Undergraduate Research Gives Students Academic, Professional Edge

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., remembers the days in the not too distant past when the chances of undergraduates doing research were slim to none. Even good grades did not guarantee a seat with a research team.

However, the assistant professor of biological sciences was “lucky” enough to land an assignment during the late 1980s at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences, works with one of his undergraduate research assistants, Daniel Ramirez, a junior cellular and molecular biochemistry major. Studies have shown that students receive multiple benefits through undergraduate research.German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences, works with one of his undergraduate research assistants, Daniel Ramirez, a junior cellular and molecular biochemistry major. Studies have shown that students receive multiple benefits through undergraduate research.

“I thought being in the lab was a big deal, but to put it in perspective, it was as if you wanted to be a chef and they had you washing dishes,” Rosas-Acosta said.

Today’s underclassmen, especially those at The University of Texas at El Paso, are encouraged to get involved in real world research. Recent studies have shown that students who take on such projects do better academically, stick with their majors and earn their degrees within six years.

The call for more undergraduate research was part of a February 2012 report to President Barack Obama by his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. They suggested undergraduate research would help produce 1 million more college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the next decade so the country could maintain its historical prominence in those fields.

In her 2012 Convocation address, UTEP President Diana Natalicio praised the University’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) for its ability to attract more than 200 UTEP undergraduates to participate in faculty-led research projects during the past year. She said participation in undergraduate research has helped motivate first-generation college students to pursue graduate degrees.

Rosas-Acosta, who has had undergraduates help him with his influenza research since he joined UTEP in 2007, said he has seen the interest level in undergraduate research increase since COURI began in 2010. He added that graduate programs throughout the country have taken notice of the highly trained and extremely competitive students UTEP is graduating.

“Undergraduate research is a unique opportunity that gives our bright and motivated students a chance to learn skills and co-author papers that will be published (in scholarly journals),” he said. “It’s a huge advantage.”

Among those undergraduates who have participated in research is Karen Ventura, a chemistry major who graduated during the Dec. 15 Commencement ceremonies. She was involved in three research projects beginning her sophomore year, including one in China in summer 2012. Her work has included efforts to improve solar power efficiency, and to combat cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

“Being part of a research team helps you mature, gives you more confidence and teaches you the kinds of things you don’t learn in class,” said Ventura, who hopes to work as a pharmaceutical lab tech this spring as she applies to graduate schools around the country. “It put me ahead of my peers.”

Junior cellular and molecular biochemistry major Daniel Ramirez has been investigating the interaction of proteins that could lead to new treatments for the flu in Rosas-Acosta’s lab for a year. He learned about the opportunity through his membership with UTEP’s Medical Professions Organization.

Ramirez, whose goal is to earn an M.D. and a Ph.D., said the experience has made him more inquisitive and creative and has left him with a newfound respect for researchers.

“Now, I’ve seen what it takes to put one sentence in a textbook, and I’m very grateful that there are people dedicating their lives to the pursuit of knowledge,” he said. “It is addicting to observe how nature slowly reveals its secrets and how much more there is to discover.”

Getting undergraduates involved in research has never been more important as the nation needs more graduates in the STEM and medical fields, said Beth Ambos, executive officer with the national Council on Undergraduate Research.

She said Hispanic-serving institutions such as UTEP will play a huge role in creating the next generation of skilled researchers in STEM as well as the arts and humanities.

“These universities are at the forefront to grow pipelines to these important sectors of the economy,” she said during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “We won’t be able to reach our goal if they are not involved.”  

The job of growing and promoting UTEP’s undergraduate research programs falls mainly to Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of COURI. While the program is strong within the colleges of Science and Engineering, she said her goal is to involve every campus college and school by 2014 to accommodate the growing student interest.

Echegoyen shared preliminary data from a recent study following 500 UTEP students for six years who registered as science and engineering majors as freshmen in 2005. Seventy percent of those who participated in undergraduate research stayed in their STEM major and graduated within six years. Of the 373 who did not participate in research, only 27 percent graduated in six years and only 13 percent stayed in science and engineering.

Echegoyen is seeking additional funding for undergraduate research and developing ideas that could extend true research opportunities in classroom and lab settings to involve as many students as possible. For example, the COURI office recently funded concepts from faculty in the departments of chemistry, political science and languages and linguistics. She added that she would like to see more paid research spots to help support UTEP students, of whom about 75 percent receive financial aid.

“One of my philosophies is that without change we don’t move the world,” Echegoyen said. “So let’s get on the bandwagon.”

For more information about COURI, visit science.utep.edu/couri.