A Vision Into the Brain: McNair Scholars Research Neuroscience

McNair Scholar Benim Ghobreal conducts research in Vision and Neural Engineering Lab.

At NJIT, undergraduates get many opportunities to work on hands-on research projects. The Provost’s Office, the Biology and the Math Department as well as the Dorman Honor’s College all sponsor undergraduate research. 

But the Ronald E. McNair Achievement Program is especially interesting in that it recruits low-income minority students to do major research projects. McNair’s goal is to train the students to pursue doctorates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, thereby increasing diversity in scientific doctoral programs. 

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, McNair is directed by Dr. Angelo Perna, professor of chemical engineering at NJIT.  The program is in its 12th year and has graduated 177 students, some of whom work as leading-edge researchers and professors.  Each year, McNair accepts about 20 students. They attend various workshops and tutoring sessions that prepare them for graduate school.  But the heart of the program is its summer research component. 

A McNair Team Studies Vision

This summer, for instance, three McNair students assisted Tara Alvarez, a biomedical engineering professor who studies neuroscience and vision. The team spent the summer in Alvarez’s Vision and Neural Engineering Lab, studying how a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) impairs a person’s vision.  The three students used a high-speed video tracking system to chart the eye movements of uninjured people.  They compared that data to the eye movements of patients with traumatic brain injuries.

Alvarez also collaborates with the Advanced Imaging Center at UMDNJ, which uses functional imaging to measure neurological changes. The students will correlate data from UMDNJ with the tests done in Alvarez’s lab. The research could help scientists better understand the neural basis of visual impairment. And that could lead to better therapies for patients with traumatic brain injuries. 

McNair Scholar Glendon Scott

“Scientists don’t precisely understand how a mild traumatic brain injury causes an array of visual problems,” says Glendon Scott, a senior who double majors in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering. “We’re collecting data from clinical tests and determining how the blunt impact from a brain injury affects a person’s vision.”

Doing research, Scott adds, allows him to apply what he’s learning in his engineering classes to a hands-on project.  His team also presented its research this summer at NJIT and will present it again at an upcoming April symposium.  

“McNair is giving us great experience that will help us get into graduate school,” says Scott.

He Wants to Win a Noble Prize

Bemin Ghobreal, a senior who also double majors in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering, says the best aspect of the research is learning how eye movements intersect with the human brain.  He says he’s always been fascinated by the brain and that the research is giving him insights into neural engineering science. Doing research has taught him to ask questions and to perform experiments that answer those questions.

“Even though technically in science one never gets an absolute answer -- what you get is more questions -- it’s the continuous investigation that keeps me motivated as a researcher,” says Benim.

After he graduates, he hopes to pursue his graduate studies at either California Institute of Technology or Columbia University.  McNair has motivated him to do that. 

“It was the most exciting day of my life when I got a call saying that I was accepted into the McNair program,” says Benim. “My dream now is to work so hard that one day I’ll win the Noble Prize.”

Student Research Around the World

Frandy Dort, a senior who majors in biomedical engineering, says the best part of the McNair program was talking to other undergraduates and learning about their research. He made connections with NJIT student researchers as well as with students from India and China, who came to NJIT recently for an international research symposium.

“McNair helped me see that there are students around the world who want to improve society through research,” says Frandy. “And the research our team is doing is advancing neuroscience.  It’s great to do this research at such a young age, and we have McNair to thank for that.”

(By Robert Florida)