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Home | Tag Archives: University of Texas at El Paso

Tag Archives: University of Texas at El Paso

UTEP Professor, Smithsonian researchers make genetic discoveries related to North American Ducks

A recent study published in the journal Molecular Ecology presents significant findings related to the genetic makeup of two North American iconic ducks: mallards and American black ducks.

Philip Lavretsky, Ph.D., assistant professor in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Biological Sciences, collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and National Zoo on the study.

In the manuscript titled “Assessing Changes in Genomic Divergence Following a Century of Human Mediated Secondary Contact among Wild and Captive‐bred Ducks,” Lavretsky and colleagues utilize state-of-the-art genomic techniques to access the genomes of American black ducks and mallards that were sampled across time and space.

This research not only renders similarities between the two ducks, it represents the growing importance of museum specimens in the realm of DNA research.

“We first started this project to understand why mallards and American black ducks were genetically so similar,” Lavretsky said. “To do so, we needed to get the genetic signature from today and in the past.”

However, this was not the only question that Lavretsky needed to answer. Work published previously by Lavretsky and associates in the journal Ecology and Evolution set the stage for what would become the more interesting story.

“We started to pick up two genetic populations among our North American mallards,” Lavretsky said. “We had a hypothesis that perhaps the release of game-farm mallards, which has been practiced in North America since 1920, may in fact have fundamentally changed the genetic make-up of North America’s wild mallard population through widespread hybridization.”

Lavretsky not only needed more modern samples to really understand what was happening between American black ducks, wild mallards, and game-farm mallards, but he needed to go back in time.

To do so, Lavretsky partnered with co-authors Helen James, Ph.D., research zoologist and curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History, and Robert Fleischer, Ph.D., head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics.

Together, they analyzed DNA samples of historical (1860-1915) museum specimens that were sampled before wide-spread game-farm mallard releases started in North America, and compared these to today’s populations.

“We knew that in addition to the historical data, we really needed to get known game-farm mallards that are currently being released by hunting or dog training preserves that could potentially escape and breed with wild populations,” Lavretsky said. “And so we were able to get these reference game-farm mallards from two eastern states that allowed us to directly test whether the second mallard lineage now widespread in eastern North America was due to interbreeding with these domestic game-farm mallards.”

In the paper, researchers concluded that black ducks and mallards have always been genetically closely related, and despite evidence of historical hybridization, they continue to maintain genetic separation; a finding that overturns decades of prior research and speculation suggesting the genetic extinction of the American black duck due to extensive interbreeding with mallards.

Unlike the happier ending reported for the American black duck, the authors conclude that the genetics of North America’s mallards had indeed been fundamentally transformed through extensive, landscape-level hybridization with released game-farm mallards.

“Who knew that old natural history museum specimens would one day become repositories of genetic information from the past?” James said. “For me, this study shows just how valuable that information can be. It allays some fears that the iconic American black duck may be facing genetic extinction via hybridization. Yet, it raises new fears that interbreeding between wild and domesticated mallards threatens the genetic integrity of the wild mallard, especially in the eastern United States”

“Based on our estimates, more than 90% of all eastern mallards possess a substantial amount of game-farm mallard genetics,” Lavretsky said. “This is a stark finding, as it indicates that the eastern North American mallard population is effectively a wild x domestic mallard hybrid swarm today. I find it a bit sad that there is only at maximum a 10% chance that someone looking at a mallard in eastern North America is in fact looking at a wild North American mallard.”

How, and to what extent these domestic genes impact wild mallard population remains to be determined. However, many populations in which stocking of domestic variants start – such as rainbow trout, runs of salmon, bobwhite quail, pheasants, etc. – the stockings do not end due to populations becoming ever-poorly adapted.

Mallard populations are recently declining in eastern the U.S., and the authors hypothesize that the increase in domestic genes in these populations may explain this decline. Moreover, finding that the game-farm mallard genetic signature is moving westward is especially worrisome for the main breeding mallard population of the Prairie Pothole region. Research is ongoing to answer these new inquiries.

“It is essential to identify and understand what species, population, etc. are in regard to their adaptive and non-adaptive potential, particularly when attempting to inform conservation or management efforts,” Lavretsky said. “We thought we had one mallard population, but in fact, we have two very distinct mallards breeding in North America.

“I believe that with advances in ancient DNA techniques, ancient/historical museum specimens are becoming an ever more valuable asset to understand the speciation processes, identify unique and extinct lineages, determine the timing of speciation events, and without which, the same comparisons that were done in our recent article would not be possible.”

Read the full article by clicking here.

UTEP receives $1M to boost number of students who pursue Graduate Engineering Studies

The University of Texas at El Paso’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department was awarded $1 million from the National Science Foundation to help low-income, academically talented undergraduate students in engineering successfully advance to graduate studies.

The Pathways to Success in Graduate Engineering (PASSE) program focuses on understanding and supporting the critical transition from undergraduate to graduate engineering studies.

