Excel Scholars pose for a group photo after their presentations in McNeely Hall on July 26, 2018 in St. Paul.

Excel! Scholars Present Summer Research at Symposium

After spending the past eight weeks working on research with faculty mentors, this year’s nine Excel! Scholars delivered their findings to a room filled with friends, family and faculty at McNeely Hall on July 26. Research topics ran the gamut from examining the barriers community health workers face in promoting immigrant health, to exploring how to track neotropical, white-lipped peccaries.

One of the Excel! Summer Research Symposium’s presenters was senior Bontu Gemeda, who talked about what she had learned while digging into information about the lack of government oversight and how it negatively affected African Americans in the Mississippi Delta.

“I’ve learned a lot about the actual academic part of research and how to conduct research that’s not part of a research project class,” Gemeda said during a break at the event. “Learning how to utilize sources and resources in order to find what you need, that was a huge thing I learned. That helped me find sources for my project as well.”

The Excel! Scholars are a cohort of students who are part of the Excel! Research Scholars program, a post-baccalaureate achievement program helping undergraduate students to complete their degree, and be prepared to apply to, be competitive for and excel in graduate school. (The program started at St. Thomas in 2012 as a continuation of the McNair Scholars program, which began in 2007.)

Each year’s group of students create their own Living Learning Community, spend a summer doing funded research with a faculty mentor, and use their presentation and area of research to launch their preparation for graduate school and beyond.

“I really like Excel! because it’s a Living Learning Community, we all live in the dorms together,” Gemeda said. “We see each other all the time, but not necessarily on a social basis. It’s more that we are learning and growing in our fields together. We all started out bumbling through things and now everyone has become very polished and knowledgeable in our respective fields. It was great watching everyone grow.”

Excel! director Cynthia Fraction is excited about the program’s 11th year and says the symposium is a great opportunity for students to sharpen their presentation skills.

“They’re learning how to present and this helps them gain confidence,” Fraction said about the symposium. “They’re well-rehearsed, but they’re still going to make mistakes. I’d rather them do that here in a supportive environment than go out to a national conference and be completely nervous. They’ll go to national conferences, they’ll go in front of faculty, they’ll present again on campus – this time today gives them an opportunity to get the bugs out.”

Senior Linda Nzabamwita says being an Excel! Scholar is challenging, but also rewarding. Since joining the program, she’s learned about time management, teamwork, navigating the school system and how to be an advocate for herself.

“Overall it’s taught me a lot in terms of presentation, looking for data, grad school preparation – it grew me as a scholar,” she said.

Past Excel! Scholars have pursued graduate, law, or doctorate degrees, with many of them earning full scholarships to the likes of Yale and Brown universities.

The Excel! Program also includes a hallmark trip every spring, “We March for Justice,” a study tour of the American civil rights movement. At the symposium, Gemeda spoke passionately about the tour's effect on her and the research topic she picked. While traveling through Mississippi on the trip, she recalled seeing African-American prisoners working out in the fields.

“We don’t have to look back to 1965 to find black men incarcerated and picking cotton when this is going on today,” she told the audience. “I wanted to take what I learned on the ‘We March for Justice’ trip and make it so I can teach other people. I’ve learned so much on this trip and I didn’t want to let that knowledge just sit there – I wanted to do something with it. So I chose the research topic on the Mississippi Delta, particularly 1953-1969, in order to understand what government forces at play were.”

Here are the nine 2018-2019 Excel! Scholars, along with majors, research topics and faculty mentors:

Marissa Abara
Major: Communication and journalism, '20
Title: Self Identity: Examining History in Public Schools and its Effect of Youth With Multiracial Backgrounds
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Tanya Gladney, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice

Xavier Abdullahi, Dougherty Family College Excel! Fellow
Title: GPS Telemetry Collars for Neotropical Keystone Species, White Lipped Peccaries
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Miguel Fernandes, Dougherty Family College, Department of Biology

Martin Beck, Excel! Visiting Student
Title: Balancing the Scales of Justice: The Impact of Colorism on African-American Female Lawyers
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Todd Lawrence, Department of English

Samuel Figueroa
Major: Theology ‘19
Title: God's Justice
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Amy Levad, Department of Theology

Bontu Gemeda
Major: History, '19
Title: Disruption in the Delta: How the Lack of Government Oversight Harmed African Americans in the Mississippi Delta
Faculty Mentor: Dr. David Williard, Department of History

Abigail Heller
Major: Neuroscience, '19
Assessing Delay Discounting in a Mouse Model of Autism Spectrum Disorder
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Nicola Grissom, University of MN Department of Psychology

Linda Nzabamwita
Major: Public health studies, '19
Title: Community Health Workers: The Barriers They Face in Promoting Immigrant Health
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Amy Finnegan, Department of Justice and Peace

Erin Robb
Major: Neuroscience, '20
Title: EMG Signal Decoding Using Random Forest Regression for Prosthetic Hand Control
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Zhi Yang, University of MN Department of Biomedical Engineering

Mary Yeboah
Major: Biology, '19
Title: Effects of Synthetic Musks on Metabolism
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Dalma Martinović-Weigelt, Department of Biology