UTEP Alumna's Nanotechnology Work Featured in White House Budget Supplement
Last Updated on September 17, 2018 at 12:00 AM
Originally published September 17, 2018
By Pablo Villa
For Nubia Zuverza-Mena, Ph.D., the little things make a difference.
That is evidenced through the UTEP alumna’s work in the field of nanotechnology — the study of the ultrafine particles of material that are the focus of emerging technology in agriculture. Her efforts, initially as a postdoctoral scientist, at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) in New Haven recently earned her a mention in The National Nanotechnology Initiative Supplement to the President’s 2019 Budget, a report prepared for President Donald Trump by each federal agency.
The document highlighted Zuverza-Mena as part of a team working to boost the “immune system” of plants by supplying them with nanoscale micronutrients. Through this work led by Jason White, Ph.D., CAES vice director, and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) and the National Science Foundation’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN), crops such as eggplant and watermelon showed several positive effects and saw a rise in per-acre value of their yields.
“I was shocked, but of course, proud to be mentioned in this document,” Zuverza-Mena said.
What is not surprising, Zuverza-Mena said, is the role The University of Texas at El Paso has played in her professional growth. The Juárez native earned three degrees at UTEP – a B.S. in chemistry (2006), an M.S. in metallurgical and materials engineering (2009), and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering (2016). She said her time on campus was invaluable and provided her with academic and research opportunities that primed her for success.
As an undergraduate she conducted research on the use of plants to remove heavy metals from the environment. As a master’s student, she engaged in a tissue engineering research opportunity at the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation that was the precursor to the College of Engineering’s bioengineering program, which is currently thriving on campus.
“Nubia is not only a testament to the caliber of student that UTEP is capable of producing, she is also an example of a student who helps bolster the quality of the academic experience the campus can offer," said Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., founder and director of the Keck Center. "Her ability to pursue independent research – in this case, the printing and testing of nerve guides to help regenerate nerves – took the Keck Center’s capabilities to a higher level. We are grateful to teach – and learn – from students like her, and we are elated over her success.”
Her initial stint in the private sector came when she worked as a components engineer for Johnson & Johnson in Mexico after she earned her master’s degree. There, Zuverza-Mena helped oversee the manufacture of angioplasty balloons for use in medical procedures. While Zuverza-Mena enjoyed her employment, she said a natural curiosity to try new things drove her to pursue a doctoral degree. When mulling where to attain her degree, Zuverza-Mena briefly considered going to California, but the pull of being close to home and family was too intense. In addition, being able to make the leap to a different discipline swayed her decision.
“I think we, as scientists, like to explore many things because we are curious,” Zuverza-Mena said. “One of the things I liked about UTEP was the opportunity to research different fields. I was interested in additive manufacturing, and Dr. Wicker was very supportive of me. I became very interested in tissue engineering and plastics. That’s why I went to industry. But I wanted to study something in nanotechnology. When I found out UTEP could offer it to me, the decision was easy.”
Upon returning to UTEP, Zuverza-Mena found a mentor in Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, Ph.D., the Dudley Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering. Gardea-Torresdey is one of the preeminent names in the field of nanotechnology. He most recently published his work in the August 2018 edition of Nature Nanotechnology, one of the world’s leading monthly peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Under his tutelage, Zuverza-Mena began her foray into the effects of nanotechnology. She eventually parlayed her efforts into a postdoctoral assignment at CAES as an assistant scientist in July 2018. Zuverza-Mena credits Gardea-Torresdey with deftly guiding her through her doctorate work and instilling a sense of confidence that has remained with her.
“Dr. Gardea-Torresdey always showed that he cares about his students,” Zuverza-Mena said. “It’s not only during our time in the lab, he cares about our future. That’s something he is very particular about. I am very fortunate that I had him and my other quality mentors who shaped my career like Dr. Jose Peralta, Dr. Ryan Wicker, Dr. Namsoo Kim and Dr. David Roberson.”
Gardea-Torresdey said he is glad his former student is utilizing what she learned during her time at UTEP in a field of emerging technology.
“We are starting to learn more about the effects of emerging contaminants in our food supply,” Gardea-Torresdey said. “The work Nubia is conducting is precisely the type of impact that UTEP graduates are capable of and have demonstrated throughout the years. Nubia is improving the efforts to make our food safe. This is important work with long-term ramifications. We are absolutely thrilled to see her making a difference.”
Zuverza-Mena said she hopes to continue collaboration on the study of emerging contaminants in food. She added that if the opportunity to serve UTEP in some way eventually presents itself, she would be honored to give back to the University that gave her so much.
“UTEP is growing and it continues to have a big impact on students,” Zuverza-Mena said. “The campus offers so many opportunities and gives students a diverse experience, not just culturally but in fields of study. I’ve seen UTEP become a recognized name and I’m proud to say I’m a UTEP graduate.”