The five-year project’s objectives are to create an innovative, multi-faceted support ecosystem for students transitioning from undergraduate to graduate education; implement a mentoring structure to train students as researchers; and analyze the students’ pursuit of graduate education.

Researchers will focus on supporting and understanding the transition between undergraduate and graduate education, an area that has not been thoroughly studied.

Leading the effort at UTEP is Patricia Nava, Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator. She is joined by co-principal investigators Danielle Morales, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, and Miguel Velez-Reyes, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“If successful, this support system has the potential to not only increase success rates of engineering graduate students at the University, but also to improve success at other institutions that apply it,” Nava said. “As a result, this project can help meet the critical national need for a well-trained STEM workforce, particularly the need for more engineers.”

The project will contribute to the national need for well-educated scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technicians by providing three-year scholarships to 20 students who are pursuing fast-track bachelor-to-master’s degrees throughout UTEP’s College of Engineering.

The research is expected to produce a model for student success that will be disseminated nationally. As a result, it can help to increase the number of students who enter STEM careers, particularly low-income students who are first-generation and from populations underrepresented in STEM.

“No conceptual model is currently available to orient understanding of the dynamic role of educational interventions in student development through time,” Velez-Reyes said. “Therefore, the project has developed a novel three-stage student developmental trajectory model that will frame its research.”

The project is funded by NSF’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program, which seeks to increase the number of low-income, academically talented students with demonstrated financial need who earn degrees in STEM fields.

UTEP students find $100 Solutions to address challenges

For a little more than $100, students in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Sciences (BS-RHSC) program made the lives of children affected by intimate partner violence a little brighter.

Twice a week during the month of November, five BS-RHSC students joined children at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence (CASFV) for a friendly game of flag football, basketball or soccer.

Sports activities helped the children reduce the stress of living in the shelter and enabled them to interact positively with adults, particularly males.

“Our goal was to try to improve their quality of life and help them have better social interactions with each other and their peers at school and kind of take their mind off the fact that they’re living in a family violence shelter,” said Johnathan Stacy, a senior BS-RHSC major.

Stacy was among 40 rehabilitation sciences and social work students who participated in the $100 Solution, a global service-learning program in which students receive $100 to create projects that generate sustainable changes in local communities.

Students divided into eight groups and each group was given $100 to work with a community partner such as the CASFV to implement a project that addressed a health-related quality-of-life issue in the community during the fall 2019 semester.

Aside from recreation activities at the CASFV, other projects included a coffee cart at Tippin Elementary School that engaged children in the school’s special education program, mindfulness activities for children at the Willie Sanchez Rosales Family Center for homeless families, and a calming corner at El Dorado High School.

BS-RHSC students also offered free dance classes for senior citizens at the Polly Harris Senior Center, a fine and gross motor program for geriatric women at Casa de Las Abuelitas homeless shelter and a video exercise program for residents of the SunRidge at Cambria senior living facility.

To expand the scope of the service-learning projects, BS-RHSC Director Carolina Valencia, Ph.D., partnered with Social Work Associate Professor Eva Moya, Ph.D, to include two undergraduate and two graduate social work students in the program, who hosted progressive community nights for families in Fabens, Texas.

Valencia, who spearheaded the project, said the service-learning program was an opportunity for students to expand their community engagement and research through creative and transformative education experiences.

“You will never forget the impact that you have made in your community, how much you have grown with the experience, and the feeling of accomplishment,” Valencia said to students during their $100 Solution poster presentations on Dec. 10.

The College of Health Sciences’ Charles H. and Shirley T. Leavell Endowed Chair Faculty Fellowships funded the projects. Valencia is the faculty Leavell Fellow in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. She is one of five fellows that promote high-impact, evidence-based educational and research practices that incorporate UTEP Edge principles, which benefit health sciences students.

Students worked with community partners on a needs assessment, literature review and plan of action to develop projects that incorporated the five pillars of the $100 Solution: partnership, reciprocity, capacity-building, sustainability and reflection.

Seniors Move

Gabriel Fuentes, a senior BS-RHSC major, had previously volunteered at SunRidge at Cambria where he noticed a need for more physical activities for the elderly residents. Fuentes and his group collaborated with the facility’s activities director to engage residents in chair Tai chi.

For five weeks on Friday and Saturday mornings, residents followed the slow and easy routines featured on Tai chi exercise videos from the safety of their chairs. Residents with limited mobility were able to engage in the health and wellness benefits of Tai chi without the risk of falling down.

“We picked Tai chi because we know that the residents have mobility issues due to the aging process,” said Corina Madrid, a BS-RHSC senior. “They have assistive devices so most of the time they wouldn’t get as much physical activity because they’re just sitting. We wanted to increase (their physical activity) with Tai chi. They’re still sitting down, but they’re still moving.”

Madrid estimated that the group spent about $75 to print flyers and to purchase the videos, which the senior living facility still uses to offer classes twice a week.

Coffee Cart Friday

While $100 seemed like enough money to cover expenses, most of the groups relied on donations to pay for items.

