Science, Engineering Presentations Tied to Graduate School Options

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Dozens of students from UTEP and other universities around the world shared the fruits of their summer research during the July 27 Undergraduate Poster Presentations that were part of the COURI Symposium Summer 2012 in Union Building East.

The young scientists eagerly explained their exhibits to UTEP faculty, staff, students and a few proud family members in the Union’s Bhutan Lounge and Faculty-Staff dining hall during the afternoon event.More than 90 undergraduate students presented their research at the COURI Symposium Summer 2012. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News ServiceMore than 90 undergraduate students presented their research at the COURI Symposium Summer 2012. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News Service

The subjects included the neuroscience of drug abuse, the design of a solar light bulb and other solar cell applications, the effect of certain compounds on cancer tumors, aspects of the AIDS virus, bioengineered skin, and the development of a vaccine for Chagas disease.

While pleased with the work of the students, organizers said one of the main goals was to encourage the pursuit of advanced degrees.

UTEP’s focus on undergraduate training programs and the number of University students who participate is unprecedented, said Marc Cox, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences and the principal investigator of the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) in Molecular and Cellular Biology program.

“This experience allows them to use what they learn (in the classroom) in a real-world context,” he said. “It tells them that they are smart enough to go to grad school and pursue higher goals.”

Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of the University’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI), said the additional benefits include learning how to network with their peers and mentors.

“The students appreciate every aspect of their participation,” she said. “They learn a lot and love every minute of it.”

Such is the case for Vanessa Rodriguez, a junior biology major at UTEP who plans to earn her master’s in biology and work for the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. Her team’s poster discussed HIV research. She praised her mentor, Manuel Llano, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences, for teaching her advanced research skills.

“This was an awesome experience,” she said.

Among the nine international students was Laiwu Chen from Shantou University in southeast China. He was especially grateful for the opportunity to use state-of-the-art labs, which often is not possible at Shantou.  His research involved catching the energy of the sun using fullerenes, special spherical carbon molecules that resemble soccer balls that have unique electronic properties.

“I got a lot out of this program. It was an important opportunity for me,” he said.

Among the afternoon’s attendees was Benjamin Flores, Ph.D., professor and interim dean of UTEP’s Graduate School. He called these undergraduate research programs important to the development of students socially and academically. He said their interaction with the professors could trigger a series of events that lead to graduate school and various career options including academia, which needs to diversify to better reflect America’s changing demographics.

The day’s events were sponsored by COURI, the NIH-Border Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program, NSF (National Science Foundation)-UT System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse)-Summer Mentoring and Research Training Methods in Neuroscience of Drug Abuse (SMART MIND), NSF-UTEP Summer REU in Molecular and Cellular Biology, and the NSF-UTEP REU Summer Site in Applied Intelligent Systems.