Summer Research Opportunities Program/McNair Scholars prepares students for graduate study
Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pigeons with iPads, olfactory functions and Alzheimer’s disease, smoking behaviors of stroke patients, and Ralph Ellison and The New York Times probably aren’t topics that usually have a lot in common. Except that this summer they are all areas of research being pursued by students involved in the Summer Research Opportunities Program and the McNair Scholars program (SROP/McNair Scholars) through the University of Iowa Graduate College.

SROP/McNair Scholars is designed to provide promising underrepresented undergraduate students with in-depth research experiences. The selective eight-week program gives students the opportunity to work side-by-side with faculty mentors and spend the summer focused on research and graduate school preparation.

SROP began in 1986 through an agreement between the universities of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. The McNair Scholars Program grant started in 2007. In 1986, Iowa had three students. This year, 40 SROP/McNair students are doing research on Iowa’s campus.

Diana Bryant, SROP/McNair coordinator, has worked with the program at Iowa since its inception. She says many of the SROP/McNair participants who spend their summers in Iowa apply to graduate programs here.

“U.S. minority, first generation, and low income students are typically underrepresented academically in higher education and especially in the professorate,” she says. “It’s really important to have a diverse faculty, not just here at our university, but everywhere else. We’re trying to do our part to train and encourage students to pursue Ph.D.s.”

Though a majority of the students’ time is focused on research, Bryant and her team also organize programming throughout the eight weeks. Students participate in a weekly speakers series, where researchers come and share their experiences with the group. There are also professional development workshops that focus on résumé, curriculum vita, and personal statement writing. There are GRE prep sessions and a journal club, which helps students work on writing skills. Students this year also participated in a Habitat for Humanity build in Solon.

“We keep them busy, but they’re excited about what they’re doing. They’re engaged,” Bryant says. “Many of students don’t want to leave because they’re so excited about their research.”


Pigeons learning to use touch screen technology. That’s what Sacha Perez Acevedo, a senior psychology major and social studies education minor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, is researching this summer alongside Ed Wasserman, a professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).

Perez Acevedo is working on taking a cognitive development task that has existed for many years in real life and put it in the virtual world. Traditionally, the task involves attaching strings to two dishes—one full of food and one empty—in numerous combinations. The task measures how long it takes a pigeon to learn how to get the food.

Perez Acevedo and her team took the “real world” string test and put it on a touch screen. Now, instead of pulling the string, the pigeon has to peck at a designated spot on the touch screen to get the food. As it pecks at the spot, the box moves closer—the pigeons virtually pull the string to get to the food.

Perez Acevedo, who plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, focusing on behavior and cognition, says working in the lab this summer has provided invaluable experience that will help her with her research in the future.

“My home university doesn’t have as much of a research focus, so I don’t have access to the labs that I am able to work in at Iowa,” Perez Acevedo says. “This has been a great opportunity for me because now I’ll have the research experience that graduate programs are looking for.”

Perez Acevedo says Iowa is her top choice for graduate school and hopes to return to the university as a graduate student.

Ellison and The New York Times

Unlike Perez Acevedo, Donald Brown, a junior English and philosophy major at Mississippi State University, and Jordan Gaither, a senior marketing major at Grambling State University in Grambling, La., aren’t spending time in the lab, but they are clocking quite a lot of hours in the UI Libraries.

All of the 2012 SROP/McNair Scholars students will share their research through poster presentations at the Summer Undergraduate Research Conference, which begins at 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 25 in the IMU Main Lounge. The conference is free and open to the public.

Brown, who plans on pursuing a doctorate in English, focusing on African American literature, and Gaither, who plans on pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing as well as a doctorate in English, are spending their summer reading the Sunday New York Times and the essays of Ralph Ellison and writing about the correlations between the two. They are also researching younger African American authors.

The duo is required to research and write two essays a week and submit them to their mentor, Horace Porter, a professor of African American studies and English in CLASwho reviews the work and gives feedback for revisions and rewrites. Porter says this type of close reading, research, and writing process is preparing Brown and Gaither to produce creative content leading to published work and dissertations.

Brown says the close reading involved with his summer research is helping him grow as a humanities scholar.

“Being pushed to read—not just read, but close reading—analyzing what I read, and making sense of how it ties into what is going on now is really pushing me as a scholar. I’m very excited about taking the things I’ve learned here and applying them to my future studies,” Brown says.

Gaither, a self-proclaimed artist at heart, says this summer has helped him focus on his future goals.

“Dr. Porter pushes us, but we push each other too,” Gaither says. “The research and writing I’ve been doing this summer is a challenge but I like it because this is the type of work I plan on doing for the rest of my life. Studying with Dr. Porter is inspirational because, in the African American community, it’s not that common to earn a doctorate. Seeing how successful he has been makes me believe I can do it too.”

This is your brain…

James Stewart II will be a sophomore this fall at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). He is young for a SROP participant—the program usually accepts rising juniors and seniors—but Stewart says that makes him even more excited about the opportunity to work with Dan Tranel, a neurology professor in the Carver College of Medicine, and possibly return to do research with Tranel in the following summers.

Stewart, a biology major with a double minor in psychology and music, says he has wanted to be a doctor for as long as he can remember. After he graduates from UMBC he plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. and wants to be a surgical researcher studying the impact of music on the brain. He’s working on three different studies this summer to experience the many different steps of implementing a successful research study. In one, he is working to assess olfactory functions in higher cortical areas of patients’ brains and how they correlate to Alzheimer’s disease. In a second study, he is working to recruit patients for an emotion processing study. The third study focuses on getting a better measurement of symptoms that patients experience.

“It’s exciting to be working with such a well-known neuroscientist,” Stewart says. “If I didn’t have to go back to school, I’d stay here and do research all the time. Being involved in SROP gives students a definite advantage when applying to graduate schools. It’s an intense program. The amount and type of research we’re involved in is exactly what graduate programs are looking for."

Jaclyn Arencibia, who will be a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in the fall, is also working in Tranel’s lab this summer. A psychology major with an Hispanic studies minor, most of the research she has engaged in has been in the area of social psychology. This summer she’s focusing on neuropsychological research, specifically on different areas involving smoking cessation behavior in patients. Arencibia’s primary focus is on a supplementary study to a parent study on smoking behavior in patients who have had a stroke. The original study found that patients who had lesions on their insula were more likely to quit smoking after the stroke.

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of learning, but it’s amazing to work with Dr. Tranel,” Arencibia says. “I’ve done a lot of qualitative research but not so much quantitative and here I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to data analysis.”

Arencibia, who plans to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, says she will be applying to programs in the fall including at Iowa.

All of the students, including Stewart and Arencibia, say they were pleasantly surprised with Iowa and the Iowa City area.

“It’s a smaller city, but the downtown has so many things to offer. We’re obsessed with Java House,” Arencibia says.

“It’s an amazing place,” Stewart quickly echoes.

“I might have to come back just for that,” Arencibia says.