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Featured: University of Texas-Pan American senior Sabrina Herrera in the Science Building Laboratory where she conducts her research that hopefully one day will result in more effective treatments of cancer.

Photograph By JOSUE ESPARZA

Taking a trip to Austin to present her research at the “Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol” was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Sabrina E. Herrera, a 23-year-old senior at The University of Texas-Pan American. “It was all hustle and bustle and a very different environment for me,” said Herrera, who had never visited the Texas Capitol before. “I was honored to represent UTPA. I was able talk to and learn the different research backgrounds of other students there and to hear the challenges and insights from distinguished faculty who were there. The overall experience gave me confidence.” In addition to Herrera, three students from The University of Texas at Brownsville – Isaiah Díaz, Iram Lerma and Forrest Shriver – displayed their research posters for review by state lawmakers and visitors in the Capitol Ground Floor. The March 4 event showcased the diverse and cutting-edge research by 67 students representing 57 Texas universities. The students’ research poster presentations were on display in the Capitol, where they told legislators and other visitors about their findings and the skills they have attained as researchers. The trip included a tour of the Capitol building and panel presentations by faculty researchers. Former Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, who now serves as Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations at The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, coordinated the Austin event for the for Valley students. Gonzáles arranged for the students and professors to meet with Valley legislators and members of their respective staffs, including Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen; Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City; Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; and Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville.

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UTPA student Sabrina Herrera brings her passion for research to the state Capitol

By GAIL FAGAN

Taking a trip to Austin to present her research at the “Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol” was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Sabrina E. Herrera, a 23-year-old senior at The University of Texas-Pan American.

“It was all hustle and bustle and a very different environment for me,” said Herrera, who had never visited the Texas Capitol before. “I was honored to represent UTPA. I was able talk to and learn the different research backgrounds of other students there and to hear the challenges and insights from distinguished faculty who were there. The overall experience gave me confidence.”

In addition to Herrera, three students from The University of Texas at Brownsville – Isaiah Diaz, Iram Lerma and Forrest Shriver – displayed their research posters for review by state lawmakers and visitors in the Capitol Ground Floor.

The March 4 event showcased the diverse and cutting-edge research by 67 students representing 57 Texas universities. The students’ research poster presentations were on display in the Capitol, where they told legislators and other visitors about their findings and the skills they have attained as researchers. The trip included a tour of the Capitol building and panel presentations by faculty researchers.

Former Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, who now serves as Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations at The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, coordinated the Austin event for the for Valley students.

Gonzáles arranged for the students and professors to meet with Valley legislators and members of their respective staffs, including Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen; Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City; Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; and Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville.

Herrera, who is majoring in pre-medical biology with minors in biochemistry and English, said research is not for everyone.

“It requires a lot of patience. You set up an experiment, you have to go through literature, you have to go through trial and error; it is a learning process. But it is not something that has already been learned; it is your discovery. That is what I love about it,” she said.

Working with faculty advisers Drs. Eric Brown, Addurrahman Atesin and Tulay Atesin, Herrera is investigating the activation of chemically modified titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles with visible light to degrade cancer cells. Based on her experiments, which assess the interaction of dye molecules containing different functional groups with the TiO2 nanoparticles, new dye molecules will be synthesized to inflict greater damage to cancer targets with visible or infrared light.

Research on new or more effective ways to combat cancer is especially significant to Herrera, who lost her father to the disease not that long ago.

“My father has always been an inspiration to me. He always encouraged me to continue to get a higher education. My research has been such a great opportunity and I know he would be proud of my achievements,” she said.

Herrera, a single mother of a 3-year-old, told legislators that the Undergraduate Research Initiative at UTPA, and her on-campus job as a supplemental instructor, helped her financially to continue her education. The URI provides paid internships and opportunities for undergraduate students to attend and present at conferences. She said working closely with faculty fueled her passion for research.

“Coming in, I had no idea about research, I had no experience in it, but my professors were very patient and provided me with so many opportunities to learn,” said Herrera, who hopes to enter the Physician Assistant Program, her late father’s profession, at The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

Her primary faculty adviser, Tulay Atesin, describes Herrera as an excellent research assistant performing well at conducting her experiments, mentoring new researchers and communicating with the research collaborators.

“She has a true passion about her research, and before getting funded from the URI award, she was working in my research group on a voluntary basis,” she said. “Sabrina is an excellent example of a dedicated researcher in that she puts the time and effort into research while working multiple jobs, going to classes and being a single mom.”

Guerra, the House District 41 lawmaker, said he was impressed with Herrera and the three other Valley students who participated, and touted the important impact undergraduate research opportunities have on students.

