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Scholars from throughout U.S. to present research at UNT conference

Clifford Morrison, Robby PetrosIn his small high school in Hughes Springs, Texas, Clifford Morrison didn’t have any opportunities to learn about the work of a synthetic biologist — his career goal — by doing research.

That changed for him after his first year at UNT. Morrison, a chemistry and biochemistry major, enrolled in the Emerald Eagle Scholars program, which is for academically talented students with high financial need, and in the Honors College.

He learned in his honors chemistry course that UNT faculty members welcome undergraduate students in their labs as part of their research teams. During the fall of 2011, Morrison joined the research team of Rob Petros, assistant professor of chemistry, and started investigating new strategies for targeted drug delivery in pancreatic cancer patients. (Right, Morrison with Petros.)

Now a student in the McNair Scholars Program, Morrison will present his latest research findings at the 16th Annual Texas National McNair Scholars Research Conference at UNT Feb. 14-16. About 250 students and administrators from throughout the U.S., as well as UNT’s McNair Scholars, attend the conference each year. Morrison will be among approximately 125 scholars who will present their research to a panel of faculty members, who will provide suggestions on how the students could improve their presentations.

Originally called Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Programs, McNair Scholars Programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Education at 158 universities across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. UNT’s McNair program began in 1992 and has served more than 300 students.

McNair programs are designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral study through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. Participants are either the first in their families to attend a college or university and have financial need, or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education. All students selected for the program must have demonstrated strong academic potential.

All UNT McNair scholars have at least one faculty mentor for research. In 1998, the program began the Texas National McNair Scholars Research Conference to provide its students and other McNair students a way for students to present their research, and receive practice in creating the same type of presentations they will create for professional conferences during graduate school and their careers.

The students also benefit by meeting each other and networking, said Diana Elrod, director of UNT’s McNair program. Representatives from more than 50 graduate schools attend the conference to provide information to potential students.

Morrison is currently applying to doctoral programs in chemical engineering. He says his two years of working in Petros’ lab have taught him to not start a project with a conclusion already firmly set in his mind.

“If you do that, you’re throwing out a lot of other possibilities,” says Morrison, who started by synthesizing sunitinib, a biologically active small-molecule drug that is known to inhibit the growth of cancer receptor cells by blocking certain cell receptors. That project was shelved after Petros’ research team discovered a process of finding new molecules that could also be biologically active and become future medications.

Diana Askings, another McNair Scholar, will present her research on how college students are affected by their parents’ chronic physical or mental illness, and the role that attachment to parents plays in how students cope. A psychology major and also an Honors College student and Emerald Eagle Scholar, Askings started working with her research mentor, Associate Professor of Psychology Chiachih DC Wang, before she became a McNair student.

“Dr. Wang recommended that I apply to McNair, and since he helped me out, I wanted to collaborate on research with him,” says Askings, a graduate of Brewer High School in White Settlement. She’s now applying to doctoral programs in clinical, educational and school psychology. 

The keynote speaker for this year’s conference is Luis Fraga, a professor of political science at the University of Washington who is known on his campus for mentoring students. Fraga is also his university’s associate vice provost for faculty advancement and director of the Diversity Research Institute.

- Nancy Kolsti, News Promotions

(Above, student Clifford Morrison with chemistry professor Robby Petros. Photo by Jonathan Reynolds/URCM)

Posted on: Fri 07 February 2014

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