For “Coffee Cart Friday” at Tippin Elementary School, BS-RHSC students such as Jozelyn Rascon, reached out to vendors in the community for discounts on coffee bags and supplies. The group received a 50% discount on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and Southwestern Mill Distributors donated 1,000 disposable coffee cups and lids.

The UTEP students designed the project to help 11 children in the school’s special education program build social and life skills through their delivery of coffee to teachers on Friday mornings.

“We felt that it was very important for everyone to see students of all different abilities,” Rascon said. “I feel that the fact that the (students with special needs) got to go into the classrooms and introduce themselves was something that they might have lacked. Students (in the special education program) are in a different classroom where they don’t get to interact with other students. So, we thought that this would help them develop more confidence and social skills.”

Progressive Community Night

One of the goals of the $100 Solution was for students to make a sustainable difference in the community.

That is why social work students collaborated with Fabens Middle School to host two Progressive Community Nights. The first night was an opportunity for community residents to learn about voter registration and the census. The second night brought the community together to enjoy “Toy Story 4,” hot chocolate and popcorn.

Fabens, located 35 miles from campus in southeast El Paso County, does not have a movie theater and, for many of the children, it was the first time they saw a movie in a “theater” setting. A donor helped the school purchase a movie license that will enable the school to convert its gymnasium into a movie theater for the community once a month.

“The $100 Solution projects support students who are passionate about service learning to work together on projects that enhance the community,” Moya said. “These projects demonstrate how a small amount of resources can enhance lives and engage students early in their careers. These are high-impact educational experiences.”

Social work students also established the first Little Free Libraries in Fabens, which allow children and adults to exchange books for free.

Sarah Carbajal, a junior social work major, said she noted how younger students benefitted from the project, to include how they saw higher education. The resident of Socorro, Texas, about 15 miles away from Fabens, said she understood the struggle to find transportation and entertainment in small towns. She said the work UTEP students did helped the middle school students understand that there is a larger world outside of Fabens.

“I live in Socorro and I do understand the struggle of finding transportation and finding entertainment,” Carbajal said. “I feel like this project did help to impact the kids. I noticed that they were saying, ‘Oh, My Gosh, they have UTEP students here today!’ So, I think that this did impact the way they see education. Therefore, I like the idea of being able to show these (middle school) students that there is more than just life in Fabens. There’s lots of opportunities.”

Author: Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications

KTEP GM to retire after 36 Years with NPR Station

Pat Piotrowski, general manager of KTEP-FM (88.5), joked that one of the main things that he looks forward to in retirement is the opportunity to enjoy inclement weather because the specter of lightning, snowstorms and high winds have weighed on him since he took over the station in 1999.

Starting Jan. 1, 2020, he plans to sit back and enjoy Mother Nature without the need to worry about how the elements could affect the staff or equipment at the 100,000-watt National Public Radio station for the Southwest housed on the ground floor of The University of Texas at El Paso’s Cotton Memorial Building.

“Those are the main times when we need to be there,” Piotrowski said in reference to the station that will turn 70 next September. He has been with KTEP for 36 of those years. “We need to let the audience know what’s going on.”

The El Paso native will leave KTEP at a time of growth in audience share and underwriting, also known as program sponsorship. He reflected on his career from his small, neat corner office decorated with plaques and mementos of a successful run. The self-described introvert said the thing he will miss most are the people and the students.

“The right staff makes a station come to life,” Piotrowski said. “They create the magic. It’s not the equipment. It’s the people.”

Maria Rubio, the station’s business manager for the past 23 years, praised Piotrowski for his management style. She said he was “easy going,” but held staff accountable. He trusted people to do their jobs.

“We’re a family; sometimes a dysfunctional family, but a family,” she said with a laugh. Most of the current staff has been together for two decades or more. “He’s been a great boss. We’re going to miss him.”

Friends and co-workers called him patient, methodical, analytical and organized – he supposedly had a contingency plan filed for everything – as well as a caring and respected leader. Piotrowski boasted that it probably would take 12 people to do the job of his six paid staffers, who have almost 140 years of combined broadcasting and administrative experience.

The station’s programming has brought in a solid listenership that has grown in the past five years, according to the Nielsen ratings. KTEP attracts about 57,000 listeners per week compared to 42,000 in 2014. The 2019 numbers are the largest on record.

Joe Torres, who served as the station’s development director from 2001 through 2013, said Piotrowski’s attention to detail made him successful. He mastered many facets of the radio station, especially technology, but he surrounded himself with others whose expertise elevated the station as a whole.

“He was a stabilizing influence at the station and an excellent administrator,” Torres said. “I hate to see him leave. He will be tough to replace.”

Piotrowski grew up in an Army family that lived in Northeast El Paso and listened to a variety of music. An asthma-related illness during his middle school years forced him to be home schooled for a few months, during which he became a serious radio listener.

“The radio was my connection to the world,” he said. “The deejays became my friends. They communicated with the listeners. They were creative, had distinct personalities and shared their love of music.”

