Undergraduate Research in the Spotlight at Summer COURI Symposium


Undergraduate Research in the Spotlight at Summer COURI Symposium


Hundreds of students, faculty and community attendees at the 2014 COURI Symposium learned more about the breadth of undergraduate research being undertaken on the UTEP campus.
Hundreds of students, faculty and community attendees at the
2014 COURI Symposium learned more about the breadth of
undergraduate research being undertaken on the UTEP campus.
Photo courtesy of Ivan Pierre Aguirre.

As part of the University's commitment to offer greater opportunities for students to gain cutting-edge research experience starting the moment they enroll, the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) works to promote hands-on guidance from professors and to engage students in investigation and innovation on a regular basis.

To that end, COURI presents a semiannual symposium showcasing emerging researchers, scholars and artists. Students present their projects to the general public as well as academic peers, giving them not only recognition for their hard work, but also greater expertise in public speaking and interaction – skills that greatly contribute to future employability.

The COURI symposia are organized twice a year, in the spring and summer. 2014 marked the office's fourth spring symposium and third summer symposium.

The Aug. 2 COURI Symposium included the largest-ever group of presenters in UTEP's Undergraduate Learning Center.

One hundred sixty-two student presenters – 85 of whom were from institutions other than UTEP – showcased their work on 139 projects completed under the guidance of 141 mentors. The students came not only from science and engineering disciplines, but also from liberal arts, in line with COURI's mission to represent all UTEP colleges.

Senior theatre arts major Grace Bunt collaborated with her mentor Crystal Herman, assistant professor of costume design, on the project "Buckram Millinery for the Theatrical Milliner."

"I got great experience doing something I will have to do as a costume designer anyway, which is presenting my ideas," Bunt said. "I also got to see some of the fantastic work that other students had produced."

Ayan Dutt, who contributed to the project "Analyzing the Cost Effectiveness of Border Patrol Resources Against Adaptive Intruders," said his experience at the symposium was invaluable.

"It raised my self-confidence as I got to explain my work to different people," Dutt said. "It was definitely challenging as I had to be well prepared for the questions from my audience and the judges."

Dutt partnered with Leonard Arambram, an undergraduate from the State University of New York, Buffalo, on the project. Arambram was at UTEP as part of the National Center for Border Security and Immigration (NCBSI) Summer Scholars Program. The two students were convinced that the COURI Symposium was a positive platform for them to reach a pertinent audience.

The duo's faculty mentor, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Christopher Kiekintveld, Ph.D., believes this kind of opportunity is exciting both for the students and faculty as they work to create new knowledge symbiotically.

"I believe strongly that involving undergraduates in research is valuable in their education," Kiekintveld said. "They are able to apply skills and knowledge they learn in the classroom to challenging real-world problems while receiving individual mentoring."

COURI's Faculty Mentor Award was presented to Chintalapalle Ramana, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering, who oversaw eight different student presenters. The award is given at every symposium; eligible faculty must have at least three undergraduates presenting at the event. The students' scored presentations contribute to their mentor's ranking for the award.

"It serves as an important step in also recognizing the tremendous efforts of our faculty in training undergraduate researchers," said Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of COURI.

Poster presentation winners were student Jorge A. Rosero and mentor Norman Love, Ph.D., for their project "Combustion Behavior and Pollutant Emissions from High-Hydrogen Content Fuels." Second place winners were Cody R. Messerschmidt and mentor Elizabeth Walsh, Ph.D. for "Phylogenetic Positioning of Hexarthra (Rotifera; Gnesiotrocha) from the Chihuahuan Desert" and third place went to Ricardo Garcia and mentor Olac Fuentes, Ph.D., for "Drosophila, Courtship, Tracking, Computer Vision, Behavior."

Local high school students who had been selected to participate in the first-ever Work With a Scientist Program – giving these students an even earlier start in the world of research – also presented at the COURI Symposium. They talked with attendees about their work on 3-D printing, paraben content in everyday cosmetic products, how proteins affect human circadian rhythm and potential chemical contamination caused by plastic water bottles.

Poster presentation sessions and a reception took place in the morning; the afternoon featured guest speaker German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, delivering a talk titled "Influenza: A Threat, a Hope, a Story."

Assistant Director of COURI Karina Canaba said the symposium provided many reasons for celebration and commemoration.

"This summer featured jumps in participation from last year," she said. "In 2013, we had 14 externally and internally funded programs; that number went up to 19 programs in 2014. We also celebrated the increase in the number of institutions other than UTEP whose students came to our campus to work with UTEP faculty. Students came from 23 different institutions in 2013 and that number increased to 44 this year. Of those 44 institutions represented, 12 were institutions abroad, primarily from Mexico and China. We look forward to those numbers increasing next year."

Roger Gonzalez, Ph.D., professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, was grateful for how COURI and the symposium focused on critical skills from which his students would benefit immediately. He mentored mechanical engineering freshman Dante Chaparro Vega on the project "Cosmetic Covering for Lower Limb Prostheses in the Developing World."

"Working with Dante is an important part of the mission of UTEP in helping students learn through research and writing," Gonzalez said. "Many times this avenue of learning is overlooked. Working together with Dante brought both experience from my end and fresh ideas from his end."

Chaparro Vega's passion for the greater mission behind his project gave him the motivation to present it during COURI's symposium.

"I wanted everyone else to know what we are doing at LIMBS International," he said. "Eleven million people are in need of medical attention and medical devices, and we feel it is our duty to help them out." The soon-to-be-sophomore will continue working on this project throughout the 2014-15 academic year.

The symposium began the first year COURI was established under the College of Science in 2010-11. As COURI expanded gradually to incorporate other colleges on campus, the symposium grew in size with the goal to become campus-wide by UTEP's Centennial year. The 5th Annual COURI Spring Symposium will be April 17-18, 2015, with the summer symposium on Aug. 1, 2015.