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McNair duo to showcase research at capitol

By Amy Lohmann '14
February 20, 2012

This week St. Olaf students Phoua Xiong '12 and Virginia Ma '12 will find themselves one step closer to graduate school by way of the Minnesota state capitol.

The duo will participate in the Private College Scholars at the Capitol event as part of the TRiO McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and offered at St. Olaf since 2007. McNair aims to increase the rate of master's and doctoral program applications and graduate school degree attainment for low-income, first-generation college students who are underrepresented in graduate programs.

St. Olaf seniors Phoua Xiong (left) and Virginia Ma look forward to showcasing the research they have conducted through the college's TRiO McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and offered at St. Olaf since 2007.

Every Minnesota college selects two students for the annual capitol event, where each presents a professional poster describing their research methodologies and addresses implications for future research.

"The Scholars at the Capitol event has attracted the attention of legislators and corporate representatives," says Janis Johnson, director of the TriO McNair Scholars Program at St. Olaf. "It is an excellent opportunity for our McNair Scholars to prepare for the research experiences they will encounter in graduate school.

"And the students are often a little nervous because they are never quite sure who may be in the audience and what types of specific questions they may be asked to respond to," adds Johnson.

But St. Olaf's McNair scholars are well prepared. Xiong's research topic, "Metacognitive Strategies in Undergraduate Biology," aims to uncover the types of cognitive study strategies used by undergraduates, and how answering regular metacognitive questions that demonstrate self-awareness of studying and learning might impact test performance.

Ma, who has always wanted to conduct laboratory research, is examining the interaction between two proteins, actin and eEF3, found in yeast. Many studies have suggested that actin may play a role in protein synthesis, she explains, "But I worked to determine if the interaction of actin and eEF3 is important in this process."

Going to the capitol is nerve wracking and exciting for the scholars, says Johnson. "Presenting their research provides a wonderful opportunity to practice presentation skills, talk about their research methodologies, and receive feedback." She also notes that the experience provides important networking opportunities and insight to current research topics, as well as giving a boost to the students' graduate school applications.

And McNair has benefits beyond research. "Through conducting my research, I discovered my strengths and weaknesses, and it helped me shape my future goals," says Ma, who recently spent Interim studying economics in China (Xiong studied on Term in Asia). Ma currently is waiting to learn the status of her Fulbright proposal to study childhood obesity in Asia.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or