It's the Best Kept Secret at NJIT

Pictured from left to right: Award-winning McNair scholars Theo Blount, Michael Williams, Jay Vargas, Demetrius Lawing, and Glendon Scott.

Whenever one of his McNair students gets a Ph.D., Professor Angelo Perna, a good-hearted and gregarious professor who has taught at NJIT for 45 years, smiles with delight.

Perna devotes himself wholeheartedly to the academic success of his students.  And when they succeed he, like a proud father, luxuriates in their success. 

“I can’t tell you how happy I am when one of my students finally earns a doctorate,” says Perna. “They work hard to get their degrees and I know sometimes they feel like quitting.  We encourage them and when they finally finish we are overjoyed.”

Perna’s directs the McNair Achievement Program, which he refers to reverentially as “the best kept secret at NJIT.” Perna works closely with Zara Williams, McNair’s assistant director, who offers the students counsel, guidance and when necessary, healthy dollops of motherly solicitude. Williams is the “we” in the above quote.

McNair Program:

The McNair Program prepares undergraduate minority students, mostly from low-income families, for graduate school.  It’s a 10-week summer program through which students receive stipends, housing and other support.  After they graduate from NJIT, many McNair scholars go on to earn doctorates in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields.  Many work as research professors and research scientists, thereby diversifying America’s scientific workforce. And that’s whole point of McNair: to add diversity to STEM fields, where minorities are underrepresented. 

 “The nation needs more minority professors and research scientists,” says Perna. “And our students excel beyond all expectations to fill that gap.”

Each year, McNair accepts about 10 undergraduate students. Once accepted, the students attend rigorous workshops and tutoring sessions that prepare them for graduate school. But the heart of McNair is its summer research component, during which the students do research with university professors.  It’s in the lab, working alongside professors, where the students learn to conduct cutting- edge research -- a skill that puts them on the avenue to success.

Now in its 13th year, McNair has trained 122 students. Off the top of his head, Perna can reel off the names of successful McNair alums -- a subject he never tires of and one that always gives him joy.  

McNair Alums:

He mentions Diya Abdeljabbar, a McNair alum who is finishing his doctoral degree in chemical engineering at Princeton.  Diya’s drug research has been published widely and could lead to more effective drugs. At Princeton, Diya started a research program for minority students from Union City, N.J., his hometown.  He also tutors young prisoners at a local jail, so that when they leave prison they can find work.

Another McNair alum Perna mentions often is Gloria Portocarrero, who is doing her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at NJIT. While an undergraduate at NJIT, through the McNair program, Gloria did research with Professor Treena Arinzeh, a prominent stem cell expert. The two researched how stem cells develop into cartilage. After she graduated, Gloria enrolled in the biomedical engineering doctoral program. She works now as a research assistant for Arinzeh. Gloria’s research has been published and she travels the country presenting her research at academic conferences.

Perna is also quick to cite Felix Mbuga, a McNair alum now doing his doctorate in chemical engineering at Stanford, where he researches the effect of carbon dioxide on copper catalysts. At NJIT, Felix was a brilliant McNair scholar, says Perna proudly, one who loved the humanities as much as he did science.

After the McNair scholars graduate from NJIT, many keep in touch with Perna and Williams, updating them on their progress. Perna recently received an email from Robinson Kuis, a McNair alum who received his doctoral degree from the University of Maryland: “Dear Dr. Perna,” wrote Kuis, “I would like to thank you for all your assistance, push and encouragement during the time I was at NJIT.  I often think where I would be without people like you and Ms. Williams who helped me along the way.”   

All of the McNair scholars work hard to overcome obstacles, according to Perna and Williams. Most of them come from low-income families and inner-city high schools and some come from single-parent homes. Some work while pursuing their degrees, and others, such as Darnell Simon, who recently received a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from NJIT, support families while studying for their degrees. A majority of McNair scholars belong to NJIT’s Educational Opportunity Program, directed by Tony Howell, a big McNair supporter.  Many others attend the Albert Dorman Honors College, home to some of the brightest students in the nation. “The McNair students represent the best of NJIT,” says Perna

Perna is especially proud of this year’s McNair scholars, five of whom were recently recognized for their research by the Philadelphia Alliance for Minority Participation, a university consortium.  Each year, the Alliance hosts a research symposium during which undergraduates are judged on their research presentations.   

Award-Winning Scholars

This fall, Jay Vargas, a junior McNair scholar who is majoring in electrical engineering, won first place in the engineering category. Vargas’s research could change the way microchips are assembled. The current assembly technology, known as pick and place, relies on robotic arms to assemble circuit components. But component size limits the ability of the pick and place technology.

Vargas works with Physics Professor N. M. Ravindra and Vijay Kasisomayajula, a doctoral student of physics. And the three collaborate with Public Service Solutions Inc. (PSS), a high-tech company based in Fresh Meadows, N.Y. on what is called “The Magnetic Field Assisted Assembly."  The assembly method is a patented technology that involves levitating tiny devices and moving them to a substrate.  Jay is creating a computer model of the method as well as designing a prototype.

A team of two McNair scholars, Demetrius Lawing and Theophilus Blount, both Information Systems majors, took second place in the contest’s math and computer science category.  Under the direction of Professor Michael Bieber, they designed an information system that students can use for online discussions.  The system, called Participatory Learning, allows students to create, review and evaluate questions relating to their class work.

Glendon Scott, who double majors in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering, won honorable mention in engineering for researching how traumatic brain injury impairs a person’s vision.  Glendon, working with two other McNair scholars, used a video tracking system to chart the eye movements of patients. His research was directed by Professor Tara Alvarez.  And Michael Williams, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, also won honorable mention in engineering for research using accelerometers to stabilize camera images. His research, directed by Professor Edwin Hou, could enhance facial recognition software.

All five of these McNair scholars plan to attend graduate school. And all of them credit the McNair Program with motivating them. “The McNair program opened me up to the world of scientific research,” said Vargas, who before enrolling at NJIT spent five years in the Marines.

Alums Testify:

And here is what Diya Abdeljabbar, the McNair alum now at Princeton, has to say about the program that put him on the path to academic excellence. “The two years I spent as a McNair Scholar were wonderful,” says Diya. “Dr. Perna convinced me to join the McNair Program, gave me advice on grad schools and wrote me a great letter of recommendation. I can't think of anyone who cares as much about the McNair Scholars except, of course, for Ms. Williams. She really kept the whole operation moving forward with her dedication to the students.  Because of its abundance of first-generation and underrepresented minority students, NJIT is the ideal place for the McNair Program. And no pair is more fit to lead this fantastic program than Dr. Perna and Ms. Williams.”

Gloria Portocarrero, the McNair alum doing her doctorate at NJIT, agrees with Diya. Both Gloria and Diya grew up in Union City.  Both are also first-generation college students who come from humble economic backgrounds. Yet both are now poised to become leading researchers in their fields. That’s quite an achievement. And like Diya, Gloria too is eternally grateful to McNair.

“Dr. Perna and Ms. Williams are the heart and soul of the McNair program,” says Gloria. “From the moment I received the email asking me to take part in the McNair program until this very day they were absolutely involved in my academic life. My first summer in McNair, I felt like I became part of the family. Dr. Perna and Ms. Williams were there every step of the way.  I love that I can walk into Ms. Williams or Dr. Perna's offices and know they would help me. I truly believe that my time with Ms. William’s and Dr. Perna was the deciding factor in my decision to pursue a graduate degree. I would not be where I am today without them and I could never thank them enough for it.”

(By Robert Florida)