MSU’s McNair program helps first-generation college students succeed

Posted by on Tuesday, February 17, 2015 14:19 - 0 Comments

Madison Martin, a senior majoring in microbiology and a McNair Scholar at Montana State University, presents her research on impact of pathogen and pesticides on bees, Tuesday, Dec. 2, at MSU.

Madison Martin, a senior majoring in microbiology and a McNair Scholar at Montana State University, presents her research on impact of pathogen and pesticides on bees, Tuesday, Dec. 2, at MSU.

Madison Martin is thrilled to be graduating from Montana State University next week, when she’ll become the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

“I am so ecstatic,” said Martin, 23, a microbiology major from Laurel. “A lot of undergraduates don’t think it’s a very big deal, but I do. It’s a huge accomplishment, especially in the sciences.”

Martin is one of 26 students in the McNair Scholars Program who presented their research this week at MSU’s fifth annual McNair Research Symposium.

McNair is a federal program designed to help students who are first-generation college students, low-income or who are underrepresented minorities.

The McNair program was named for an African-American scientist who died in the 1986 shuttle Challenger explosion. It helps students find mentors and research funding, and gain experience and confidence so they can get into graduate schools and pursue their dreams. MSU has the only program in the state.

Martin said she dreams of earning a Ph.D. – despite what she calls her “love-hate” relationship with scientific research. It’s often frustrating when you have to wait for results or don’t get the results you want, she said. Still, “it’s very rewarding in the end.”

Martin did research on honey bees. She said she didn’t know much about bees when she first walked into the lab, but “I stuck around once I learned how important they are for our lives and how crucial the research is.”

U.S. commercial bee colonies are seeing one-third of their bees die off each year – a number that’s grown in the past seven years, Martin said. She got to present papers on the role pathogens and pesticides play in bee metabolism at national conferences in Berkeley, California, and Colorado, which will help her get into grad school.

Her family is excited that she’s graduating, she said. “They thought I was studying to be a beekeeper for two years.”

Other McNair students presented their research this week on such topics as grandparents raising grandchildren, licorice extract’s effect on bacteria, reviving Native American languages, art history and promoting safe teen driving.

One McNair student who couldn’t be there in person was Michael Ruiz, who’s temporarily an exchange student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook to pursue his interest in forensic archeology.

His research paper, “Dead Men Do Tell Tales,” investigated a more efficient way to use bleach to remove flesh from human remains. He presented his research last May at Harvard Medical School. Getting his paper accepted for publication was “a dream come true.”

Ruiz, 26, said he dropped out of high school in Los Angeles and was homeless for four months in North Dakota, sleeping in gas stations while searching for work on the oil rigs, before landing in Bozeman. He is low-income, a first-generation college student, first-generation Mexican-American and gay.

Ruiz said that thanks to Shelly Hogan, McNair Scholars director, and others, the McNair program helped him find research funding, a mentor scientist, a lab to work in, interviews at grad schools and the chance to meet a Nobel Prize winner.

“I don’t think there is a word strong enough that reflects how much the McNair Scholars Program has helped me,” Ruiz said.

Back in Los Angeles, his friends and family thought success was landing a desk job in a bank. Now his dream is to have a career in scientific research or medicine.

“I made the decision to better myself,” Ruiz said. “I can’t turn back now.” Accepted into MSU’s Honors College, he plans to graduate in 2016.


Originally published on December 3, 2014 in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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