Seize the Moment, Steel Yourself Against Rejection, and Connect: A Professor-Parent’s Advice

Steven McCornack is an unlikely member of the Amgen Scholars community. He is not a biology researcher, undergraduate, program alumnus, or student program director. A professor of communications at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB), McCornack studies interpersonal relationships. He has recommended students before for the Amgen Scholars Program but his true connection to the program is a very recent and personal one: his son was a 2017 Amgen Scholar.

As a member of faculty at UAB and previously at Michigan State University, McCornack is no stranger to various honors programs. For 20 years, he regularly served on the Rhodes/Truman/Marshal Selection Committee and as a current Honors Fellow, he interacts frequently with students applying for fellowship and scholarship opportunities. But it wasn’t until his son, Colin, began applying for such programs that he truly understood what students go through in vying for these honors.

“Seeing the process up close and personal, and vicariously experiencing the stress Colin went through in awaiting the decisions, really hit home for me, literally,” he says. For Colin, receiving the acceptance letter for the Amgen Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis was a thrilling moment, especially as he had received a couple rejection letters prior to that.

As a mentor at UAB and a parent, McCornack says it is important for students at all levels of education to seize every opportunity, without hesitation, when they arise, while also being prepared for the inevitable rejections that will come by putting yourself out there. “This is especially, and ironically, difficult for many top-performing students, who often suffer from perfectionistic views and ‘imposter syndrome,’” he explains. “One of the ancillary costs of being so smart is that you actually understand how truly competitive some of these fellowships are and that often can lead one to not even apply. Although it’s horribly clichéd, the truth is that you’ll never achieve such honors without trying in the first place.”

Most importantly, McCornack says, opening yourself to new experiences can open doors in unexpected ways. “Amgen Scholars opened up an entirely new domain of study for my son that will now be his life’s work,” he says.

McCornack recalls Colin being torn going into his Amgen Scholars summer with whether he wanted to do M.D., or M.D.-Ph.D.  “He has always loved helping others and has been motivated toward the M.D. out of a passionate desire to help those in need. But he also loves research,” McCornack says. “This was really eating away at him and sapping some of his scholastic motivation – because he didn’t know what he wanted to do. The Amgen Scholars experience brought his entire future into focus for him.”

By introducing Colin to research in neuroscience, a field totally unknown to him, his Amgen Scholars experience deepened his interest in pursuing a Ph.D. Beyond the lab work, McCornack says, the opportunity to work directly with other students struggling with the same decisions – and the opportunity to network with faculty members who had faced the same dilemma themselves, including at the U.S. symposium at UCLA – was pivotal for Colin.  

Going through the fellowship process as a parent has given McCornack a profound gratitude for Amgen Scholars and other such programs. “I feel extremely fortunate that my son has had the opportunity to participate, and beyond-grateful to all who contributed their time and effort to his experience,” he says.

“Seeing Colin come into his own across the course of the summer was nothing short of amazing,” McCornack says. “My current view is that Amgen Scholars is an extremely special program, and I’ve done my best to tout it to my current top-performing students at UAB.”

Indeed, McCornack sees many bioscience students come through his class in public speaking at UAB. He does not see a big dividing line between his area of expertise, communications, and biotechnology. A big part of his job is empowering his students with the knowledge and skills to interact with others and retain human connections in their day-to-day lives. “All scholarship involves – and requires – direct interaction between human beings,” he says.