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Summer Research Institute Pairs Students with their Perfect Professors

McNair/AANAPISI programs for low-income, first-generation students matches undergrads with faculty mentors that share their focus and goals.

Research  |  Aug 11, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
A student and faculty member examine an experiment under magnification.

Dustin Hines, left, and student researcher Beatriz Torres are researching the neuroscience of social isolation. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

This story was co-written by Stepheni Collins and Jennifer Gray of the Division of Student Affairs.


Soul mates don’t have to come bearing flowers and poetry. Call them ideological soul mates. A pair of people who share the same attitudes and beliefs, world views, visions and professional goals. For the UNLV students and professors involved in the AANAPISI/McNair Summer Research Institute program, curiosity, commitment and mutual respect form the foundation of their working relationship.

The McNair Scholars Institute and the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI) programs are federally funded initiatives that target first-generation, low-income students. The programs aim to prepare 30 high-achieving undergraduates for graduate school. Matthew Della Sala, research advisor, mentor, and coach for both McNair and AANAPISI, says the much larger AANAPISI program focuses on “retention, progression, and completion for students who are first-generation and come from low-income backgrounds.” AANAPISI focuses on providing academic counseling to assist with the completion of a bachelor’s degree. AANAPISI offers the Summer Research Institute, which provides access to funding for undergraduate research, while pairing undergraduates with faculty mentors.

Social isolation and the downward depression spiral

Dustin Hines and senior Beatriz Torres share a love of dogs and a passion for neuroscience. The two met following an introduction to neuroscience class taught by Hines that captivated Torres. Hines encouraged Torres to apply to the Summer Research Institute as a research assistant. Torres and Hines are conducting a research project that looks at social isolation or as Beatriz calls it, “the modern plague.” Using a murine model of social isolation, they examine the ultra structural changes of glial cells.

Major depressive disorder is now considered to be the leading cause of disability worldwide. “Several things probably contribute to the high percentage of individuals that report feeling lonely,” Torres said. “Social media, longer work hours, having a headphones grow out of our ears, and traffic hours. What makes this alarming is that social isolation is a stressor that is a major risk factor for the development of major depressive disorder.” Both Hines and Torres demonstrate a personal commitment and passion for helping overcome depression.

Torres’s area of research involves the role of glial cells in depression. Glial cells are the most abundant cell types in the central nervous system, and Torres is examining one kind of glial cell, called an astrocyte. “I am experimenting on socially isolating mice for two to four weeks, and then running behavioral tests to see whether the isolation induced depressive or anxiety-like behavior,” Torres said. “When I examine them, I expect to be able to tell if the social isolation impacted the mice, which would help in the development of better antidepressants.”

Hines often praises Torres’s findings, and she describes his teachings as what helped her “go beyond the pages of the neuroscience textbook.” The AANAPISI program has given them the opportunity to conduct research and hopefully find a cure. “Not only has the program provided scholarship money, but it has also given me the focus and drive needed to complete this research project by the end of the summer”, Torres said

A student and professor share notes over a book.Behavior, nutrition evolution and socialization in Tanzania

Alyssa Crittenden, an anthropologist, and Elle Ford, a psychology major, met in the course “The Anthropology of Women and Men”. Ford volunteered in the metabolism, anthropometry and nutrition lab where they explore the growth and development among children hunter-gatherers of Tanzania by analyzing GPS tracks of forager children in this tribe.

“The project will analyze basic anthropometric measurements among Hadza children and juveniles, including height, weight, body mass index, and body fat percentage. Anthropologists and human biologists have long used anthropometric measurements as macro-level indicators of child health, but very little data on basic anthropometrics of small-scale foraging populations exist,” Crittenden said. “The research focuses on the evolution of behavior and nutrition. I’ve always been fascinated by human biology and human evolution and I wanted answers to the burning questions of how we came to be as a species in bodies that look like ours with these large and complex brains and with life stages that are so different from all other animals.”.

Ford is analyzing the data and testing hypotheses in regard to when, why, and how children forage in small-scale societies, and whether or not any sex differences emerge and at what age. The data will help determine how far they forage and how this relates to biological measures of fitness. The Hadza are an ideal population in which to ask such questions, as they are one of the last remaining foraging populations on earth.

“I am dedicated to my work because I recognize its importance, “Ford said. “This work is helping the Hadza continue to live a life they wish to have instead of being forcibly assimilated. I have received funding for my research, been given many resources that will help me prepare for the GRE, and been gifted with an opportunity to conduct research and get professional training”. None of this would have been possible without McNair.”

The program also benefits the mentors. “McNair offers faculty the opportunity to conduct research with an undergraduate student, to assist in their own ongoing research agenda, and provides resources to become a better mentor and adviser to students who want to continue on to graduate school,” Crittenden said.

A student and a professor stand in front of a rack of comic books

Lesbian fan art, representation and diversification

Nicole Espinosa, a non-traditional student, applied for McNair after taking Erika Abad’s capstone feminist research and methods class. Now she and Abad are conducting research on how queer fandoms and fan art functions as a site of resistance to the negative portrayal of queer women in science fiction.

“We are doing participatory action research on lesbian fandom. In other words, how do lesbian and queer women work together to address limited representation, using social media as a primary mobilizing force,” Abad said. “The research also looks at how TV consumption can affect identity formation. It focuses specifically on the relationship between Clarke and Lexa from the CW Series The 100. The response of fan art flips that narrative conversation on the negative narrative of lesbians presented on the show.”

Abad and Espinosa’s research looks closely at the nature of LGBT portrayal in film and television, noting that the majority of characters are either villains or minor players who tend to die early in a series or film. After Lexa’s death in The 100, fans organized a convention, ClexaCon, to champion LGBT representation. “While I talk on limited diversity in film and television through coursework and class lectures, Nicole has been volunteering for the ClexaCon convention for almost a year and is chronicling what takes place online as convention support expands and diversifies,” Abad said.

Espinosa, whose own parents studied in the Philippines and were unable to offer advice on programs in an American university, has found the mentorship aspects of the program invaluable. “McNair gives me the resources I couldn't find on my own and helps me become a more competitive grad school applicant.” Espinosa one day wants to teach, and be the representation in academia she doesn't see now. “I want to be that professor that I am missing.”

Abad can relate. She herself has been through the program. “As a McNair Scholar I was mentored by other first-generation well-known scholars who just happen to be Latina lesbians. Despite how many Latina and/or queer mentors I had, I knew my experiences were an anomaly and how empowering it was to have mentors who shared some of my lived experiences.”

The road to top tier

With laser-sharp focus on academic rigor, The McNair and AANAPISI programs cultivate two of UNLV’s strategic initiatives; access to greater academic achievement and a celebration of diversity. “The greatest benefit of the programs is access and opening doors for students; access to campus resources, free tutoring, academic counseling, and funding for undergraduate research,” research advisor Della Sala said. “We help our students arrive at those doors and then we mentor and coach them as they open those doors themselves.”

Ford points out the diversity not only in the students, but in the professors as well. “The diversity on this campus amazes me. In my few semesters here I have encountered more approaches to teaching and different perspectives than I ever have in all of my educational background. Everyone is aware of this trait of our university community and we embrace and foster it.”