Undergrads Present Research at COURI Symposium

By Sandy Hicks

UTEP News Service

It could have been advertised as a college-level “science fair on steroids,” but any way you slice it, on Saturday, April 21, the sleek and sunny lobby of the Chemistry and Computer Science Building was dressed to impress.

Sixty-four undergraduate students hosted by the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) gathered for the 2nd Annual COURI Symposium and Careers in Science and Engineering Forum. The purpose was to present months of engineering and scientific research on a variety of topics in four categories to a standing-room-only crowd of family, faculty, peers and the public. The presentation format lent itself to making the most of diffusion of new knowledge and data in an array of polished and professional posters.Sixty-four undergraduates presented their research at the 2nd Annual COURI Symposium. Sixty-four undergraduates presented their research at the 2nd Annual COURI Symposium.

Biological sciences major Merieme Khamsi stood by her poster ready to explain her research to those attending. Khamsi said the competition and the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate gave her a better understanding of what research really is.

“It is not just expected outcomes from classroom experiments; it is so much more than that,” she said. Khamsi is being guided in her project by Katja Michael, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry. Their research goal is to develop a vaccine for the fatal Chagas disease that results from the parasite Trypanasoma cruzi, carried by an insect called the “kissing bug.”

“Having the opportunity to do mentored research as an undergraduate puts UTEP students ahead of the pack,” said Travis Wilson, a junior mechanical engineering major. Wilson’s project, Synthesis and Characterization of Aluminum Doped Zinc Oxide (AZO) Nanowires for Photovoltaic Devices and Semiconductors, explores energy harvesting and storage through material systems on a nano scale.

“My goal is to increase the capacity of energy storage and prove how efficiently that can happen,” Wilson explained.

Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of COURI, said that the National Science Foundation pioneered programs to fund undergraduate research in the early 1990s, and other federal agencies followed soon after. UTEP had traditionally involved undergraduates in research due to its origins as a primarily undergraduate institution, so it received buy-in from funded program directors and made a bold move to officially institutionalize the practice in 2010. It began by establishing COURI and becoming an institutional member of the national organization, the Council on Undergraduate Research.

“Undergraduate research is a practice with one of the highest impacts on student learning and one of the most effective mechanisms for increasing a university’s graduation rate, keeping students on track in their chosen major and influencing them toward making the decision to pursue advanced degrees,” Echegoyen said.

Thirty-five faculty judges selected poster presentation winners in four categories: Biomedical Sciences and Engineering; Computer Science, Modeling Physics and Math; and Environmental Science and Engineering. The winners received a fully paid associate membership into the prestigious Sigma Xi, a 125-year-old national research honor society.

COURI also hosted a secondary pilot competition that took place Friday, April 20. This smaller competition consisted of four teams of two undergraduates each working in completely different fields of science and engineering research. Each member of a given team explained their fellow team member’s work to a panel of judges who represented a nontechnical audience in a competition called “Explaining Your Research to Your Grandma.” The purpose of the exercise was to teach students how to communicate scientific jargon in layman’s terms more effectively. The winners received a cash prize.

One of the highlights of the symposium was the Careers in Science and Engineering Forum with keynote speakers Gabriela Aguilera and Thomas H. Lane, Ph.D., experts in computer science and chemistry.

Aguilera, a UTEP alumna who works as a software engineer for Google, Inc., encouraged students to seek employment in a “big brand” company because of the vast opportunities within.

“Big brand experience follows you, and that will open doors,” Aguilera said. She added that finding a mentor while in school, someone who will give you honest and valuable advice, is critical.

“Accept their feedback – and then act on it,” she said.

Lane, scientist emeritus of Dow-Corning, president emeritus of the American Chemical Society, and vice president of instruction and learning at Delta College in University Center, Mich. brought his experience-rich and often humorous “Being Successful in the Real World” presentation to the gathered students and faculty.

“What you’re doing now is building competency,” Lane said. “Comfort zones are caskets – so get out of that box.”

Both speakers challenged the students to do something meaningful with their education and passion, to pay attention to projecting a professional image and hone the skills of communication. 

“Expect to be part of a global team,” Lane offered. “There are four generations currently in the workforce and you must learn how people communicate best, learn their language, their culture and beliefs.”

After lively discussions with the audience, the speakers reminded the students to develop a creative outlet in their lives so they can stay fresh and sharp.

“Never stop learning,” Lane said, “because chemistry, the STEM fields and psychology will never stop changing.”

Award Winners

Best Student Poster – Biomedical Sciences and Engineering

Alice Hernandez and Mabel Terminel, senior psychology majors

Faculty Research Adviser: Edward Castañeda, Ph.D.


Best Student Poster – Chemistry, Biochemistry and Materials Engineering

Maripaz Calderon, senior chemistry major

Faculty Research Adviser: Dino Villagran, Ph.D.


Best Student Poster – Computer Science, Modeling Physics and Math

Joshua Morris, junior physics major

Faculty Research Adviser: Cristian E. Botez, Ph.D.


Best Student Poster – Environmental Sciences and Engineering

Shane Schinagel, senior geophysics major

Faculty Research Adviser: Diane Doser, Ph.D.


Best Team Presentation – “Presenting Your Research to Your Grandma” Competition

David Guzman, senior electrical engineering major, and Gustavo Hernandez, senior chemistry major

Faculty Research Adviser: Virgilio Gonzalez, Ph.D., and Michael Irwin, Ph.D.


Best Individual Presentation – “Presenting Your Research to Your Grandma” Competition

Aaron Cano, senior civil engineering major

Faculty Research Adviser: Shane Walker, Ph.D.


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