UTEP Alumna Takes Research to Capitol Hill

Last Updated on May 15, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published May 15, 2017

By Lauren Macias-Cervantes

UTEP Communications

Millions visit the U.S. Capitol Building every year, but only a few are selected to showcase their work during their visit. Recent UTEP alumna Evelyn Villarreal, who graduated in December 2016 with a B.S. in kinesiology, was one of 60 students from across the country chosen to be part of the 21st annual Posters on the Hill event. The selective poster session is sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), based in Washington, D.C.

Recent UTEP alumna Evelyn Villarreal said being able to communicate with patients in their language is critical for all medical professionals, especially in El Paso where Spanish is prominent. Her research found learning Spanish helped students personally and professionally. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

“I think it’s an opportunity to let people outside of UTEP know what’s going on here,” Villarreal said.

The annual two-day event at the Capitol provided an opportunity for students to share their undergraduate research with members of Congress, congressional staff, federal government officials, academics and other researchers. Posters on the Hill is an opportunity for lawmakers to see how federal programs and dollars impact students and faculty, and to learn about the value of undergraduate research.

Villareal, who will begin UTEP’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program in May 2017, presented her undergraduate research on “Preparing Doctor of Physical Therapy students to better serve a Hispanic majority community by integrating Spanish language training,” a research project she conducted under the mentorship of Celia Pechak, Ph.D., associate professor in UTEP’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program.

“We have been incorporating Spanish language training in our Doctor of Physical Therapy curriculum since 2010,” Pechak explained. “We thought our students’ Spanish abilities were increasing as they progressed through the curriculum, but we had not done a formal study about their improvements or even their attitudes and beliefs about learning Spanish. Because of Evelyn’s research, we were able to demonstrate that our students’ Spanish proficiency is improving from semester 1 to semester 5, and that they perceive positive personal and professional benefits from learning clinically relevant Spanish.”

The young researcher said sharing the same language with patients is invaluable as it can impact their recovery and plan of care.

“Knowing Spanish is really, really important, especially in this area and in border communities,” Villareal said. “There are a lot of patients that speak Spanish and are limited English proficient. When you have a care provider that can’t speak their language, it’s very difficult to get information across.”

Pechak said from a curricular standpoint, it is critical to evaluate outcomes. UTEP’s DPT program is unique.

“We are the only DPT program in the country to integrate Spanish across our curriculum, but one of many who offer elective or required Spanish courses,” Pechak said. “We need to be taking the lead to disseminate information about our training model, our successes and our challenges. Evelyn’s study will soon be published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Education, a top peer-reviewed journal in our profession, which will allow many others to learn from our experience.”

Villarreal highly encourages other students to take advantage of research opportunities as undergraduates.

“It’s a whole other side of education students don’t see,” she said. “It’s a lot more application of what you’re learning. Let’s say you took a statistics course. It doesn’t serve a purpose if you’re not actually using it, but if you conduct research and apply it to things you like, then you learn the concepts better.”

The alumna works as a physical therapist technician at Spectrum Therapy Consultants and aims to get her DPT and Ph.D. degrees.

“It is remarkable that an undergraduate student was the lead author on a research manuscript that was accepted on the first submission,” Pechak said. “While it speaks to the originality of the topic, it is very much a reflection of the tremendous work she put into writing it. I am thrilled that Evelyn will begin her studies in the UTEP DPT Program at the end of May, and that she will continue this line of research with me. I cannot wait to see her presenting our research at state and national physical therapy conferences.”