McNair Scholars transition undergraduate research projects to online formats

Words like pivot and persevere are often used to describe how students transitioned to remote learning due to COVID-19.

David Martin, director of the McNair Scholars program, added courage when describing how 17 undergraduates adapted their research to online formats. The McNair Scholars program, a federally funded TRIO program, supports first-generation and underrepresented students who want to pursue doctoral programs.

In typical years, McNair Scholars conduct summer research projects either in the lab or field with faculty mentors, attend and present at conferences, receive assistance with graduate school applications, attend academic advising and tutoring sessions, and more. In mid-March, Martin worked with other faculty and staff members to move these program facets online.

What took time and reflection, Martin said, was adjusting the pace of the program to be flexible, recognizing how the challenges of COVID-19 affected students of color and those with limited incomes disproportionately.

Gabrielle Angel, a senior who is majoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies, completed a research project online.
Gabrielle Angel, a senior who is majoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies, completed a research project online.
Image credit - courtesy photo
David Martin is pictured in the Pew Library atrium
David Martin, director of the McNair Scholars program, was also a scholar during his undergraduate years at Grand Valley.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

"Because McNair works exclusively with first-generation and low-income students, as well as underrepresented students of color, we worked hard to make sure each scholar had the space and support needed to help them maintain a sense of community, even while we were remote," Martin said.

Gabrielle Angel, a senior who is majoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies, said the McNair community became integral to success beginning with the spring "stay home, stay safe" executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and continuing into the fall semester.

"There is this group of people who are just like you, doing research, which can be very alienating as a first-generation student," Angel said. "But you're in this community of like-minded people and engaging virtually with this group regularly." 

Angel had plans to travel during the summer to Los Angeles and New York City to finish their research project, "The Monstrous Queer," delving into newspaper articles and other forms of media from 1970-1999 that depicted people of color who identified as LGBTQIA as "monsters." As the university's COVID policies continue to restrict travel, Angel moved to researching online archives while continuing to build a professional network. 

"I have been able to virtually meet a lot of people who teach WGS. It's a powerful community," said Angel, who plans to pursue a doctoral degree with an eye on teaching as a career.

McNair Scholar Jessa Avalos was once studying studio art until she volunteered with a friend, a natural resources management major, to prune trees in Grand Rapids. Avalos enjoyed the experience and later changed her major to NMR. She now brings a strong artistic background to her classes, according to her faculty mentor Alexandra Locher, associate professor of biology.

"Many people believe that art and science are separate, but in fact they complement each other in many ways," Locher said. "Jessa is able to creatively think about a problem and also to quantitatively analyze it."

Avalos' research focused on the effects of an invasive species on hemlock trees in Ottawa County. Much of the outdoor work was completed before the spring executive order, and she finished her project studying the county's satellite imagery remotely.

The McNair Scholars program has taught Avalos more than how to conduct an intensive research project. "I am a first-generation student. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school but didn't know how to start. Our regular meetings and talks with Dr. Martin have helped me sort that out," she said. 

Martin is an alumnus of the GVSU McNair Scholar program who earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Oregon in 2017. He said first-hand knowledge of the challenges underrepresented students face helps guide his daily work. And during a year when research experiences and meetings had to shift online, Martin applauded the cohort.

"The real credit goes to the students in all of this," he said. "They showed an amazing amount of perseverance and courage to show up every day during an extremely challenging moment in our history."


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.