UTEP, China ‘Swap’ Chemistry Undergrads

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Chinese foreign exchange student Laiwu Chen did not mince words when asked to share his initial impressions of UTEP and El Paso.

“I think the buildings are amazing, but the weather is too dry,” he said as he pointed to his chapped lips.Eleven visiting chemistry students from universities in China, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and Poland and one from Michigan, will do intensive research during a 10-week program overseen by UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives. The German student is expected in early June. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceEleven visiting chemistry students from universities in China, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and Poland and one from Michigan, will do intensive research during a 10-week program overseen by UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives. The German student is expected in early June. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Chen is one of three students from Shantou University in southeast China who will immerse themselves in chemistry research during the next 10 weeks at The University of Texas at El Paso. They will be joined by eight other students, seven from other countries – Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and Poland. The German student will join the group in early June. There also is a U.S. student from Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.

The visiting students met University administrators, faculty and staff during an informal lunch reception May 22 in the Chemistry and Computer Science Building.

Chen said he looked forward to experimenting with fullerenes, special spherical carbon molecules that resemble soccer balls with unique electronic properties. He will work alongside UTEP’s Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D., Robert A. Welch professor of chemistry, who is considered one of the world’s leading physical-organic chemists.

“This will be very interesting work. The way the surface (of fullerenes) links to other compounds means there are lots of things we could do. I’m open for anything,” said a smiling Chen, who added he was ready to get started. “I love chemistry.”

Seven of the students will work with Echegoyen. The others were assigned to Michael Irwin, XiuJun “James” Li, Shizue Mito, and Dino Villagran – all Ph.D.s and assistant professors of chemistry. The funds to support these students are coming from their UTEP mentors’ individual research grants.

While every student participant has a stellar resume and comes highly recommended from their home university, Echegoyen said he wants each to be productive enough to earn co-authorship of peer reviewed papers that could be published in respected scientific journals.

He said he would guide them toward “frontier” research and hoped they would like it enough to consider returning to UTEP for graduate work. This is the second year that he has used funds from the Welch Chair to bring in foreign undergraduate students from around the world, especially institutions in Central and South America, to participate in cutting-edge chemistry research.

“I’m trying to build bridges and collaborations with top students and their universities,” he said.

UTEP has planned a few Sunday trips to enhance the visiting students’ perspective of the Southwest. They include excursions to Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site on the outskirts of El Paso, White Sands National Monument and the Village of Ruidoso in New Mexico.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, three UTEP students are conducting research at Shantou University, a 30-year-old institution located in the coastal Guangdong Province near the China Sea. The Miners at Shantou are senior chemistry majors Javier Grajeda, Gustavo Hernandez and Karen Ventura.Three UTEP undergraduate chemistry majors – Karen Ventura, Gustavo Hernandez and Javier Grajeda, sixth through eighth from the left in the second row – are at Shantou University in China where they will do research and learn about the Chinese culture.Three UTEP undergraduate chemistry majors – Karen Ventura, Gustavo Hernandez and Javier Grajeda, sixth through eighth from the left in the second row – are at Shantou University in China where they will do research and learn about the Chinese culture.

They responded by email to questions about their experiences so far.

The trio mentioned the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the country, especially the lush campus. They are living in foreign student dormitories with air conditioners, which is a considered a privilege, Ventura said.

“The University is beautiful. It has rich vegetation, two lakes, and is surrounded by tree-covered mountains,” Ventura said. “It is really colorful and pretty.”

They said their off time may be spent in Downtown Shantou, hiking the nearby mountains, enjoying the beaches or visiting the neighboring Nan Ao Island.

As for their research, the trio said they were given projects by their Chinese mentors. Grajeda said he plans to focus on the luminous properties of metal-organic frameworks that he will develop. Ventura said she was tasked to find novel ways to separate boron nitride nanosheets. Hernandez said he will try to create ligands, molecules with different physical and chemical properties. If successful, he will then try to create molecules called luminophores.

Their preparation included reading published papers by their Chinese mentors to better understand their type of chemical research, and getting cultural advice from a UTEP postdoctoral fellow who studied at Shantou.

The UTEP trio, who left May 18, is scheduled to return to El Paso July 28.

Students on both sides were selected in part “for their adventurous spirit,” said Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) and of this pilot exchange program. She also is married to UTEP’s chemistry professor Luis Echegoyen.

She said UTEP and Shantou officials want the program to provide an intense research opportunity for the undergraduate students that will develop their global awareness to include the economics, culture and social mores of their host country. Her intention is to grow the program and sustain it through external federal funding.

“Success will be measured by research progress and accomplishments as well as a formal program evaluation by the students and their mentors,” Lourdes Echegoyen said.

The UTEP program will end with a presentation of research posters at the summer COURI symposium from 2 to 5 p.m. Friday, July 27, in UTEP’s Undergraduate Learning Center.