NSF Fellowship Helps Miners Take Research to the Next Level

Last Updated on April 28, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published April 28, 2017

By Christina Rodriguez

UTEP Communications

Seven UTEP students and alumni can now count themselves among an elite group of student researchers from top universities around the nation who have received the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

National Science Foundation logo
National Science Foundation (NSF)

This year marks a record number of recipients for The University of Texas at El Paso. More than 13,000 students applied to the program, while only 2,000 fellowships were awarded.

The NSF program supports outstanding students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. Awardees receive a $34,000 annual stipend, and the university they are attending receives $12,000 to help cover tuition and fees.

In addition to the seven fellowship recipients, two current students received honorable mentions from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The designation also is considered a significant national academic achievement.

“This program recognizes the best of the best in the nation when it comes to potential for achievement in science,” said John Wiebe, Ph.D., UTEP associate provost. “We are incredibly proud of the UTEP students and alumni who have competed successfully for the award and those who earned honorable mention in the competition.”

During the past decade, UTEP has seen the number of recipients steadily grow. In 2003, the NSF awarded three UTEP alumni with the fellowship. In 2015, six Miners received the honor, while five UTEP affiliated student researchers were awarded the GRFP in 2016.

“The increasing number of awards to UTEP students and alumni reflect the research excellence and growing infrastructure of the institution, along with the efforts of engaged faculty and staff mentors,” Wiebe said. “The GRFP competition requires strong preparation, close mentorship, and access to cutting-edge undergraduate and graduate research opportunities. These results show us that UTEP students are well prepared to compete successfully at the highest levels.”

Learn more about the 2017 NSF Graduate Research Fellows:

Mayela Renata Aldaz CervantesMayela Renata

Current Institution: University of California, Santa Barbara

Mayela Renata Aldaz Cervantes is grateful for the undergraduate experience and resources available to her at UTEP that she credits with making her a better scientist. She graduated from the University as a Top 10 Senior in 2015 with a B.S. in metallurgical and materials engineering. Today, Cervantes is pursuing her doctorate in materials at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is studying the fundamentals of titanium oxidation. Her research involves developing a better understanding of the interactions between oxygen and titanium to find out the effects on the oxidation behavior of titanium alloys when other alloying elements such as aluminum are added. The research is relevant for applications in turbine engines, biomedical implants and other structural materials that are exposed to high-temperature environments.

“My experience in graduate school so far has been incredibly challenging,” Cervantes said. “Receiving this scholarship is both an honor and motivation to keep going on this path. I hope it also serves as an inspiration to my community and other aspiring scientists.” 

Veronica EscalanteVeronica Escalante

Current Institution: University of California, San Francisco

Veronica Escalante has been intrigued by the challenge of solving puzzles since she received her first Rubik’s cube at the age of nine. These days, she tackles her scientific research with the same zeal, intrigue and curiosity. Escalante earned a B.S. in cellular and molecular biochemistry from UTEP in December 2016. While a student at UTEP, she worked under the mentorship of Hugues Ouellet, Ph.D., in mycobacterium tuberculosis research. After graduation, she worked as a research assistant for Igor Almeida, Ph.D., in UTEP’s Biomolecule Analysis Core Facility, where she investigated Trypanosoma cruzi. Escalante is currently a part of the Tetrad Ph.D. program at the University of California, San Francisco that offers training in biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology and genetics research.

“Being selected for such an honorable fellowship award means that I will be able to devote my time to research in one of the best universities to create a positive impact in the research community,” Escalante said. “I look forward to showing the best that UTEP had to offer me and where it has led me in the scientific community. If it were not for its scholarship programs, faculty members and scientific student organizations, I would not be where I am today.” 

Jacqueline LechugaJacqueline Lechuga

Current Institution: UTEP

Jacqueline Lechuga feels confident that her experience as a current UTEP undergraduate student has fully prepared her to be successful in her future graduate studies at the University. She is a senior majoring in psychology with a minor in biology. Over the past year, Lechuga has been working on her honors thesis under the mentorship of Stephen L. Crites, Ph.D., professor and chair of UTEP’s Department of Psychology. Her thesis examines health-related decision-making focusing on variables such as physical attractiveness and risk. She investigates whether physical appearance, as a cue, is significant in the physician-patient relationship when making medical decisions. Her research has the potential to provide an understanding of the influence of heuristic cues on decision making and provide insight about moderator variables that impact the physician-patient relationship. Lechuga also has conducted research examining the relationship of emophilia – falling in love quickly and often – and the attraction to negative personality traits under the mentorship of Daniel N. Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology.

“I am thrilled to know that the NSF has confidence in my work and my ideas,” Lechuga said. “Nonetheless, it is important to note that my success in receiving this fellowship would not have been possible without the mentorship I have received from faculty as well as from talented graduate students here at UTEP.” 

Sofia LopezSofia Lopez

Current Institution: University of Michigan

Sofia Lopez’s research training began her sophomore year when she worked in the Prevention and Treatment in Clinical Health (PATCH) laboratory led by Theodore V. Cooper, Ph.D. Her junior year, in addition to her participation in the Paso del Norte Health Foundation’s grant StopLite: A Smoking Cessation Intervention for Light Smokers, she was selected as a RISE scholar and joined the behavioral neuroscience lab led by Edward Castañeda, Ph.D. Lopez is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Her research examines the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms underlying individual differences in cue-driven behavior. Particularly, she hopes to understand the basis of motivated behavior and uncover the mechanisms driving maladaptive patterns of behavior such as addiction. Lopez’s thesis will aim to elucidate the interaction between stress and dopamine in a model of individual variation in cue-motivated behaviors.

