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McNair program helps undergrads get ahead for grad school

McNair program helps undergrads get ahead for grad school

November 4, 2019 at 2:00pm

Roberto Rojas, Jasmine Banks and Yandra Mariano want to make the world a better place. Thanks to the McNair Scholars Program, they are getting a head start. 

Named after Ronald Erwin McNair, the renowned American astronaut and physicist, the McNair Scholars Program is a Federal TRiO program designed to prepare students from low income, first-generation and traditionally underrepresented groups for doctoral studies.

The program not only provides students at FIU and around the country with the support they need for graduate school, but also enables them to pursue their passions. These ambitions were on display on Oct. 18 at GC Ballrooms, where undergraduate students in the FIU program presented their research.

The GC Ballrooms poster session is part of the annual McNair Scholars Conference, a national event for 300 undergraduate researchers from over 35 institutions to present their projects. This year, the conference took place on Oct. 18-19.

The McNair Scholars Program has graduated more than 375 students from FIU, 80 percent of which are currently in the graduate program or obtained a graduate degree.

Yandra Mariano

Before joining the program, Yandra Mariano had never conducted independent research. The psychology student wanted to make her first opportunity count. She researched Indian young adults’ perceptions of how men and women should behave.

In her research, she observed a study that asked Indian men and women two questions: Are men better leaders than women? And if a husband beats her wife, should she immediately divorce him?

The study revealed that most men thought of men as better leaders, and most men also thought that wives should not divorce their husbands after violent incidents. 

“When it comes to things like violence, where actual people are being affected, [perception] becomes a problem. Sometimes these things happen because women, who are people, are not viewed like people. They’re viewed as second-class citizens,” Mariano said.

“I’m a psychology major now, but I really want to go into public health for graduate school. I found that a project like this, that combined empowerment and actual violence, is a great segway into the field that I’d like to pursue.”

Jasmine Banks

As a javelin thrower on the FIU track and field team and a senior with more than three years of undergraduate research experience, Jasmine Banks has been staying busy. With the support of the McNair program this summer, she was able to dive deeper into one of her areas of interest by conducting research through the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

Banks is interested in social and community psychology and innequality among marginalized populations. For her research at Texas A&M this summer, Banks wanted to create a method that could help improve the effectiveness of diversity training in the workplace. She and her mentor created an experiment using a social processes theory—often used to determine possible future behavior—to see if it would be successful at reducing stereotyping. Her team used surveys to collect the data. The study is ongoing, but early results suggest that the diversity training industry has gaps in its efficiency.

"I have learned a lot about stereotyping and the way it is reinforced in the workplace, sometimes subtly. It is heavily influenced by our society, the societal 'norms' and other similar social influences," Banks said.

Banks has gained more than one research opportunity through McNair. Thanks to a connection she made while presenting at last year's McNair conference, she is now working on a pilot program sponsored by PepsiCo to conduct research at Miami Bridge, an emergency shelter for children in Miami, around physical fitness and nutrition education.

“If you can join the McNair program, I definitely would, because most grad schools are getting more competitive. And now research experience is more or less a baseline for grad school,” Banks said.

Roberto Rojas

Environmental engineering major Roberto Rojas was looking for hands-on research last summer. Through the McNair program, he landed at John Hopkins University, where he looked at how travel affects one’s exposure to air pollutants.

For the study, he observed boxes that measured air pollution levels in various areas of Baltimore.

“If you live in a very grid, high density area, you’re going to be exposed to TRAPs way more on a regular basis than somebody who lives in the suburbs,” Rojas said. TRAPs means Traffic-Related Air Pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide.

When Rojas first enrolled at FIU, he wanted to be a zoologist. But when he heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, he was inspired to pursue environmental justice.

“If you think about it, a lot of low socio-economic status communities, like communities of color, communities of the lower-class, really struggle with having access to foods, having access to parks and being exposed to toxins,” Rojas said. 

Upon graduating, Rojas hopes to go straight into a Ph.D. program related to environmental health. Thanks in part to the McNair program, he is prepared to do so.

For more information on the McNair Scholars Program, visit