By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
Approximately 150 undergraduates – including many from foreign countries – are enhancing their research skills as part of several summer programs at The University of Texas at El Paso.
The students, almost all majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, have been working with UTEP faculty mentors since late May on topics such as homeland security, materials for solar cells, biodiversity of the Chihuahuan Desert, applied intelligence systems and methods in the neuroscience of drug abuse.
Zhili Guo, a junior chemistry major at Beijing Normal University, said he is energized to work alongside other hardworking students using equipment superior to what he uses in China. He is working with a group to create a new kind of fullerene, a carbon molecule used in micro-electromechanical systems. His faculty mentor is Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D., the Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry.
Guo said his efforts – even the negative test results – have increased his enthusiasm. He is among the 12 students from China conducting research at UTEP and one of 23 participating in the Summer Undergraduate Research Mentoring Experience.
“It means I have to do further work,” Guo said during a recent break near his team’s lab on the fourth floor of the Chemistry and Computer Science Building. His white lab coat had turned shades of gray from carbon dust. “This research environment is exciting.”
Guo’s reaction was similar to that of the other summer researchers from academic institutions in China, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Germany and the United States. They are participating in about 10 programs that involve at least 50 UTEP faculty members.
Many of the programs are being overseen by Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of the University’s Campus Office for Undergraduate Research Initiatives, or COURI. She said the junior researchers will present their work in a COURI Symposium on Saturday, Aug. 2, in UTEP’s Undergraduate Learning Center.
Lourdes Echegoyen said UTEP has become a model for diversity in undergraduate research. What started as a focus on Hispanic students has grown to encompass other minorities and students from other countries.
The COURI director said the programs yield multiple benefits for all involved. The visiting students receive training to develop personally and professionally, and build their skills to succeed in graduate school or industry. Faculty receive solid support for their research agendas from eager students and the University showcases its campus, talented faculty and top-of-the-line research facilities.
“UTEP is in a unique position to advance the opportunities of financially disadvantaged, underrepresented populations as much as those who are well represented,” Echegoyen said.
Undergraduate research has been around since the 1970s and continues to trend upward because of its ability to increase student interest, engagement and participation in all disciplines, but particularly in the sciences and engineering.
Jose Herrera, Ph.D., College of Arts and Sciences dean at Western New Mexico University, said this tool particularly benefits underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged students who often are unsure of what science is and what a scientist does.
“Undergraduate research has been, and continues to be, a driving force in encouraging students to consider and pursue careers in science, engineering and mathematics,” said Herrera, former director for the National Science Foundation who managed programs in the Division of Undergraduate Education. “Students need to practice the science that we espouse.”
Sandra Atehortua Bueno, who recently earned her bachelor’s in chemistry from the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, also is studying fullerenes. She plans to return to her university to share the information she learns about the carbon molecules, which is a new field there. Then she wants to attend graduate school, possibly at UTEP.
Fernando Garcia Escobar, who will be a senior chemistry major at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico, this fall, said he applied to work on the fullerene project because of the positive word of mouth given by friends who participated in previous UTEP summer research programs.
“This has been a very nice experience,” Garcia said. “This is the first time I’ve done serious research so I’m familiarizing myself with the lab and learning the proper techniques. I’m also getting ideas about the research topic I want to do for my thesis.”
While Guo, Bueno and Garcia got their fill of fullerenes, Lianqian Tan was synthesizing fluorescent compounds as part of her organic chemistry research in a fourth floor lab in the Physical Sciences Building. She is working with Keith Pannell, Ph.D., professor of chemistry.
Tan, a junior at Beijing Normal University, said one of her main objectives is to improve her English as well as her research skills. She had never heard of UTEP, but fellow students who were past participants highly recommended she participate in the summer program. She said the main thing she has learned this summer has been to focus on preparation before starting procedures.
Bretton Fletcher, who will be a senior physics major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is in the Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials program. His mentor is Chintalapalle Ramana, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering.
Fletcher said he familiarized himself with the lab and its safety procedures before starting his renewable energy research. He hoped to discover new materials for photovoltaic cells, which is a departure from his biophysics studies in California.
Some of the visiting students said they spent part of their downtime bowling, hiking, playing kickball, sand volleyball and indoor soccer, seeing movies, working out at UTEP’s Student Recreation Center, and visiting the El Paso Zoo, area museums, national parks around the state and White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, N.M.