UTEP Partnership with University at Albany Underscores Importance of Undergraduate Research Experiences
Last Updated on July 01, 2019 at 12:00 AM
Originally published July 01, 2019
By Pablo Villa
Arshad Khan, Ph.D., holds student researchers in high regard.
The associate professor of biological sciences and director of The University of Texas at El Paso’s Systems Neuroscience Laboratory currently oversees 27 personnel in his lab, including nine graduate students and 17 undergraduates. He likens UTEP’s slew of student-driven research teams to forces of nature capable of effecting great positive social and scientific change.
“UTEP’s recent R1 designation, which is a huge achievement, is not something that was an instant transformation,” Khan said of the top tier research distinction bestowed upon the University in December 2018 by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. “It was something that happened gradually, through a lot of hard work by many committed and passionate faculty, staff and administrative stakeholders. It was also fueled by postdoctoral researchers, and undergraduate and graduate students. The students in our labs are the main workforce without which we could not do our work. We need them. When you think of the R1 designation, these students represent the hard work. I imagine them to be like the drops of water in the Colorado River, steady and true. Slowly, over time, they are carving out a majestic Grand Canyon with their research discoveries.”
For Khan, four students in his lab will be key in the advancement of a new monumental undertaking. The quartet — Ken Negishi, doctoral student in biological sciences; Andrea Pineda Sanchez, junior biological sciences major; Andrea Enriquez, senior biological sciences major; and Vanessa Navarro, master’s student in biological sciences — along with postdoctoral researcher Christina D’Arcy, Ph.D., form the UTEP contingent of a partnership with the University at Albany (UAlbany) in New York, which will attempt to understand how neural circuits that encode learned responses to fear develop in mammalian brains.
Khan’s team is partnering with Andrew Poulos, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at UAlbany, who is the principal investigator of a $1.89 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to determine how the brain circuits that underlie fear learning develop in male and female animals. Khan is serving as a co-investigator on the grant and has been awarded a $650,000 portion to provide expertise in mapping these circuits using state-of-the-art instrumentation at UTEP.
At UAlbany, the Poulos lab will conduct behavioral experiments associated with a fearful stimulus. Khan’s laboratory will track the appearance of key biomarkers during the fear responses. These biomarkers form an “activation pattern” that can be superimposed onto an atlas of the brain to create detailed maps of the regions that harbor nerve cell populations associated with fear conditioning. The research teams from both schools met jointly on the UTEP campus in late June 2019 to kick off their collaboration.
Khan said that while his students will gain invaluable insight and experience from their time in the partnership, they have already proven their mettle as researchers.
Pineda Sanchez and Enriquez are currently part of a competitive neuroscience summer research experience program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The pair credit UTEP’s ability to offer research opportunities to undergraduates as the reason they have been able to hone their interest in neuroscience.
Enriquez was a mathematical sciences major when she arrived at UTEP. She enrolled in a biology lab course and immediately felt the pull of research. She subsequently began work in a laboratory led by another professor. Before landing in Khan’s lab, she served an internship at The University of Texas at Austin and noted how fortunate she was to be engaged in research in El Paso.
“Over there, it was mostly grad students who received opportunities to work in a lab,” Enriquez said. “You could really see the difference in how access is a big deal here at UTEP. If I didn’t get the chance to join a lab, I would still be a math major. So, I’m grateful that I was able to find what I’m passionate about.”
Pineda Sanchez knew she wanted to pursue neuroscience studies before she left high school. The Coronado High School graduate enrolled in a Freshman Year Research Intensive Sequence (FYRIS) program designed to provide her with course-based undergraduate research experiences.
“We actually did hands-on research my very first semester at UTEP,” Pineda Sanchez said. “Over my first summer, I joined a lab. I haven’t looked back. I was lucky to find what I wanted to study and it’s because I got to see a lab right away.”
Navarro relishes the chance to be a part of Khan’s team. It is an opportunity she feels bolsters not only her, but the academic progress of younger students. Navarro said she hopes the undergraduate researchers she works with can enhance their skill-sets through working alongside their graduate counterparts. Navarro enjoys imparting knowledge, as evidenced by her previous experience teaching a first-of-its-kind “Brain Mapping & Connectomics” laboratory course, directed by Khan. The course was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute under the UTEP Program to Educate and Retain Students in STEM Tracks (PERSIST) and is now part of the NIH-funded UTEP BUILDing SCHOLARS program. Along with Dr. D’Arcy, Navarro will teach another section of this course-based undergraduate research experience this fall. Importantly, the new iteration of this course will involve freshmen analyzing brain mapping data from the UAlbany–UTEP partnership to study fear circuitry.
“I find great pleasure seeing students grow,” Navarro said. “From seeing how students start a course to seeing them at the end, you can see how they want to learn more. They want to do research, they want to go to conferences. To see that excitement means we are doing something right.”
Negishi is the self-styled elder statesman among student researchers in Khan’s lab. The Burges High School graduate was initially a pre-med major. He was drawn to this realm of research because he became enamored with finding answers to questions about how the brain was connected. He is looking forward to the collaboration with UAlbany to gain insight into behavioral functions from fellow doctoral students. But he remains very much committed to the progress of the undergraduates he shares lab space with.
“Working with them is great,” Negishi said. “We get to see their skills develop and see them find what they want to focus on. As graduate students, we’re kind of coaches who come up with a game plan. But we’re also cheerleaders. We cheer them on and get them to where they want to go.”
Khan said many UTEP colleges, departments and programs have contributed to his students’ success. Along with funding opportunities have come equipment funding support, facilities management and scores of other resources necessary to establish a successful lab.
“We are part of a growing movement on campus to provide first-year research experiences,” Khan said. “We owe a lot of gratitude to many people and programs on campus, all of which are like multiple rivers emptying into the same bay. This access to state-of-the-art resources by our first-year students is unprecedented.”
Khan said D’Arcy adds another element to the partnership. She will be charged with documenting the progress of the partnership’s learning outcomes to help gauge students’ motivations to stay in science, their abilities to retain and explain complex information, their propensity for asking critical questions in other related disciplines and other variables for potential publication.
“There’s this whole metacognitive component because students experience a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety,” D’Arcy said. “In my experience, a lot of times students start with the concept of ‘Oh, STEM is a big deal, you have to be so smart.” But in fact, it’s very approachable. You just need to have a few tools shown to you and the interest to use those tools. It’s attainable. If you happen to want to study the brain, it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from or how much background you have. It’s not a closed door. We want to be able to empower students to chase this if they want it.”
That pursuit began in earnest at a recent UTEP training workshop hosted by Khan’s laboratory, which was coordinated with the help of UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI). The guests of the five-day workshop, which took place the week of June 24-28, included collaborating students from Poulos’ laboratory at UAlbany, who learned about brain-mapping techniques from the UTEP student team.
The UAlbany students’ experience on campus was facilitated by D’Arcy, Negishi and Navarro along with several other graduate students from Khan’s lab including doctoral students Eduardo Peru, Alexandro Arnal and Briana Pinales; and master’s students Marina Peveto and Geronimo Tapia.
“We are benefitting from that excellence at UAlbany,” Khan said. “In turn, we are providing neuroanatomy expertise to them. Our students have the opportunity to take part in a project that is unprecedented. It really is a wonderful marriage. It’s an honor to be a part of this project.”