Undergraduate research gives rise to doctoral dreams


Preparing for graduate school can often present more questions than answers. What is the best way to gain research experience and how to connect with a faculty member? When should I start asking for letters of recommendation? How do I study for the Graduate Record Exam, and how is it weighted against my grades? For more than 30 years, the McNair program at UC San Diego has helped undergraduate students overcome these uncertainties on their path to earning a doctorate.

This year, the program reached an impressive milestone – over 150 McNair program alumni earned doctorates. over the past three decades, many of whom are now professors and researchers across the country. The goal of the program is to prepare low-income first-generation students and students from historically underrepresented ethnic groups to enroll in a doctoral degree. program and pursue a leadership role in academia, government or industry. UC San Diego was among the first universities to lead the federal program created in honor of Ronald E. McNair, a NASA astronaut who tragically died during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Dmitri Young.

Dmitri Young

The McNair program is one of many research opportunities run by the Center for Undergraduate Research, a unit of the Office for Student Persistence and Success. In the McNair program, students have the chance to become research assistants and receive mentorship from a faculty member in a field that interests them. If they choose to participate in the full program – which can span the winter, spring and summer terms – they can earn up to 12 independent study credit units and receive a $2,800 scholarship. $ plus free on-campus housing or financial support for off-campus housing during the summer. Additionally, participants can participate in workshops to develop their research, writing, and presentation skills, with the opportunity to present their work at one of the many annual undergraduate conferences at UC San Diego.

Alumni of the program have been invited back to campus on April 23 to meet current students eager to follow in their footsteps. UC San Diego alumnus Dmitri Young, now an assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, shared that summer research he conducted while on the McNair program sparked the long-term labor which he is currently pursuing as a faculty member. “You’re way ahead of me than I was when I was your age,” Young said at the event. “I was in your shoes years ago…even if it’s a long road, you can do it. If I can do it, you can do it!

Closing the Loop: From History Student to Distinguished Professor

When Luis Alvarez enrolled at UC San Diego as an undergraduate in 1990 to study engineering, he had no idea that 16 years later he would be returning as an assistant professor of engineering. history to later join and lead the Chicanx and Latinx Studies program – now one of the top programs of its kind in the country. His trajectory is changed when he enrolls in a history course with Professor David Gutierrez, who will become his mentor, friend and future colleague. He changed his middle finger and started spreading his wings.

A key aspect of being a historian is the ability to tell stories about the past in a way that resonates with people in the present. Although Alvarez was an avid reader and writer, it was his exposure to the McNair program that helped him learn how to interpret evidence, make statements, and present compelling stories.

Luis Alvarez.

Luis Alvarez

“The McNair program allowed us to dig into research, get to know our favorite teachers and work closely together on something that was influenced and shaped by them, but also something that is unique to us as undergraduate students,” Alvarez said. “It is this autonomy and this ability to shape my own trajectory as a researcher that has prepared me better than anything else for what a PhD is. program would have in store for me.

When Alvarez started a graduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, he already had a solid framework. The research project he had begun as part of the McNair program at UC San Diego served as the starting point for what would become his thesis and first major publication, titled “The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II”. After graduating, he returned to UC San Diego as a postdoctoral researcher, got his first teaching job at the University of Houston, and then accepted a permanent position at UC San Diego, completing the loop. The reconnection made sense for the San Diego native who had developed strong roots in college.

And now he has the chance to help new McNair Scholars flourish as a faculty mentor for the program. Alvarez noted that there are many skills needed to succeed as a graduate and university student that are not widely taught. He prioritizes these lessons for his mentees. “I like helping people with less experience to understand the idea that the academy asks us to do things that nobody trains us to do, whether it’s writing an application for higher education or applying for your first professorship,” Alvarez explained. “McNair is an exception; it’s a program designed to help people get trained in areas they wouldn’t otherwise be trained in so they can continue to be successful.

Research is for everyone

Angela Chapman.

Angela Chapman

In addition to preparing undergraduate students for the rigors of graduate school, the McNair program also introduces students to the world of research. When junior Angela Chapman first enrolled at UC San Diego, she had never heard of the field of neuropsychology and she believed research involved being in a wet lab working on experiments. in chemistry or biology. “As a first-generation college student, I didn’t know what research meant,” Chapman said. “I learned that it is much wider; it can be about analyzing data or an artistic project. It’s about investigating what is known and seeing where the gaps are.

Chapman has always found the brain fascinating. After hearing from a neuropsychologist on a panel she attended at UC San Diego, she knew she had found her niche. Chapman is studying psychology with a major in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience and aspires to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology specializing in neuropsychology.

Last year, Chapman joined the McNair program to gain research experience. She began developing a proposal during the winter term, and in the spring began a systematic review of studies focusing on neurophysiological biomarkers in the brain in patients with schizophrenia. She extended her project through the summer and, as part of the program, received a $2,800 scholarship, free on-campus housing, a prep course for the graduate record exam, and four independent study credit units.

Being able to showcase his work and connect with other members of his cohort was equally valuable to Chapman. “I really liked getting a sense of the type of research they do and hearing what excites them. It was motivating; the fact that they all come from underrepresented communities is something that really encourages me.


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