Scholarship program recognizes power of faculty mentoring

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A. Sue Weisler

Associate professor Jennifer Schneider and student Kwesi Amable discuss their joint research project regarding the vulnerability and resiliency of our community infrastructure. Amable is a McNair Scholar and works closely with Schneider, his faculty mentor, as one component of the program.

Associate professor Jennifer Schneider has always considered herself an “unofficial” mentor for students in the safety technology department in the College of Applied Science and Technology. And as a result of her participation in the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, she has taken her mentorship role to a new level.

RIT receives $220,000 annually from the U.S. Department of Education for the McNair scholars program to provide educational services to low-income, first-generation college students—specifically African American, Latino and Native American— who are pursuing doctoral studies. Its focus is on the development of personal and educational skills, including effective communication and academic skills necessary for success in doctoral programs—as well as conducting invaluable post-baccalaureate research. The scholarship is named for Ronald McNair, a mission specialist astronaut who lost his life on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Under the mentorship and guidance of committed faculty, students participate in a paid research internship to develop their research, presentation and publication skills. Students can also attend professional conferences and present their research at national conferences, meet with scholars, receive academic counseling and visit graduate schools.

In addition, The RIT McNair Scholars Symposium, held Feb. 13, addressed the important role of undergraduate research for students, their universities and the research community at large. Panelists discussed their personal research histories, their work with undergraduates and the importance of increasing undergraduate research opportunities at RIT.

“Challenge and support are the fundamental ingredients in the McNair Graduate Opportunity Program’s educational philosophy,” says Essie Sierra-Torres, program director. “A student is most likely to grow academically and personally when he or she is both challenged and supported. The program structure attempts to foster these fundamental ingredients and thus facilitates skill development and motivation through academic research and mentoring.

“For a number of reasons, underrepresented minorities have not been provided with sufficient opportunities to explore academic disciplines that will help lead them to graduate studies,” adds Sierra-Torres. “This lack of experience can and often does result in poor acclimation to the nature and process of research. Further, in the absence of hands-on approach to scientific investigation, underrepresented students do not acquire the basic research skills and laboratory preparation that is required for advanced studies. To overcome these obstacles, effective mentoring practices need to be established.”

Kwesi Amable, a third-year medical informatics and bioinformatics dual major in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, is one of 26 McNair Scholars from across all RIT disciplines that found studying with a faculty mentor like Schneider and conducting research to be an unforgettable experience.

Schneider, who has been involved with the program since its inception, enjoyed working with Amable, who isn’t even enrolled in Schneider’s department.

“It’s important to reach across curricular lines when it comes to research because it helps bring new perspective to your project,” Schneider says. “This is also central to why so many of us came to RIT as professors to begin with.”

“Kwesi has the personality to chase details, and he worked his way through to get external funding for our research project,” adds Schneider. “This program helps students understand the nuts and bolts of managing research. I will continue to work with Kwesi; he’s been terrific. I’m definitely keeping this kid.”