the 23-year-old Jones said his decision has more than paid off.

“It’s something rigorous, so you apply [yourself] for it,” he said. “They stay on you, and you have a real support group. People who won’t give up on you.”

Students throughout the country attending the 16th Annual Texas National McNair Scholar Research Conference will be presented with similar opportunities when the conference is held on UNT campus Feb. 14 to 16.

It is not associated officially with the university, but the conference will help UNT bring McNair scholars to select its graduate program by exposing the students to UNT over the weekend.

“There are a large number of students who are in graduate school now, that the first time they knew about UNT was through this conference,” said Diana Elrod, the director of the McNair Scholars Program at UNT. “They choose to come here because of the conference.”

UNT’s McNair program is one of 158 at universities across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Started in 1992, the program’s mission is to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral study through rigorous research – named in honor of physicist and NASA astronaut Ronald McNair, who died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.

Participants are first-generation college students or come from a minority background. Because of the way they are trained, McNair scholars are highly sought after by graduate schools, Elrod said.

“The ultimate goal of the program is that a person who is a McNair scholar as an undergraduate will achieve a Ph.D.,” she said. “Our process allows us to prepare them for successful entry into, and completion of, a Ph.D. program.”

McNair scholars are required to complete 10 hours of research a week during full semesters and 400 hours in the summer – and some of the results of their work will be displayed at this weekend’s conference.

McNair scholars will also attend a graduate school fair featuring representation from 50 colleges, including the prestigious University of Chicago and Stanford University. Another high profile college with representation is Vanderbilt University, where three former UNT McNair scholars are enrolled right now, Elrod said.

“It is first-tier schools that are coming here to recruit McNair scholars,” Elrod said. “It’s all about relationship building.”

McNair scholars must have 60 credit hours completed before applying, and only receive $2,800 a year – funds that come from the U.S. Department of Education – and have to come up with the rest of the money either in scholarships and grants, or out of pocket. But the real reward of the program is the services provided, including a faculty mentor.

Even though his official time with the McNair program is done, Jones said he’s happy to help out at the conference in whatever way he can. His two years occurred while receiving his undergraduate degree at Truman State University, a liberal arts and science college in Missouri.

Jones said he fell in love with UNT’s graduate chemistry program during his visit to the conference, particularly Dr. Angela Wilson, a professor in the department.

“Many McNair Scholars, like Michael, have developed very strong research habits and a great work ethic, making them terrific graduate students,” Wilson said via an email.

At this weekend’s conference, some students might follow Jones’ path to finding their graduate school home.

“I feel like I’m part of the chemistry department,” Jones said. “They advocate for you, they work for you. Everything I need is here. Period.”

Feature photo: Chemistry doctoral student Michael Jones pours a chemical solution into a synthesizing compressor on the second floor of the Chemistry Building on Feb. 7. The compressor will help the elements separate to form new compounds. Photo by Marisa Baker / Intern Photographer 

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