A number of students at The University of Texas-Pan American had the opportunity of a lifetime Sept. 28 when they were able to discuss their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and careers with Dr. Arden L. Bement Jr., director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Bement met with the students as well as faculty researchers, University administrators, and local government leaders during Community Day, the final day of Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week at the University.
"We were honored to have Dr. Bement visit with UTPA student and faculty researchers," said UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas. "We know that Dr. Bement shares our HESTEC mission of promoting the importance of science literacy to students, their parents and teachers, and were able to show him our national model and the tremendous impact HESTEC has had on our community."
The NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science. Bement, who has headed the NSF since 2004, oversees the foundation's annual budget of almost $6.06 billion which funds research and education in all fields of science and engineering. NSF is the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. In many fields, such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.
"This was an opportunity for our premier national science agency to get a first-hand look at the tremendous potential of South Texas. Dr. Bement's visit also serves as a call to our community to help advance the mission of the National Science Foundation," Hinojosa said.
At a breakfast meeting with University students, Bement spoke with student leaders of the many STEM-related student professional organizations and programs on campus - American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Automotive Engineers, Engineering Honor Society, Society of Women Engineers, Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Association for Computing Machinery, Premed/BioMed Club, Tri-Beta, and Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program.
Bement later talked with a few winners in the student produced poster research presentations judged during HESTEC Week's Science Symposium which were on display in the Engineering Building Lobby.
Ashley Longoria, a sophomore from Weslaco majoring in biology, was a co-presenter on one of the winning posters and had an opportunity to discuss her research with Bement. Longoria is a participant in UTPA's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program, an NSF-funded program which supports active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by the NSF. The award to UTPA - Research in Subtropical Biology at a Hispanic Gateway Institution - allows Longoria and other students to work side-by-side with faculty mentors in conducting research and creating new knowledge. The goal of REU is to prepare students to enter graduate school and ultimately enter careers in research and technology.
Longoria said they talked about her research - the effect of low salinity conditions on snails after Hurricane Dolly -- and her future goals.
"I thought Dr. Bement was very one-on-one, wanted to listen and to understand everyone's different projects. I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be. It was like talking to my grandfather or my dad. It was an honor to talk to him," she said.
Longoria said she told Bement that through her participation in the REU program, she learned how much she enjoyed research and discovery and has since switched from a premed major to wanting to be a scientist.
Bement said he learned a lot meeting with UTPA students.
"I have learned a lot in terms of their enthusiasm, their willingness to get their feet wet early in their undergraduate career starting with freshmen and sophomore research projects. The leadership among the students is great. They have a sense of where they are going and what they want to be. They are very serious students and doing very good work. It is a good investment on the part of the National Science Foundation," he said.
Bement also expressed his enthusiasm for HESTEC, which he also attended three years ago and hopes to attend again in the future.
"HESTEC is a terrific example of a program that reaches into its community to promote science, technology, engineering and math careers among young people and their families," Bement said. "Imagine, 50,000 people coming to celebrate science. Bambi (President Cárdenas), it's the best in the nation, and by extension, the best in the world."