“I am grateful for this opportunity and I fully recognize that I would not be where I am today without the guidance of various research mentors and graduate students who believed in my potential early on,” Lopez said. “This award will allow for me to grow as a scientist, to ultimately communicate scientific knowledge and hopefully invigorate excitement for science, especially among Hispanic females like myself.” 

Beu Primavera OropezaBeu Primavera

Current Institution: UTEP

Beu Primavera Oropeza wants to help make the world a better place. She hopes to one day attend medical school and work on personalized regenerative medicine as well as teach in underserved communities. She is 2015 UTEP graduate who earned a B.S. in cellular and molecular biochemistry. Oropeza is working on a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at UTEP. Her research under the direction of Thomas Boland, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, deals with tissue printing of various sized vascularization. The ink-jet cell printer in UTEP’s Biomedical Device, Delivery and Diagnostic Lab (B3D) allows researchers to print cells and tissues into various structures. Using a similar process, they can print vascularization that will integrate with the native vessels in the body. The ability to print a working vascular network will enable the creation of larger structures without the issue of nutrient flow. Oropeza hopes to use the knowledge gained from creating the vascular network to then print a human aorta that could be used in a clinical setting.

“I hope that throughout the course of my fellowship years I will be able to network with others to not only advance my research but also potentially make lasting connections between UTEP and other universities around the country and internationally,” Oropeza said. 

Jacob Richard PartJacob Richard Prat

Current Institution: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Jacob Richard Prat graduated cum laude with a B.S. in chemistry from UTEP in summer 2016. As an undergraduate, he received both an NSF STEM scholarship and a National Institutes of Health Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) undergraduate fellowship. For the NSF STEM scholarship, Skye Fortier, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, served as his undergraduate mentor. Prat also worked in the laboratory of Dino Villagrán, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, where he studied highly reduced metal or metal multiple bonds. In that time, he was a co-author on two publications. Currently, Prat is attending the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He continues to pursue his interest in metal, specifically metal bonded interactions. Prat’s project focuses on utilizing earth-abundant metal complexes as catalysts for the functionalization of dinitrogen gas. He intends to continue in academia after receiving his doctoral degree in chemistry.

“I am very honored and excited for being selected for this grant, as it will mean I will be able to dedicate myself to research fully and further demonstrate Chicanos are capable and willing to enter STEM fields,” Prat said. 

Brian Roman ZamarripaBrian Roman Zamarripa

Current Institution: University of Central Florida

Brian Roman Zamarripa is a first generation college graduate whose dream of becoming a physicist used to seem surreal. He graduated from UTEP in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in physics. His UTEP mentors throughout his undergraduate studies included Efrain J. Ferrer, Ph.D., and Vivian Incera, Ph.D., both professors in the Department of Physics. Today, Zamarripa is pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Central Florida. His work is in physics education research, with specific interests on promoting racial and gender diversity in physics. Zamarripa aspires to become a professor to more effectively enact change in the physics culture.

“This fellowship gives me the opportunity and resources to conduct research in this field,” Zamarripa said. “I ultimately want to let it be known that being awarded this fellowship is a testament that it is possible to achieve the wildest of dreams, regardless of where we come from or what we look like.” 

2017 NSF GRFP Honorable Mention Recipients:

Oswaldo Raudel AvilaOswaldo Raudel Avila

Current Institution: UTEP

Oswaldo Raudel Avila is a UTEP senior who expects to receive a B.S. in mechanical engineering in May 2017. As a UTEP student, he has worked on three different research projects: hybrid fiber composites for cryogenic applications, the study of helical structures for stretchable electronics, and polymeric foam response using Hyper-foam Constitutive Law. Avila’s involvement with the projects is mostly computational, using Finite Element Analysis to evaluate and predict the response of the material and the structures. He has been accepted into Northwestern University’s highly competitive Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering, where he will be working with top faculty and leaders in the field of stretchable electronics to develop new stretchable electronics and understand the interaction between mechanics and bio-integrated devices used in human health monitoring.

“I am truly humbled and honored to receive the Honorable Mention as an undergraduate for my work in mechanics,” Avila said. “This highly competitive recognition is not only my work but the work of my mentors and the institutions that I have associated with and puts UTEP in the position to compete against any other institution regarding academic excellence and achievements.” 

Patrick Brown

Current Institution: UTEP

Patrick Brown received his bachelor’s degree in entomology and biology with a concentration in marine biology from Cornell University in 2013. As a UTEP graduate student under the mentorship of Elizabeth Walsh, Ph.D., professor of UTEP’s Biological Sciences, he is studying lifestyle evolution within the superorder Gnesiotrocha, a clade of rotifers (small aquatic animals that are common in most places water is present). Brown plans to use a combination of genomics, proteomics and transcriptomics to tackle the apparent parallelism of lifestyles within the group. His future plans include completing his master’s degree at UTEP and continuing to research understudied groups of organisms in academia.

“Receiving an honorable mention is an extraordinary honor because I am being recognized for what I have done and my research is being noticed,” Brown said.