COURI Symposium Highlights UTEP Undergraduate Research
Last Updated on May 06, 2022 at 12:00 AM
Originally published May 06, 2022
By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP Marketing and Communications
The glistening dunes of pure white gypsum sand at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico served as the inspiration for Mya Valenzuela’s clean hydrogen research at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Valenzuela, a senior studying environmental science, won best presentation in the physical sciences category for her project: “Clean hydrogen from carbon: With a little help from sun and salt,” at UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) Spring Symposium on April 30, 2022.
She was among 110 undergraduate researchers, scholars and artists who showcased their work in four categories: arts, humanities and social sciences; life and biomedical sciences; physical sciences; and engineering, computational and applied sciences.
“When I came to UTEP, I didn’t think I would one day be giving presentations about research I would be working on!” said Valenzuela, an 18-year-old Mission Early College High School graduate. She said a geology class during her second semester at UTEP piqued her interest to study landforms and geological features at national parks.
Since 2011, COURI has hosted two symposia a year, in the spring and summer, to provide undergraduate researchers a unique opportunity to present and discuss their research and scholarly work with faculty, experts, peers and the community. Students gain valuable research experience under the guidance of faculty mentors, who help to facilitate and enhance their research training.
Karina C. Canaba, Ed.D., associate director of COURI, said the benefits of participating in COURI’s events such as the symposium and workshops are numerous.
“They serve as a chance for students to develop and practice skills related to research, study, teamwork, networking, and the academic presentation of information,” Canaba said. “The result of these experiences is a confident, prepared, curious student who is a competitive candidate for graduate school, professional school and the job market.”
Valenzuela is considering pursing a graduate degree in environmental engineering after she graduates with her Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science in 2024. In the meantime, she plans to continue her research with her mentor, Benjamin Brunner, Ph.D., associate professor of Earth, environmental and resource sciences.
After Valenzuela visited White Sands in 2021, she and Brunner came up with the idea to study the national park’s salt diapirs, or sand domes, which contain gypsum, a soft sulfate mineral composed of calcium sulfate dehydrate.
They began to research gypsum as an energy source to get hydrogen from carbon dioxide, or CO2.
With Brunner’s help, Valenzuela developed a prototype that uses gypsum and cation and anion membranes to capture CO2 to produce clean hydrogen fuel.
“Hydrogen is produced by burning up fossil fuels,” Valenzuela said. “Once these fossil fuels are burned, they release CO2, which is harming our atmosphere and creating global warming. We’re trying to create the same results from the fossil fuels, which is to get hydrogen, but instead of letting out the CO2 into the atmosphere, we’re trying to capture it and reduce greenhouse gasses.”
Brunner said that by engaging students such as Valenzuela in his research, he hopes to remove any misconceptions they have about science and scientists. He said students experience how he combines skills and knowledge from multiple disciplines in his research. They also see how he searches for information, learns from his mistakes, interacts with other scientists and how research requires passion, creativity and curiosity.
“What I hope all of this does for the students is similar to what watching a ‘behind the scenes’ documentary of a movie does to the movie experience itself,” said Brunner, who also was a first-generation college student. “The polished end product (the scientific paper) is a product of many steps, by dedicated and passionate individuals, but there is no magic to it: if you want, you can do it!”
Canaba said students who participate in the COURI Symposium also realize the impact their work has on El Paso and the greater border region because they can discuss their research with community members.
Sophia Adame, a junior in biological sciences, earned best presentation in the life and biomedical sciences category for her research on “Optimizing co-expression and purification of human circadian proteins CLOCK and BMAL1.” Her mentor is Chuan “River” Xiao, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry.
Her research aims to determine the structure of two circadian proteins called CLOCK and BMAL1, which are associated with sleep-wake cycles.
Adame said determining the structure of those proteins could lead to therapies for different diseases related to circadian rhythm. The results could benefit people who work nights, such as nurses, whose bodies’ circadian rhythms, or 24-hour internal clocks, are disrupted by night-shift work.
Adame said she enjoys doing research and she also likes to discuss her work with other people.
“I really like to present my research because I get to practice talking about what I’m doing,” said Adame, who expects to graduate in 2023. “It makes me more comfortable and more confident in my research, and I really like the input I get from the graduate students.”
The COURI symposium’s other best presentation winners include Alyssa Parra in arts, humanities and social sciences; and Demetrius Hernandez in engineering, computational and applied sciences.