McNair program helps minority students break into science field

By Gianluca D’Elia 

Luis Ovando spends a late night at the biology research lab, where he studies bacteria as a Ronald E. McNair scholar.

A master’s and a doctoral degree may not be such distant goals for underrepresented students, thanks to a program that has helped over 100 Rider students from minority backgrounds advance their careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). 

An interview and immediate acceptance into the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program on April 10 was a blessing for sophomore biology major Luis Ovando, a first-generation student who grew up in Newark and dreams of studying epidemiology and working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“I’m in college so I can get a job, follow my career and pay back my mother for all the hard work she has done for me,” said Ovando. “I’m the first one to go to college, and my parents want to see me do well in the future. That’s what the McNair program is all about. They want to help those kids who have had a tough life and keep pushing us forward.” 

For nearly a decade, the McNair program has provided assistance for students in the science department looking to pursue a career in research. Rider has received federal funding for the program since 2007, according to Angelica Benitez, director of the campus’ McNair program. 

Biology professor Kelly Bidle said the program has led to a high rate of students pursuing higher degrees after they leave Rider. 

“Over the years, I’ve had eight to 10 McNair students, all with really different stories,” Bidle said. “Some are minority students, some are first-generation, some come from low-income backgrounds, but they all must have strong academic potential and have the desire to go into STEM fields for graduate school.”

The McNair program helps students prepare for graduate school and get into the research lab to gain the skills they need to be competitive applicants, Bidle said. A majority of them is accepted into master’s and Ph.D. programs in the sciences, ranging from biology to chemistry to psychology, she said. 

Ovando was not always certain if going to college would be an option for him. He struggled with poverty throughout most of his childhood. His parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala in the 1990s, divorced when he was 8 years old. Ovando’s mother raised him and his younger brother as a single parent for most of their lives and worked in a factory to support them. Now, Ovando said he wants to focus on giving back. 

“I want to be able to help the world, in a sense,” he said. “I want to be there to find a cure and help people out to make sure no massive outbreak reaches everyone, and study infectious diseases — like when people looked at how Ebola spread, how it grew and came from Africa to the U.S.” 

Senior biology major Alexandra Rae Santora, a McNair scholar since her sophomore year, also understands the struggle of being the first in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. But on April 13, she made a crucial decision for the next step of her career: to attend the University of Southern California for her doctorate in marine biology and biological oceanography. 

“As a first-generation college student, I’ve always felt a little alone when it came to navigating my college education and planning my future,” Santora said. “Without the McNair program, I would have never felt like I was competitive enough of a student to get into graduate school, let alone a Ph.D. program, but they pushed me to achieve that goal for the past two years.”

The McNair program is the “only concentrated vehicle dedicated to enrolling Rider students into graduate school,” Benitez said in November.

Bidle explained, “It’s a really great program where, on the science side, we bring the students into our research labs. We work on the hard research skills they need to know. The McNair program, which is led by Angelica Benitez, Queen Jones and their staff, work on a lot of the soft skills students need: interviewing, learning how to network, as well as providing rigorous [Graduate Record Examinations] prep courses. We’ve built a really great relationship over the years.”

The program accepts a class of about 27 students every year. Sophomore behavioral neuroscience major Skye Wurmbrand was among those students this year.

“I have always been one to love science and all it has to offer, so when I found a path that I could follow through with, I jumped at that opportunity,” Wurmbrand said. “I found a passion by combining genetics with the inner workings of the brain and psychology. After completing a master’s program and possibly a Ph.D., my long-term goal is to become a genetic counselor so I can help couples learn about their genetic pasts and give them probabilities about their future children.”

Wurmbrand and Ovando both work with Bidle as their mentor. Bidle mentioned that she teaches Ovando how to use molecular DNA sequencing to identify different kinds of bacteria. Ovando uses bacteria samples that he collected from different environments — the Rider Rock, Centennial Lake, his roommate’s video game controllers and even his own doorknob. 

“It’s really all about getting these kids to know some modern methods of the lab, so when they apply to grad school, they’re competitive applicants,” Bidle said. “Any graduate program will want to know about that experience.”

Santora credited the McNair program and the science department for helping her find her place in college and a sense of direction. An aspiring marine biologist, she said she became “absolutely infatuated with the natural world on every scale” while at Rider, and “realized how incredible science truly is.”

Bidle said she is proud that the McNair students she works with are advancing onto graduate programs. 

“It means they love research, and they want to take that passion and get their master’s, or get their Ph.D., and eventually become researchers and college faculty. There’s a nice personal feeling, mentoring these students and seeing them succeed through the program.” 

Santora added, “I’ve always been able to push myself in the classroom, but I really had no clue how to turn that into a practical future for myself. Without McNair, I don’t think I would have had the support I needed to do that.” 

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