At different parts of his life, he studied musical instruments, but he preferred to buy records and play them on his stereo system. He constantly tried to improve its sound quality with components he would buy at Radio Shack.

“I wasn’t interested in scales, and didn’t have the patience to learn,” he said. “I wanted immediate results. I decided I could play a turntable and had an ear for music so I would become a rock and roll deejay.”

He started at UTEP in fall 1981 as a broadcast production major. By his sophomore year, he was a student volunteer at KVOF-AM (640), which served the campus dorms. Piotrowski saw it as fun, and as a valuable opportunity to learn about radio station operations. From there he joined KTEP where he became a “studio rat” who spent every free moment at the station to learn about audio and station responsibilities. He earned a late night jazz show when he was a junior and station management hired him as a 19-hour a week work-study in June 1984. He graduated a year later.

As a senior, he found weekend deejay jobs at a popular country station and a rock station that was home to the legendary Steve Crosno. With each job, the introvert honed the necessary soft and technical skills that would make him a more marketable candidate for the next job.

A former Department of Communication chairperson offered him a teaching assistant job, but Piotrowski needed to enroll at UTEP so he pursued a second bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering to learn about transmitters. It was great experience, but he switched after 2-1/2 years to pursue his Master of Communication degree, which he earned in 1992. The station created a full-time position for him in 1988 and he became the morning traffic director who also had a jazz show. He learned from the station’s operations director, the person who handles the volunteers and programming, and took over that position in 1990. The same year he became a lecturer in the Department of Communication. He continues to teach the “Audio in Media” course, which used to focus on radio but today is more about film, television and the internet. Piotrowski became the interim general manager in spring 1999 and the University promoted him to the permanent post the following fall.

Jesus Pimental, lead audio communications specialist at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut, took Piotrowski’s audio course and found a kindred spirit. The El Paso native graduated from UTEP in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in digital media production.

“What I remember about Pat is that he would never give me a straight answer,” Pimentel said during a phone interview. His questions involved microphone quality, microphone placement and recording devices. “He wanted me to find the answer. I had to do the work. In the end, it was a better way for me. He challenged me to find the answer. It made me more reliant on myself.”

Piotrowski said he and his wife of 23 years, Gloria, an elementary school band director in the Ysleta Independent School District, plan to stay in El Paso.

He said he plans to spend more time with family, especially extended family, as well as with his hobbies. He wants to catalog his extensive music and sports card collections, as well as read more books, work on his photography and enjoy baseball spring training in Arizona.

His advice to the person who has to hire the next GM is to look for a people person who can handle a diverse and talented staff, which is not as easy as it may sound.

“We’re quirky,” Piotrowski said of the staff. “Show me a successful station that isn’t.”

Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications

UTEP recognized for Innovation in ‘Lifelong Learning and Serving Community’

The University of Texas at El Paso’s Professional and Public Programs (P3) recently won the Learning Resources Network’s (LERN) Best Management Practice award.

The international award recognizes innovation in the field of lifelong learning and serving communities. It was presented last month at LERN’s annual conference in San Diego, which was attended by 800 professionals in lifelong learning from five countries.

UTEP’s P3 offers a vast selection of high-quality, continuing education classes for personal enrichment, professional development and academic growth. The programs offered include camps for children, professional development opportunities for teachers, and classes teaching new skills or hobbies for the general public.

P3 is a component of UTEP’s Extended University, the University’s hub for online and other nontraditional academic programs.

“We are proud, but not surprised, that P3 brought home a LERN award for Best Management Practice,” says Beth Brunk-Chavez, Ph.D., dean of Extended University.

“Not only is P3 to be commended for their agility, innovation, and growth, but also for approaching their lifelong learning work with a positive attitude that impacts the members of the UTEP and El Paso community who come in contact with them.”

William A. Draves, the president of LERN, said, “With more than 100 award nominations every year, earning an International Award is an outstanding achievement. With the demand for programs to do more with less, there is a need and emphasis for improved operational procedures to create internal efficiencies, reduce costs and improve program delivery.

“The initiative involved three prongs – restructuring for efficiency, staff training innovations, and thirdly a whole series of staff manuals on administration, operations, programming and youth programs. The result was a more financially independent program, agile, positioned for growth and recognized as an asset to the larger institutions.”

UTEP Professor named a 2019 National Academy of Inventors Fellow

Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., director and founder of The University of Texas at El Paso’s W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, has been named a National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellow.

Wicker, the MacIntosh Murchison Chair I Professor in Mechanical Engineering, is the second UTEP faculty member to be named an NAI Fellow.

The honor recognizes Wicker’s “spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society,” according to the NAI’s announcement. He will be inducted into the NAI with 167 others on April 10, 2020, during a ceremony in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Ryan Wicker has been at the forefront of our fast-growing research efforts in additive manufacturing,” UTEP President Heather Wilson said. “He has fostered an entrepreneurial research climate that makes UTEP a vital component of the fourth largest manufacturing region in North America. We congratulate him on his membership in the National Academy of Inventors.”

