Undergraduate research transforms students and the Valley
Posted: 11/27/2012
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The public is well aware of the damage to property and lives floods can inflict - we saw the pictures of New Orleans after Katrina and, more recently, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on New Jersey and Long Island, N.Y.

UTPA senior and math major Samuel Cavazos is pictured describing his research - "Arithmetic of Free Group Character Varieties" - to fellow students during the first Undergraduate Research Conference held Nov. 19-20 at the University. Cavazos has applied to Northwestern University in Chicago to pursue a master's and Ph.D. in math.

Juan Enriquez hopes the research he has conducted as an undergraduate student at The University of Texas-Pan American can help prevent that kind of damage here in the Rio Grande Valley, where tropical weather, the watershed's topography and the region's rapid growth have produced frequent flooding in the area over the last 30 years.

The senior civil engineering major, under the guidance of UTPA faculty sponsor Dr. Jungseok Ho, created a hydraulic channel routing model to compute the water surface elevation along 158 river miles of the Lower Rio Grande from Peñitas to Brownsville, Texas.

"I did a model of the 2010 flood event caused by hurricane Alex ... we put in flow data, boundary conditions and then computed based on real measurements. The computation results were compared to observed water surface elevation values during Alex," Enriquez said.

The research model indicated water surface elevation differences at several locations along the Lower Rio Grande/ River.

"Models such as this provide information on where improvements to levees might be required to avoid flooding and damage to property and injuries to people. This could prevent Valley cities from flooding," he said.

Enriquez, who plans on having a civil engineering career after he graduates, said conducting and presenting research provides a great hands-on learning experience.

"What I did here is what people actually do in the real world. Engineers do these kinds of models. With an accurate model, you can predict how high the water will be during storm events and you can detect where people can build houses and where you should have easements," he said.

Enriquez said he is more knowledgeable about research procedures now and what to do when your "figures don't make sense."

Dr. Kenneth Buckman (left), associate provost, Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning, heard from Juan Enriquez, a senior majoring in civil engineering, who described his poster presentation - "Estimation of Water Surface Elevation along the Lower Rio Grande Using Hydraulic Channel Routing Model" - during UTPA's two-day Undergraduate Research Conference.

"The first time I ran the numbers I got a water elevation number that was high at this (certain) point, however, when I looked at the numbers again, I had the elevation run with the dam closed," he said. "The bottom line is that I learned through this research."

Enriquez was among more than 100 undergraduate students from all disciplines in UTPA's seven colleges who described their research in oral and poster presentations during the University's first Undergraduate Research Conference - "Explore and Engage" - held Nov. 19-20.

While UT Pan American has a history of providing undergraduates opportunities for research through the Undergraduate Research Initiative grants, Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding and other programs, the conference showcased their efforts and success, said Dr. Danika Brown, associate professor of English and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Service Learning in the Division for Academic Affairs.

"All of our studies in higher education on student success indicate that if students have an opportunity to identify something that connects them to this university - if they work with even one faculty member outside the classroom, if they see their academic experience have a greater relevance than just getting a grade in a class, they are far more likely to succeed and we want students to succeed," Brown said.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, who plans to offer the conference annually and expand it to students at other Rio Grande Valley institutions, noted the significant transformational power of undergraduate research.

"Once students become engaged in research, their GPA starts rising higher than the general student population and students going from undergraduate degrees to graduate degrees increases exponentially," he said. "We are going to grow undergraduate research at UT Pan American. This is only the beginning."

View a gallery of some of the "Explore and Engage" conference presenters here. Learn more about the opportunities for undergraduate research and service learning at the office's website.