McNair Grant Will Provide Support for Students Seeking Ph.Ds

Posted 11/20/07
The university has been awarded a TRIO Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The McNair program will provide financial support, mentoring, research opportunities, and academic guidance to eligible students who want pursue Ph.D. study.

Laurel F. Appel, visiting associate professor of biology, is the McNair program’s director. She’s excited that Wesleyan is part of the federal program. It is presently the only Connecticut institution that is part of the program.

“This program fits in with the goals of Wesleyan by broadening access to research to all students,” Appel says. “The focus of our program is on Science and Math, but students interested in any field of graduate study are encouraged to apply.”

According to co-grant writer Donna Thompson, director of the university’s Upward Bound program, the grant application process was “very competitive.”

“Wesleyan is uniquely suited to host a McNair project because of its interest, commitment to and success rate with underrepresented students. The program is ideally suited to assist and equip low income, first generation students with the tools that they will need to be successful in an environment and culture where they will be a minority,” Thompson says.

The Department of Education Web site states that the goal of the program “is to increase the attainment of Ph.D. degrees by students from underrepresented segments of society.” At Wesleyan, McNair program funds totaling $880,000 will go towards helping first generation college students from low-income families and students who are African-American, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander or Native American prepare for successful graduate careers, excluding M.D. and J.D. studies. Full details of eligibility can be found here.

The program can serve up to 25 students each year for the next four years. Junior and senior McNair Fellows will actively participate in research with Wesleyan science and math faculty mentors, who will also help prepare the students to apply to graduate school.

Eligible frosh and sophomores can enroll in the McNair Scholars program, where they will attend workshops and receive mentoring from McNair staff in topics such as developing an academic plan, getting the most out of introductory courses, preparing for research, the ins and outs of the Ph.D., and career choices based on different degrees—all with the goal of helping them become McNair Fellows.

Camaraderie is one of the advantages to being in the McNair program. Participants go through the program with the same group of students, have a shared study space and present works-in-progress to each other. The students have access to career counseling and guidance from McNair staff as well as their research mentors about furthering their academic career. McNair fellows will attend professional conferences to present their research and to learn to network, Appel says.

“We are very pleased to have the support of the McNair program, which gives us another excellent opportunity to facilitate the academic work of Wesleyan students,” says Joe Bruno, vice president for academic affairs and provost. “The formulation of our program and the preparation of the grant proposal were the work of a dedicated group, and these colleagues worked together beautifully to ensure success in a competitive field. We look forward to the implementation of a robust effort at Wesleyan.”

Students who are curious about the program can attend one of the upcoming McNair Research Talks. The talks will introduce the program and “provide a venue for faculty to talk to students about their own research,” Appel says. These talks are open to all, and aimed at the interested, non-expert, student.

The next talk will be held at noon, Nov. 27 in Exley Science Center Room 121. Bill Herbst, the Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy and chair, will speak on “Making Planets from Thin Air … Really Thin Air!” Herbst’s subject matter is fitting because the program is named after Ronald E. McNair, an astronaut who died in the Challenger space shuttle accident in 1986. McNair, an African-American from South Carolina, was an accomplished expert in laser physics.

Applications will be reviewed starting Dec. 3, 2007. For more information contact Laurel Appel at 860-685-3258; or visit

By Corrina Balash Kerr, associate director of Media Relations