Wicker has spent his entire academic career at UTEP. Since his arrival in 1994, he has taught 10 courses related to engineering and manufacturing, including courses not previously taught at UTEP. He holds 18 U.S. patents, some of which are currently utilized in the technological development of the Keck Center.

The Keck Center has employed hundreds of student researchers, many who are now leaders in the additive manufacturing industry.

“I am honored to be recognized as a 2019 Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, a testament of the entrepreneurial culture of The University of Texas at El Paso and within the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation,” Wicker said.

“By engaging the next generation of diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, the Keck Center is advancing additive manufacturing and enhancing the vitality of American industry. As a native El Pasoan, I am a humble participant in an innovative research enterprise in which my students are not just spectating, but rather, advancing the future of manufacturing and reinvigorating the local economy.”

Election to NAI Fellow is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors. To date, NAI Fellows hold more than 41,500 issued U.S. patents, which have generated more than 11,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 36 million jobs, according to the organization.

In addition, more than $1.6 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.

“I am so impressed by the caliber of this year’s class of NAI Fellows, all of whom are highly regarded in their respective fields,” said NAI President Paul. R. Sanberg. “The breadth and scope of their discovery is truly staggering. I’m excited not only to see their work continue, but also to see their knowledge influence a new era of science, technology, and innovation worldwide.”

Russell Chianelli, Ph.D., a UTEP professor and researcher who holds more than 60 U.S. patents, was named a National Academy of Inventors Fellow in 2018.

Director of Engineering Ethics Organization delivers UTEP Centennial Lecture

Rosalyn W. Berne, Ph.D., visited El Paso for the first time Friday, December 13, 2019. She spent her inaugural stop in the Sun City discussing the intricacy of ethics in contemporary society as part of her Centennial Lecture address at The University of Texas at El Paso’s Undergraduate Learning Center.

Berne is an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as the director for the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society at the National Academy of Engineering. Her lecture, titled “Finding a Personal Ethics Compass in an Increasingly Unethical World,” brought into question the concepts upon which society bases its moral principles and the impact of contemporary social awareness on the future.

“What philosophy or institution has the capacity to guide us in making decisions about what is right and what is wrong as individuals?” Berne asked.

She presented Gallup poll data dating back to 2002, which gauged U.S. residents’ sentiment on the moral values of the country. In 2018, the poll that indicates 77% of respondents believed moral values are worsening compared with 18% who believe they are improving.

“There are many competing values at work in our political, economic, education, criminal justice systems, and even religious institutions,” she said. “Furthermore, those values are dynamic and subject to changing.”

She illustrated the fluctuation of priorities using examples within the American education system. Both the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) and Every Child Succeeds Act (2015) were created with the intention of providing all students a fair opportunity to obtain a higher education. But, ultimately, she said, the measures served to enforce achievement championing and standardization while penalizing schools with unsatisfactory scores rather than promoting progressive and engaging programs.

Berne elaborated on the world’s continual development of a majority consensus that it has evolved ideologically into a better global society. While she said the world is currently pressed to celebrate inclusion and diversity, especially of individuals that experience some form of disability, it was less than a century ago that the Third Reich promoted the sterilization of individuals deemed “mental defectives” in order to “eliminate neurotic disease from the European gene pool.”

“An ethical compass responds to the attractive forces of our own core values,” Berne said. “But social norms and culture have influence over individual behavior and control one’s personal moral compass.

“One definition of an ethical compass is an internal compass that becomes a core of strength and assurance when your life’s journey takes you into uncharted territory,” Berne said, before imparting her personal difficulty in discovering what moral principles and values she upheld most when she discovered she was going to give birth to an anencephalic child. The story of her struggle and conflict capitulated upon the complexity of determining where one’s values truly lie.

In closing, Berne turned to the audience and asked, “Are we losing our moral values in this country?”

She conceded it is a question that may never truly receive an answer, as contemporary attitudes are ever-evolving. But, she said, “Perhaps the more important question for the posters next time is not about America’s state of morality, but rather how well our own moral compasses are functioning.”

Author:  Julian Herrera – UTEP Communications

UTEP’s Dr. Skateboard pictures novel way to teach

A longtime professor at The University of Texas at El Paso known for his academic creativity has taken a two-dimensional approach to make STEM concepts relevant and relatable to middle school students.

William Robertson, Ph.D., professor of teacher education, has written a 24-page “graphic novel,” or comic book, to give teachers another tool to demonstrate principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “Dr. Skateboard’s Action Science: Simple Machines” is the first of a four-part series to be produced in English and Spanish. The main character is Dr. Skateboard, a persona that Robertson developed in 2000 to promote science education.

The UTEP professor, who has ridden a skateboard for more than 40 years, said that the comic is a curriculum supplement that could benefit students from the upper elementary grades through high school. In the past, he has produced Action Science videos of performers who use skateboards and BMX (bicycle motocross) bikes to demonstrate STEM education principles.

