McNair Alumni Fulfill Grad School Mission
Sept. 24, 2012
Clifford Frez on the job at JPL.
Clifford Frez, Omar Khalid and Nicole M. Merino have a few things in common: All first-generation college students, they graduated from Cal State Fullerton with full scholarships to complete doctoral degrees. As undergrads, they were McNair Scholars and today, they credit the program for their success.
Undergraduates who are selected to be McNair Scholars are encouraged to attend graduate school and attain doctoral degrees. The program was established by the U.S. Department of Education in 1986, and named for the late astronaut, Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African American to fly in space. CSUF has received more than $2.5 million in federal grants for the program, which was instituted on campus in 1999. Another $1.1 million is expected to continue the program, which provides low-income and first-generation college students opportunities to seek advanced degrees, for at least six more years.
Class of 2002 chemistry alumnus Frez, who earned his doctorate in chemical engineering at Brown University in 2008, now works in his dream job as a microdevices engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“Right now, I’m working on making new semi-conductor lasers for the purpose of space exploration,” he said, adding that the research he enthusiastically pursues today is due in large part to his experience as a McNair Scholar.
As an undergrad, Frez was paired with A. Scott Hewitt, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who taught him the fundamentals of research by guiding him through the study of gaseous reaction of chlorine atoms and aromatic compounds, among other research.
“The McNair program really helped me,” Frez said. “I learned what it takes to make it in grad school by participating in research, giving presentations and writing about research results.”
He said working at JPL “is something I never imagined when I was younger, and I really credit a lot of my preparation and excitement for science to Dr. Hewitt and the McNair program.”
Khalid, who earned his bachelor's degree in biochemistry in 2003, said that being a McNair Scholar exposed him to different opportunities in research and led him to seek research as a career. He graduated with a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences from USC in 2009.
“I’ll always be very grateful to the McNair program for all it did for me,” he said.
Today, Khalid is a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, where he is conducting stem cell research.
“I’m trying to figure out what makes a stem cell a stem cell,” he said. “We know stem cells are great, that they can cure diseases, but we don’t fully understand why that is. What causes stem cells to act as a cure? We want to figure that out.”
Khalid said his love for research bloomed under the tutelage of his McNair faculty mentors — Robert A. Koch, interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Christina A. Goode, professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
“Dr. Goode and Dr. Koch were fantastic,” he said. “Looking back, I realize that their mentorship was exceptional. They really care about you, which is rare. People care but not like my Cal State Fullerton mentors. I’m a first-generation U.S. college student, and they really helped prepare me for graduate school like no one else.”
Nicole M. Merino
Following her 2002 graduation from CSUF with a degree in child and adolescent studies, Merino earned her master’s and doctorate in education at UC Santa Barbara, and now is director of performance assessment for California teachers at the Stanford Center for Assessment Learning and Equity.
“When I applied for graduate school and scholarships, UC Santa Barbara officials were really impressed with the amount of research and conference presentations I had done as a CSUF McNair undergrad,” Merino said. “They saw it as commitment to getting my advanced degrees, and they gave me a five-year fellowship and research assistant position.”
Guiding her as her McNair faculty mentor was Kari Knutson Miller, chair and professor of child and adolescent studies.
“She provided me a learning experience I never would have gotten outside the McNair program,” Merino said. “I feel very fortunate that I had that experience that led me to grad school and to a job that I love.”
One of the most important lessons she learned as an undergrad, she said, was “how to advocate for myself, especially as a female minority.”
“I am really prepared to be able to argue for myself and express my ideas in higher-education discussions with national leaders,” Merino added. “How I learned to do that directly connects to my experience in the McNair program.”
New McNair Scholars
The following undergrads were selected as the newest CSUF McNair Scholars, listed with their majors and cities of residence:
- Ashley D. Adams, graphic arts, Irvine
- Jenny C. Chang, mathematics-applied mathematics, Walnut
- Danielle Delany, psychology, Santa Ana
- Rebecca A. Fisk, psychology, Fullerton
- Alexa M. Harris, ethnic studies and sociology, Pomona
- Sofia I. Laguna, psychology, Chino Hills
- Amber M. O'Hara, biology, Fullerton
- Keith T. Reed, radio-TV-film and ethnic studies, Los Angeles
- Audrey Rodriguez, psychology, Rowland Heights
- Geselle Sarmiento, kinesiology, Whittier
- Jennifer Spencer, biology, Santa Margarita
- Gabriela Yates, philosophy, Chino Hills
By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586