UWF alumni credit NIH-funded MARC scholars program with providing them opportunities in STEM field

Three UWF alumni are paving the way for themselves and future generations of women in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. Hailee Nigro, Victoria Drake and Maisha Epps graduated from UWF this month and will attend graduate programs this year. Nigro, Drake and Epps were scholars in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded Maximizing Access to Research Careers, or MARC, program at UWF. The MARC Scholars program supports high-achieving junior and senior undergraduate students who are underrepresented and/or financially disadvantaged and pursuing a Ph.D. or M.D/Ph.D. degree and research career in chemistry, biology, physics or mechanical engineering.

UWF biology student conducting lab experiments in the state-of-the-art Lab Sciences Annex.

The three graduates will continue their studies at distinguished universities in the southern U.S. Nigro will be attending the Coastal Sciences doctoral program at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she was awarded the Coastal Sciences in Support of Diversity Fellowship. She plans to study the behavioral ecology and physiology of crab species with a concentration on climate change. Nigro said participating in the MARC Scholars program has been life-changing.

“Being a student raised in poverty, I was entirely unsure of what my future held. I knew the goals I wanted to achieve, but it did not seem realistic for me to achieve these goals with my financial background and I was consumed by Imposter Syndrome. When I was accepted into the program, I had no idea what success and foundation were ahead of me. MARC is where my passion for research blossomed.”

Nigro ultimately wants to become a faculty researcher and professor at a university where she can conduct her own marine behavioral ecology research.

During their time at UWF, MARC Scholars, alongside faculty researchers, complete a sustained research project that spans from the summer before their junior year until graduation. UWF faculty mentors provide critical support, guiding these academically talented students and taking their research to the next level. Each student is expected to participate in off-campus research during the summer before their senior year, as well as additional academic requirements. Drake is a first-generation college student. She, Nigro and Epps became MARC Scholars during the summer of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing.

“The faculty and staff that run MARC at UWF were very supportive and accommodating during this difficult time,’’ said Drake. “They supplied us with masks throughout the pandemic, worked with us on our summer research plans, helped to identify career-benefiting actions that could be done remotely, helped us stay on track with classes, provided professional development workshops and worked tirelessly to not let the pandemic completely stop our productivity as undergraduate research students.”

The pandemic and personal issues presented challenges during her time as a scholar, but Drake said the program helped her overcome these roadblocks.

“MARC provided me with a cohort of other high-achieving students that were in the same position I was, going through similar setbacks and victories,” she said. “It was nice to have that sense
of community.”

Drake accepted an offer to join the University of Florida’s analytical chemistry doctoral program, where she will study cancer and disease using microfluidic devices, starting this summer.

Epps was accepted to doctoral and master’s degree programs but made the decision to attend
The University of Georgia to earn her master’s degree. If she enjoys studying marine conservation and has a passion to pursue research on it, she plans to pursue a Ph.D.

“Before becoming a MARC scholar, I had never even thought about going to graduate school or doing research. It gave me a chance to learn about both graduate school and research,” Epps said. ”I also have met some amazing mentors and students along the way. Personally, I think MARC has helped me out of my shell a little bit more than before I joined. It’s a program that has encouraged continual growth and personal development.”

The MARC scholars program is a grant-funded training program sponsored by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the 27 separate institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health.

For more information about the UWF MARC Scholars Program, visit