In the first comic, published in August 2019, Dr. Skateboard narrates and demonstrates, along with a few friends with a bike or skateboard, a number of simple machines such as levers and inclined planes that highlight physics concepts. The same characters will explore the notions of force, motion and Newton’s Laws of Motion in future books.

“My hope is that this comic inspires and engages the students and motivates them to learn about STEM concepts that are part of everyday life; things they like to do,” Robertson said. “If we can excite the students about school and make them college ready, we’ll be successful.”

Juliette Caire, executive director of UTEP’s GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), has worked with Robertson for more than 10 years and praised his imagination and dedication to promote science among secondary educators.

She said Robertson told her in July 2019 about his comic book concept and she ordered 3,000 of the books for GEAR UP, a national program funded by the U.S. Department of Education to help middle school students from low-income families prepare for college. The most recent grant was for a collaboration with the Ysleta Independent School District so she distributed the books among nine YISD middle schools. Caire said the books are a more relevant way to reach that age group.

“They like and appreciate comic books and can learn from them,” said Caire, who joined GEAR UP in 2001. “This is good for teachers, too. It reinforces what they do in math and science.”

Nichole Saucedo, an eighth-grade science teacher at Eastwood Middle School, said she planned to share the graphic novel with her students before winter break and added that it would help them with science concepts that often are difficult to understand.

She said the colorful comic book is a fun way for students to incorporate their prior knowledge and experiences and make connections to science. She said she liked that the book focused more on graphics than words, which will help some of her non-native English speakers.

“Any time you can tie into someone’s interests is beneficial,” said Saucedo, who earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from UTEP in 2009. “Those who enjoy what they’re doing will be more involved.”

She looked forward to the other issues in the series, which will fit in with her curriculum.

“Those future books are going to be awesome,” she said.

Robertson said he had noted a growing trend amongst educators in the use of graphic novels during the past decade, but the focus usually was the literary arts and not science. He wanted to pursue the project about four years ago, but put it on hold as he took on different administrative tasks in the College of Education, which included an assignment as interim dean for one year.

When he rejoined the faculty in fall 2018, he informally floated the comic book idea with the leaders in UTEP’s Creative Studios, who assigned the project to Tania Sanchez, a senior mathematical sciences major, graphic designer and a fellow skateboarder. The team created the storyboards during the spring 2019 semester. In September, he used his graphic novel as part of a professional development workshop with 30 YISD middle school teachers and the book’s active learning approach got a positive response.

“This models a creative way instructors can teach physics, which is difficult to learn for both teachers and students,” Robertson said. “The teachers appreciate the alternative resources for student-centered, active learning physical science instruction.”

Sanchez, an El Paso native who joined Creative Studios in 2016, said she learned a lot from this collaborative project as an artist and as a skateboarder.

“It was a nice experience for me because I was able to tap into things I know and enjoy,” she said. “I also think my work got better as an artist from my line work to my selection of color to my attention to detail.”

Sanchez also said the students would benefit from the book.

“I think the book will grab their attention,” she said. “Even if they are not interested in science, I think they will find the comic enjoyable.”

Robertson said his next comic, “Forces,” and the Spanish version of “Simple Machines” are ready to go. He plans to share his use of comic books in a presentation at the Lilly Conference – Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning in February 2020 in San Diego, California. To finish the spring 2020 semester, Robertson plans to lead a team of Action Science performers to the nine YISD campuses in May 2020 to offer demonstrations of physical science principles.

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications

UTEP awards first Interdisciplinary Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience

Nina Beltran capped an undergraduate degree milestone for The University of Texas at El Paso during last weekend’s 2019 Winter Commencement festivities.

When she walked across the stage during the first of four Commencement ceremonies in the Don Haskins Center, she became UTEP’s first graduation candidate to collect a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.

The interdisciplinary bachelor of science degree, which is housed under the Department of Psychology, is the latest in a growing stable of interdisciplinary degrees offered by the University. It came to fruition through the collaborative efforts of Robert A. Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science; Denis O’Hearn, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts; the University Provost’s Office, and Eddie Castañeda, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology.

“The bachelor of science in neuroscience combines the best of several worlds, in this case, basic science to look at the cellular and molecular level aspects of the brain and psychology to examine behavior, which together form the complex interactions of brain function” Kirken said.

“This is another example of how UTEP continues to increase access to innovative programs and provides excellence through the academic preparation our students receive, enabling them to apply to medical, dental or graduate school, or pursue careers in the fields of biomedical research or allied health science,” O’Hearn said.

For Beltran, the feat marks the culmination of efforts initiated after witnessing a family member struggle with epilepsy. Beltran’s curiosity about the condition led to forays into biology, chemistry, physics and psychology courses. Those distinct interests were supported by Katherine Serafine, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, who is one of the burgeoning program’s strongest advocates. Serafine directs UTEP’s Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory and worked closely with Beltran for three years.

“This is an interdisciplinary field of study and Nina is the perfect example of an interdisciplinary neuroscience student who took extensive coursework in biology, chemistry and psychology – and engaged in UTEP Edge activities including leading several experiments within the laboratory,” Serafine said. “She is truly a testament to UTEP’s mission of access and excellence.”

