UB McNair Scholars recognized at national mathematics conference

Students Nadia Syeda and Valerie Tapia present at research conference, UMATYC


Out of nearly 20,000 undergraduates at UB, there are only 22 McNair Scholars. Out of those 22, two can say they presented their research to a room full of professionals.

Nadia Syeda and Valerie Tapia are McNair Scholars who spent their summer completing a research internship and creating their own research projects that they presented at the 21st Annual UB Undergraduate Research Conference. They also got the opportunity to present at the Utah Mathematics Association of Two-Year Colleges (UMATYC).

Syeda, a senior mathematics and economics major, and Tapia, a senior mathematics major, have found opportunities through the Robert E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, also known as the McNair Scholars Program. The program is named after Dr. Ronald McNair, one of the first African Americans to become an astronaut, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger launch in 1986. The McNair program is federally funded by the U.S. Department of Education and was created to help first generation, low-income students who are underrepresented in their fields.

But not just anyone can become a McNair Scholar.

Syeda and Tapia were given the chance to show off their expertise at the McNair undergraduate research conference.

Tapia’s research focused on education and exploring math anxiety among students in high school. She also studied how teachers can use their expertise to help kids feel more comfortable with doing math.

The project required Tapia to travel to different schools in Buffalo to conduct surveys. Syeda, on the other hand, wanted to investigate the Weierstrass function and theoretical

math and apply it to the real world with a focus on economics.

The research conference was held in Niagara Falls in July. This year, about 20 UB students presented their work. Students from different schools and programs all over the country attended the conference and presented research.

When conducting research, students are encouraged to seek faculty mentors to help facilitate their work during the summer. McNair Program Director and Coordinator Dr. Susan Ott and Heather Hagenbuch, a project assistant and counselor in the program, matched Syeda and Tapia with UB mathematics professor Chris Yuen.

“[Professor Yuen] is amazing,” Ott said. “He’s tough but he puts everyone above all.”

What the girls enjoyed most about Yuen being their mentor is that they got to create their own projects. Syeda and Tapia didn’t expect this freedom. Yuen helped them develop their own research topics instead of allowing them to assist him with his research, which is most common in these situations.

Syeda and Tapia’s work has also been recognized on a national level among professionals and professors in their fields. Their work was chosen from a pool of national applicants who applied to present at the Utah Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (UMATYC.)

UMATYC is a forum that encourages open discussions for potential mathematics teachers. Syeda and Tapia were the only undergraduates to attend and present their research – the rest of the attendees were professors. The McNair program paid all the expenses to enable them to attend.

The program is strict and usually only accepts college sophomores and juniors. Two-thirds of the students must be first generation college students and come from low-income backgrounds. One-third must be underrepresented for doctoral study.

Students must have more than a 3.0 GPA and plan on continuing their education at a graduate level. The program is designed is to prepare students to get their Ph.D. after graduating. The intensive research and close work relationship with professors give students firsthand experience of what it’s like to work in academia.

Students are able to attend credit-bearing workshops, obtain funding for graduate school preparation classes and textbooks, get waivers to applications, network with faculty and present their research at different schools all over the country.

“This program really knows how to take care of you,” Syeda said. “I’ve had a lot of eureka moments in the summer program, it made me feel like I can actually do something,”

Jashonda Williams is a contributing writer. News desk can be reached at news@ubspectrum.com.