Northern Michigan University senior and McNair Scholar Tiaira Porter received an award for presenting one of the top 15 neuroscience research posters, from 300 submissions in the discipline, at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle, Wash. She also was invited to apply for a post-baccalaureate fellowship with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Porter is a biology major, chemistry minor and recipient of the Paulus McNair Scholarship through the NMU Foundation. She attended the conference with her research mentor and NMU biology faculty member, Erich Ottem.
“This was, hands down, the most fantastic experience I’ve had at NMU,” said Porter, the first in her family to attend college. “To be honored in the top 4 percent in neuroscience from among all the abstracts submitted and to see my name and NMU alongside students from some big-name schools was amazing. I was almost in shock, but also very proud. At first, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the doors it would open for me.
“While I was visiting the National Institutes of Health post-baccalaureate programs table, their top person was actually looking at my poster and left a note saying she wanted to talk about my work. When I saw that note, I sprinted back to find her. She said she would be willing to fly me out for an interview for the fellowship. I still have to apply, but now I have an advantage for sure.”
Porter’s paper was titled, “The Determination of Retrograde Transport in Motoneurons in Mice Lacking Skeletal Muscle-synthesized Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.” The award for placing in the top 15 included $250, full access to neuroscience journals for a year and a certificate. She previously gave an oral presentation on the research at the annual McNair Scholars Program conference in Wisconsin.
“Working with Tiaira has been an absolute delight,” said Ottem. “She is a remarkable undergraduate who has a limitless future. She quickly became an integral part of our laboratory. Her work, in particular, has been very valuable in showing that our transgenic mouse model displays adult-onset neuromuscular pathology, which is consistent with our understanding of the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), our emphasis of study. That Tiaira made such an impression at the conference in Seattle is not surprising, given the ownership she took of her project and the confidence she projects as she explains it. As an adviser, though, I am still pinching myself. It is a tribute to our McNair Scholars Program and our growing undergraduate research programs that students like Tiaira can stand proudly and be recognized equally with peers from Research I universities. I know that Tiaira will make the most of her future opportunities in the biomedical sciences.”
Porter praises Ottem’s guidance in return, saying he has given her a strong foundation of scientific knowledge, integrity, ambition and motivation on which to build a successful career. She is debating whether that will involve medical school en route to an MD—her original goal—or the pursuit of a PhD in neuroscience.
“I’m still on the fence, but I’m leaning a tad bit more toward the PhD,” she said. “The idea of working in a clinical setting doing hands-on, biomedical-based research that has the potential to impact people’s quality or length of life appeals to me. I wouldn’t be in this position without the McNair Scholars Program and support from the Paulus Scholarship for my research.”
The Seattle conference also included networking with faculty from graduate programs, workshops on creating an NIH application and lessons on drafting a curriculum vitae.