Beltran expressed gratitude for Serafine’s tutelage and lauded UTEP’s efforts to establish the new degree. She hopes to pursue her doctorate in pharmacology after graduation.

“I am truly honored to be the first graduate to represent the interdisciplinary bachelor of science degree in neuroscience,” Beltran said. “I am also thrilled that future students will now have this option to pursue this pathway in their undergraduate career to ultimately enhance future careers in related biomedical fields.”

O’Hearn said Beltran’s accomplishment opens doors not only for students but faculty members as well.

“We are excited about this new degree for many reasons,” O’Hearn said. “For the students, it provides a new combination of approaches from the sciences and the behavioral sciences, which should put them in a great position to move on, for example, to graduate programs or even to medical school. For our faculty, it is a new opportunity to create new alliances both in teaching and in research.”

Students interested in learning more about the bachelor of science in neuroscience can contact Bruce Cushing, Ph.D., chair and Larry P. Jones Distinguished Professor Department of Biological Science at bcushing@utep.edu.

By Darlene Barajas – UTEP Communications

Army Futures Command General visits UTEP to learn about research capabilities

Gen. John M. Murray, commanding general of the U.S. Army Futures Command, and other Army representatives visited The University of Texas at El Paso on Monday, December 16, to learn more about the University’s capabilities in engineering and science research.

Murray toured facilities and spoke with faculty researchers about advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, cyber security, quantum computing and counter-unmanned aerial systems, among other topics.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, who has been a strong supporter of UTEP and its research, also participated in the tour and discussions.

“UTEP has done exceptional research work for the Army for many years,” said UTEP President Heather Wilson. “Today we explored how we might increase the research we do for the Army on some of their toughest and most important problems.”

Murray is the first commanding general of the U.S. Army Futures Command, headquartered in Austin, Texas. The U.S. Army Futures Command orchestrates the Army modernization efforts to provide the best available technology to its warfighters.

He was accompanied by Wilson, Escobar, Vice President for Research Roberto Osegueda, College of Science Dean Robert Kirken, College of Engineering Dean Theresa Maldonado, and several UTEP faculty researchers.

“Army Futures Command is focused on modernizing our Army to ensure our soldiers have what they need in the future … and in the ‘future after that,'” Murray said. “To get that right, and to stay ahead, we’re drawing on the very best cutting-edge science and technology … from advanced materials and artificial intelligence to hypersonics. Our leading research universities around the nation are part of our overall effort.”

“Today is a great opportunity to explore the great work UTEP is doing and how that research might be able to help the Army solve problems. We’re grateful to Rep. Escobar, and President Wilson, for making this visit possible,” Murray added.

Army General John M. Murray visits UTEP and is escorted by President Wilson, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar and co.,Monday, December 16, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre/UTEP Communications

Former Top Intelligence Official Delivers Centennial Lecture

Susan M. Gordon, the former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence chronicled the trials and successes of her extensive career in the intelligence community (IC) in her Centennial Lecture, titled “How I Joined the CIA,” on Monday, December 9, 2019, to a captivated crowd in the Undergraduate Learning Center.

“We are going to have to create anew,” Gordon said. “This is a world where we are not going to be able to draft off of our predecessors. It is a different enough world because it is different technology and digital connectedness and massive data, and we are going to have to be able to do the same vision differently.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in zoology (biomechanics) from Duke University, Gordon began a career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a tenure in which she held a number of executive leadership positions throughout the course of 27 years.

“Every innovation requires giving up on one or more fixed points. You cannot change and keep everything the same,” Gordon said.

In her address, Gordon explained that she was approached with the task of configuring the cyber aspect of the agency before the concept of cyber was able to be properly defined, and she accepted without hesitation. In 1998, she conceived and developed In-Q-Tel, a private nonprofit whose primary purpose was to deliver innovative technology solutions for the agency and the IC.

She credits her success to the ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. She assessed that the quality that differentiates leaders and innovators is being capable of making decisions and accepting the consequences.

“My way of doing it is deciding that you can bear the consequences of being wrong,” Gordon said. “If you can, go ahead and make the decision, and if you can’t, then do more work.”

Gordon contends that the success she has experienced in her developments can be attributed to the diversity of her collaborators.

“In times of great adversity is the opportunity for great inclusion,” she said, adding that her work is a testament to the success of creating a workforce of diverse perspectives to develop insightful and comprehensive ideas.

As Gordon reflected on the various unexpected turns that her life took throughout her career, she implored the students in attendance to consider the ramifications of the work they do today on the paths they take in the future.

“You don’t always know what the path is going to look like. You can’t spend your whole life aiming at something in the future,” she said. “Be completely committed to the present, then acquire the knowledge you need to do it well.”