“It inspires innovation and out-of-the-box thinking,” he said. “Students who engage in enriched research programs such as those offered at UT-RGV will greatly benefit not only their own professional careers, but also our community. Over the years, UT-Pan American has continued to receive numerous accolades for implementing innovative research programs. It’s about time our region becomes recognized as an emerging research institution.”

ISAIAH DÍAZ – HARNESSING OCEAN WAVE ENERGY

“I felt like those who observed my poster were interested and appreciative of the work we have been doing,” said Isaiah Díaz, a junior majoring in engineering physics/mechanical track at UT-Brownsville.

Díaz is researching “a new wave energy converter featuring broad-band wave-frequency response and absolute wave-direction independence to best harness ocean wave energy.”

Focused on a career in industry after he obtains his master’s degree, Díaz has experienced engineering from another point of view. After graduating from Brownsville’s Porter High School in 2007, he worked for several years as a laborer, plate fitter and welder with Keppel AmFELS at the Port of Brownsville.

“The guys at the yard kept encouraging me to go to school, so I tried studying business management,” Díaz said. “I realized I am more suited for the mechanical world, so I switched over to engineering.”

Díaz’ research is in collaboration with his mentor, Dr. Yingchen Yang, Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering and Computational Sciences. “I am really eager to continue to progress our work to make new discoveries and contribute to the advancement of renewable energy technologies,” Díaz said.

IRAM LERMA – ENHANCING MACHINING PROCESS EFFECTIVENESS

Iram Lerma, a senior majoring in engineering technology, graduated from Brownsville’s Pace High School in 2010; he has worked full-time at Carling Industries in Brownsville for the past three and a half years.

Lerma’s research, guided by his mentor, Dr. Immanuel Edinbarough, Professor in the School of Engineering and Computational Sciences, is “an investigation on the characteristics of minimum quantity lubrication applications to enhance their effectiveness in the machining process, tool life extension, surface finish improvement and the reduction of the environmental impact of coolants typically used in machining.”

“I started out in computer science, but I saw no reward in my progress in that field,” Lerma said. “I was interested in drafting, and Dr. Edinbarough suggested I give engineering a try. It was a good fit; I like hands-on work.”

Lerma’s hard work has paid off, landing him positions as a student researcher at Texas A&M University for the past two summers. Like Díaz, Lerma sees his future in industry, going into engineering management, then on to a doctoral degree in manufacturing.

“It was humbling to know that my research brought great interest from individuals in the academic and engineering field,” Lerma said. “I feel proud to have conducted this research and will look forward to continuing my work during my graduate studies.”

FORREST SHRIVER – ANALYSIS OF HIGH FREQUENCY SIGNALS

Forrest Shriver, a junior from Harlingen majoring in physics, is developing a “programmable, real-time Digital Signal Processing (DSP) system to be used in analysis of signals with frequencies up to 100 MHz.”

Shriver said Research Day at the Capitol was time well spent, being able to meet other student researchers who had the same passion for science as he does.

“It was really inspiring to be able to talk with others from around the state and show them what I had been working on, and when they showed me what they had been working on I hope I started the same inspiration,” he said.

A 2014 Math and Science Academy graduate, Shriver was on the MSA team that won first place in the University of Texas – Pan American Regional Science Bowl in February 2014 in Edinburg.

The team became the first MSA team to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl the following month, held at the National 4-H Youth Center in Washington, D.C.

With his high school diploma and two years of college completed in May 2014, he obtained a summer internship at the LIGO [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] Scientific Collaboration (LSC) facility in Hanford, Washington.

Shriver said he has had offers to attend graduate school elsewhere, but he plans to continue with his master’s degree at UTB, where his mentor is Dr. Volker Quetschke, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“I like what I have here, one-on-one collaboration with Dr. Quetschke and other students and professors,” he said. “Academic research will be my career, it is my future.”

Quetschke said Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol confirmed Shriver’s and the other UTB students’ performance to be at a competitive level among the top undergraduate students from throughout the state.

“The early involvement of undergraduate students in meaningful research projects and the dedicated one-on-one advising and mentoring through faculty members makes UTB – and UTRGV in the future – a place where students have the best possible opportunities to learn, expand their knowledge and prepare for their futures,” Quetschke said.

Research Day at the Capitol was coordinated by the Council of Public University Presidents and Chancellors (CPUPC) and the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas (ICUT).

“Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol” is conducted by the Council of Public University Presidents & Chancellors. According to its website, the CPUPC provides a forum for discussing the mutual needs, concerns and issues facing public universities in Texas and encourages inter-institutional cooperation in meeting the higher education goals of the state.

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