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Samson Osholowu (left) and professor Leonard Banaszak

McNair Scholar Samson Osholowu (left), a University of Minnesota student, is working with biochemistry professor Leonard Banaszak to unlock the mysteries of proteins.

McNair Scholars flying high after 15 years

At the University, young scholars in the program named for the fallen astronaut are reaching for the stars

By Deane Morrison

August 4, 2006

Is virtue its own reward? What does an enzyme look like up close? Is the "No Pass/No Play" rule the best way to keep high school athletes out of trouble? Those were among the topics presented earlier this week by the University's latest crop of McNair Scholars, 21 top students from four Minnesota colleges who have performed research projects at the University this summer with faculty mentors. For University senior Samson Osholowu, the McNair experience allowed him to induge his passion for proteins. He is working in the laboratory of Leonard Banaszak, a professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics. "I want to know what proteins look like, and I wanted to be able to do microbial cloning," says Osholowu, explaining that cloning in this case means coaxing bacterial cells to produce large amounts of the protein in question. "Here, we do both." From the broad smile on his face the whole time he explained his work to visitors, it's evident that Osholowu, a native Nigerian who has only been in the United States for five years, has found his niche. The protein that fascinates him is one of a cluster of enzymes found in the tiny subcellular bodies called mitochondria, which churn out most of the energy our bodies extract from food. For his project, Osholowu worked with postdoc Wasantha Ranatunga. A few feet from Osholowu stands Thuy Doan, a University of St. Thomas student who studied the practice of kicking high school athletes off teams for breaking rules, using a Twin Cities-area school as a laboratory.

"The McNair program makes you think you can do anything by the time it's done," says Wallace. "It encourages you to dream higher."

"The biggest reasons for removal were alcohol use, low grades, cutting practices and smoking," says Doan, who conducted an extensive survey of the students. The perception in the school was that girls got away with things more easily. But the students didn't think that kicking athletes off teams was necessarily the best way to deal with problem behavior. "Surveys of athletes showed that they thought that fitting the consequences to the behavior would be as effective as suspension. Things like restitution or apologies," says Doan, who worked with Jennifer Oliphant and Shari Plowman of the pediatrics department. "Offering assistance like tutoring or mentoring may be effective for first-time offenders." Named for Ronald McNair, one of the fallen Challenger astronauts, the McNair Scholars program, now in its 15th year at the University, is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and operated by the TRiO Program in the College of Education and Human Development. It encourages and helps minority, disabled, or low-income undergraduates reach graduate or professional schools. Of the more than 300 students who have benefited from the program, more than 60 percent have gone on to graduate school. Presenters Jesse Ping and Aaron Lane, both University of Minnesota students, talked about their work on designing space suits to increase thermal comfort while decreasing bulk. They worked with professors Gloria Leon, psychology, and Victor Koscheyev, kinesiology, who have mentored McNair scholars for 10 years. On hand for the presentations, held in Coffman Union on the Twin Cities campus, was Nick Wallace, a former McNair Scholar who has received a master's degree in public policy and a law degree from the University and is now at the Law School's Institute on Race and Poverty. "The McNair program makes you think you can do anything by the time it's done," says Wallace. "It encourages you to dream higher." As part of his McNair experience, Wallace traveled to Durban, South Africa, for a conference on discrimination where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Fidel Castro, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, and Jesse Jackson. And what about virtue? Is it really its own reward? Keith Fox, a St. Olaf College student who worked with Michelle Mason of the philosophy department, says no. Well, not exactly. "Virtue benefits one instrumentally--that is, if I'm honest I may get more friends and benefit through them," says Fox. "But being honest in a vacuum confers no benefits. My argument doesn't require a previous moral background. That is, a person who knows nothing of morality can benefit by moral behavior." Sharyn Schelske, co-director of the program, summed up her happiness with the students' performances. "The mentors did an outstanding job with the students," she said. "They set high standards, and the students measured up to them."