Senior to compete at national scientific research event
Posted: 11/05/2008
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Victoria Perez, a senior at The University of Texas-Pan American, is one of 100 undergraduates from across the nation chosen to participate in the premier student scientific research event, the 2008 Science and Energy Research Challenge (SERCh) Poster Competition.

Victoria Perez, UTPA senior, displays the structure obtained from one of her protein crystals.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the SERCh Competition, scheduled for Nov. 9-10 at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., showcases the research projects of DOE-funded undergraduate students and interns at the national laboratories.

"I know it is a highly competitive competition and I have been preparing my presentation. I hope a good showing at the competition can introduce me to people who can help me in my graduate pursuits. It is also going to be really interesting to see what other people are working on," Perez said.

In summer 2007, Perez was a member of Physics and Geology Associate Professor Dr. Mark Cunningham's Faculty and Student Team (FaST) at the Argonne National Laboratory in DuPage County, Ill., one of the DOE's largest research centers and the nation's first national laboratory. Perez was invited back to Argonne in summer 2008 as a SULI (Student Undergraduate Laboratory Internship) student.

Perez said her time spent at Argonne allowed her to work with a variety of scientists in interdisciplinary fields, all whom she considers her mentors and still keeps in touch with through e-mails. She said her mentors also offered her pointers on her poster presentation and while at Argonne she participated in two research symposiums where she was given the opportunity to present her research to a large audience.

A Donna, Texas native, Perez said the 100 students will be divided into five categories - biological science, materials science and engineering, chemistry, physics, and environmental science. She will be competing in the biological science category where she will present a poster on the topic of "Purification and Crystallization of Proteins."

"I worked in a protein purification lab where the focus is to produce protein crystals. The proteins must be highly purified in order to produce a protein crystal. The protein crystal is tested with a highly focused synchrotron X-ray beam where crystallographers use the scatter pattern to determine the protein's three-dimensional structure," Perez said.

Perez, a biology major and English minor, said the protein structures are then deposited in a Protein Databank where the data is available for biomedical researchers. Of the proteins Perez purified during her internship at Argonne, three protein structures were able to be determined and their structural information will be made available in the Protein Databank for researchers.

"It is all part of a Protein Structure Initiative taken on by the Midwest Center for Structural Genomics and two other large-scale research centers and the NIH (National Institutes of Health)," Perez said. "The ultimate goal is to deposit 4,000 protein structures in the Protein Databank within a five-year period. The protein database will be an invaluable resource to the biomedical community."

Scholarships of $3,000, $1,500, and $1,000 will be awarded to the first, second and third place winners, respectively. A grand prize scholarship of $10,000 will be awarded to one overall winner.

While at the competition, Perez and her adviser Dr. Kristine Lowe, biology assistant professor, will attend seminars and tour the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Lowe said she looks forward to meeting advisers and faculty from other institutions and learning about the latest in research and techniques that she can incorporate into her classroom assignments. Most of all, Lowe said she is thrilled about Perez's opportunity to present her research at a national level and is confident she will have a superb performance.

"Victoria's participation in research and at a national science competition allows other students to see that research can be for anyone, that research is fun and worthwhile, that research has benefits to the individual and the community, and that research can open up new doors for students," Lowe said. "Victoria's participation at the competition will also introduce her and UTPA to a larger scientific community who can see first hand the excellent caliber of students we have here. She is UTPA's ambassador at this competition."

According to Cunningham, Perez will be the first UTPA student to participate in the national competition. Cunningham praised Perez for being a quick study and getting results when she knew nothing about protein purification and crystallization when she started the summer program.

Victoria Perez (back) assists a fellow student on a research project in 2007 at the Argonne National Laboratory.

"She learned the procedures, paid attention to details and was rewarded for her hard work and diligence," he said. "She is articulate and a clear thinker; that translates into a poster that captures the imaginations of the judges."

As to what Perez's work means for the UTPA College of Science and Engineering, Cunningham said it demonstrates modern science as a truly collaborative enterprise - biologists to clone and grow cells, chemists to help with the crystallization process, engineers to make the robots that run the show, and physicists to generate the x-ray beams that define the protein structures.

"For me personally, it is gratifying to see that others at the national level recognize what I have already observed; that UTPA is populated by a number of extraordinary students," Cunningham said. "For my department, it should reaffirm to other students that physics is not a boring, arcane field but one that has application to many other disciplines including biology and chemistry."

Perez, who graduates in December 2008, plans to pursue a doctorate in biomedical informatics or biomedical engineering.

"I would like to work in developing and implementing tools to translate genetic information into applications that would benefit the medical sciences," she said.