High school interns conduct research at UTPA
Contact: Jorge Alvarado, Intern 956/381-2741
Posted: 08/21/2006
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At the age of 17, Amanda Rae Flores may become a published author thanks to The University of Texas-Pan American and the 2006 High School Summer Science Interns program. The program, which was designed to increase awareness and interest in science-related fields in the Rio Grande Valley, was organized by the Hispanic Health Research Center/Community Advisory Board (HHRC/CAB).

The HHRC is a research center housed in The University of Texas at Brownsville dedicated to researching a number of diseases prevalent in the Hispanic community.

The Office of Research Administration through the Undergraduate Research Initiative at UTPA along with the Centers of Excellence in Partnerships for Community Outreach, Research on Health Disparities and Training (EXPORT) grant helped fund three students conducting their research at the University. The other students participating were based out of The University of Texas at Brownsville.

"UTPA's participation in the summer internship program was an opportunity to not only foster interest in research but also to highlight the options available at the University to students interested in a science career. They learn about research and the discovery of new knowledge by doing," said Dr. Wendy Lawrence-Fowler, associate vice president for Research.

The internship positions provided opportunities in fields such as astronomy, anticancer drugs, cancer research, plant physiology, behavioral science, diabetic research, adolescent obesity, respiratory adaptation and sedimentology.

The internships were created to offer students a hands-on opportunity to explore a science field, in hopes of influencing them to pursue a career in science. The students conducted research from June 15-July 28 and presented their findings to the HHRC/CAB at the end of the internship. The presentations help the HHRC/CAB petition for a renewal of funds to keep programs like the summer internship going.

Amanda R. Flores, a McAllen Nikki Rowe high school student, studies tunicates through a microscope during her internship in the UTPA Department of Biology while assistant professor Dr. Zen Faulkes looks on.
Out of 60 applicants, only 10 were selected by a team of UTPA faculty, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston's School of Public Health and UTB. Students were selected based on courses they were currently enrolled in, their grades, a teacher recommendation form and an essay about why they would like to participate in the internship.

Flores, a senior this year at McAllen Nikki Rowe High School, took an internship in the Department of Biology with assistant professor Dr. Zen Faulkes.

"I'm really interested in marine biology and this was the perfect opportunity for me," Flores said.

Flores is in the process of writing a paper with Faulkes, which they will submit to Marine Ecology, a science magazine that publishes original contributions on marine ecosystems and organisms.

"Hopefully we can get published! I really hope we actually get approved for the magazine. I'll be really ecstatic," Flores said.

The internship also gave students an opportunity to share ideas and learn techniques from their mentors. Flores said she really liked the freedom and trust she had with her professor, "He trusted me. He knew I could do it, and I love that. He provided me with enough information, but enough independence for me to actually get out and do this on my own."

Faulkes said he is very proud of Flores, who came in halfway through the summer semester, and was amazed at how well she could work without constant supervision.

"The project was well within her ability that she didn't need me to work with her every step of the way," Faulkes said.

In addition, programs like these can help the University generate the necessary interest and funds it needs to become a research institution.

"Participating faculty like me use this internship to show outside agencies how we are reaching out to students and how we are committed to student research. That might help to generate more external funding for student research programs," Faulkes said.

Other student participants included Matthew Martin, a student from Edinburg North High School who worked with Dr. Bimal Banik, UTPA assistant professor for the Department of Chemistry, and Christopher Andrew Arriaga a student from Nikki Rowe High School who worked with Dr. Michael Persans, UTPA assistant professor for the Department of Biology.

Pedro Mancias, a UTPA alumnus, advisory board member and associate professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said he was impressed by the way the students presented the information.

"If you give the students from the Valley an opportunity they will live up to it," Mancias said. "It tells me that there's hope, and that we are making progress in the Valley."

Belinda Reininger, assistant professor at The University of Texas-Houston School of Public Health and director of the 2006 High School Summer Science Interns, said she would like to see this program continue in the future.

"One important aim of our EXPORT grant funded by the National Institutes of Health National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities is to promote science careers among Hispanic students. Therefore, faculty from UTPA, UTB and The University of Texas-Houston School of Public Health Brownsville Regional Campus joined together to provide local students with research opportunities," Reininger said. "We believe that this internship program will contribute to future scientists from the South Texas area."