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COURI Spring Symposium Highlights Undergraduate Research

Last Updated on May 01, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published May 01, 2018

By Elizabeth Ashby

UTEP Communications

Twice a year since spring 2011, undergraduate students have gathered to present their research at the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) Research Symposium. This spring’s symposium on April 21, 2018, was the biggest yet, featuring 172 students representing all colleges.

UTEP Students at Project Move
Dozens of posters were displayed in the Undergraduate Learning Center at the largest-ever COURI Spring Symposium on April 21, 2018. The event has expanded from featuring primarily science research to a diverse set of disciplines across the University. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

“Word gets around,” said COURI Director Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D. “I think that the students and the mentors realize the importance of not just having the student working on their research, but also the impact that presenting their research has on the students.” 

The symposium, in which dozens of posters representing countless hours of research are displayed in the Undergraduate Learning Center, has expanded from featuring primarily science research to a diverse set of disciplines across the University. Echegoyen said this growth reflects an emerging, University-wide culture that encourages student-driven research. This work makes participants highly competitive after completing their undergraduate degrees. 

“We have been able to get the entire campus engaged in the idea of the one-on-one mentoring between a faculty member and a student,” Echegoyen said. “Before, many of the colleges had programs that involved research in the classroom – projects within the classroom for credit – but nothing like this.” 

The upward trend is reflected in the enrollment in RSRC 4033, a zero-credit course for students who participate in research. More than 600 students are enrolled this year. These students can participate in the spring or summer COURI symposium, next scheduled for August 4, 2018. 

At the spring symposium, many participants presented research that is supported through programs such as MERITUS and BUILDing SCHOLARS

Some students, such as senior microbiology major Jennifer Love, sought out the opportunity to work with a particular mentor. While transferring to UTEP from El Paso Community College’s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement Program, she learned about a lab run by Anita Quintana, Ph.D., in UTEP’s Border Biomedical Research Center

“I started looking at mentor profiles to see what everyone was studying, and I saw Dr. Quintana’s experience at St. Jude’s [Children’s Research Hospital],” Love said. “I really wanted to pursue working with her.” 

This connection and subsequent yearlong research project led to her presentation at the 2018 Spring Symposium titled “Zebrafish larvae: An emerging system for the study of melanoma metastasis.” The project focuses on whether zebrafish will be an effective model for melanoma cancer. 

Other projects showed the breadth of the symposium’s research topics. Marayah Vigo, a MERITUS student who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a minor in technical theater, presented her research project titled “Transfronteriza: A study of the creative process.” Her friends have participated in undergraduate research, and she was presented with her own opportunity when her mentor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, Sandra Paola Lopez Ramirez, approached her with a topic. 

“I really wanted to see how my mentor was able to use this idea of community organizing and letting the community be involved in the creative process,” Vigo said. “I can figure out where I want to go with my dance and how I want to create.” 

Vigo says that the research project has helped inform her artist’s statement, and that students in creative fields should consider conducting research as they are developing their art. 

“There’s always something to learn. Don’t discredit your ability to go out and learn more based on the field that you are in,” Vigo said. “There’s so much out there with dance that can be explored, and it’s waiting to be discovered.” 

The COURI symposia not only showcase the burgeoning talent of young researchers, but they also serve as a key step in a student’s career. Love said she hopes to pursue her graduate studies in a zebrafish lab, hopefully at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and that the work leading up to this research presentation will help her achieve those aspirations. She also notes the support she and other students have received, which is distinct from her experience at a previous institution in her home state of Kansas. 

“I can see how passionate UTEP is about bringing research to the forefront of the community,” Love said. “That is a very important aspect of going to any school. They really try to guide the students, and that has been the best experience – the mentors here.”



Research and scholarly activities introduce undergraduate students to the culture of learning by doing, through self-directed inquiry under the guidance of an expert faculty mentor. Learn more at

2018 COURI Symposium Awardees: 

Engineering, Computational & Applied Sciences 

Madison Bencomo, Mentor -Ivonne Santiago

Luis F. Aranda, Mentor - Roger V. Gonzalez 

Life Sciences 

Luis C. Reza, Mentor - Giulio Francia

Michael A Brissette, Mentor - Charlotte Vines 

Physical Sciences 

Jose A. Rosales, Mentor - Juan C. Noveron

Sergio Barrios, Mentor - Xiujun Li 

Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences 

Virginia Jenkins, Mentor - Ophra Leyser-Whalen

David Esparza, Mentor - Jeffrey T. Olimpo