Author: Julian Herrera – UTEP Communications

UTEP encourages generosity through ‘Pick a Project’ Crowdfunding Platform

The University of Texas at El Paso is providing the community with a new way to come together to support a specific cause. Similar to crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe and KickStarter, UTEP’s Pick A Project platform supports an array of campus initiatives through crowd-based giving.

UTEP’s Office of Institutional Advancement launched Pick A Project as an additional fundraising channel to give interested donors opportunities to impact a range of UTEP’s unique and diverse research projects, student initiatives, and campus activities, through tax-deductible donations.

The crowdfunding platform went live December 3with four projects. Each project is managed by a project-specific student, faculty and/or staff group, and donors, alumni and friends can share projects through their own social media accounts, as well as track progress to help generate even greater support for their favorites.

Each project will have an established goal to be fully funded, with the initial four hoping to reach their goals in 45 days. New projects will post on the site regularly, and donations can be made using a convenient and secure online form.

Jim Senter, UTEP’s director of athletics and interim vice president of institutional advancement, said the impetus for Pick A Project began when UTEP realized our alumni and friends have varying interests and want the ability to support exciting initiatives throughout the campus. With this comes the enjoyment from interacting digitally and supporting specific needs.

“Pick A Project empowers people to get involved by sharing the projects they have supported and enjoyed and make an impact on student, faculty, and staff initiatives that can be fully funded through the power of collective giving,” Senter said.

Faculty, staff or student groups interested in hosting a project should submit an application via this website.

The launch of Pick A Project has been coordinated in conjunction with Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage giving and to celebrate generosity worldwide.

UTEP Receives $1M Grant to develop advanced materials to withstand extreme environments

The University of Texas at El Paso was awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop advanced high-electrical strength materials for extreme environment applications.

The grant’s principal investigator is Ramana Chintalapalle, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering and director of UTEP’s Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) Center for Advanced Materials Research. Together with co-PI Arturo Bronson, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, the pair will lead graduate and undergraduate students in the research effort as part of a technical program under the supervision of the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

“The challenging problem the scientific and engineering community is currently facing in this 21st century is the design, discovery and development of novel functional materials, which will have an impact on the next generation aerospace applications,” Chintalapalle said.

The Center for Advanced Materials Research works on fostering next-generation materials research by a team of faculty with engineering and science students from diverse backgrounds, through collaborations with an existing Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The center’s main focus is on energy and biomaterials in its mission to enhance the participation and advanced degree attainment of underrepresented minority students in materials science and engineering.

Anil Krishna, Ph.D., a graduate research associate, said the grant will help students working in the PREM Center for Advanced Materials Research to extend their abilities and knowledge.

“Being employed by the program gives us real life experience and allows students to gain tremendous relevant experience,” Krishna said. “This will be very helpful for students who go on to different industries or national laboratories or academics where they can implement what they learned here.”

This grant will help with the development of an advanced atomic layer deposition (ALD) system to produce simple and complex electronic, optical and optoelectronic materials with a high structural and chemical quality, and enhanced functional device performance. This will result in materials that can maintain structure and performability in extreme environments, where thermal stresses, thermo-chemical reactions and phase transformations are often present.

While the primary area of research is to realize the unique nanostructures of high electrical strength materials, the system will immediately impact associated ongoing studies involving high-temperature alloys, simple/complex ceramics, and metal/ceramic composites relevant to the high-power electronics and optoelectronics in defense and aerospace technologies. Faculty, staff and students from UTEP’s Center for Advanced Materials Research will be the first on campus to produce materials through ALD and investigate a wide variety of materials for defense-related applications.

“The ultimate goal of the project will be using the advanced ALD system to fabricate unique materials, especially under nonequilibrium, and understanding the interplay between processing conditions, microstructure and optical/electronic properties,” Chintalapalle said.

UT Regents approve $70m Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Aerospace at UTEP

The University of Texas System Board of Regents today approved $70 million in funding for a major new facility at The University of Texas at El Paso that will house its growing research and teaching program in additive manufacturing.

The funding also will improve UTEP’s test facilities for rocket engines and drones currently located in East El Paso County.

“El Paso/Juárez is the fourth largest manufacturing region in North America,” UTEP President Heather Wilson said. “The support of the Regents for this project will help us educate the next generation of engineers and expand the research we are doing in advanced manufacturing.”

The Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Aerospace will substantially increase the number of students engaged in advanced manufacturing and aerospace research, with plans to train more than 600 graduate and undergraduate students annually to create unparalleled employment opportunities for students upon graduation.

“UTEP’s current advanced manufacturing and aerospace education and research infrastructure is at capacity,” said Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., founder of the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation. “This decision by the Board of Regents is a strong testament to the caliber of our research, our technical strength, and the ability to meet the workforce needs of the 21st century.”

UTEP is a national leader in additive manufacturing using specialty materials and embedding electronics in 3D-printed materials. The University has completed advanced research in this field during the past decade worth more than $100 million sponsored by NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

UTEP also conducts significant research work with NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies on rocket propulsion, unmanned aerial vehicles, spacecraft design and aircraft safety.

The aerospace and manufacturing industries will need more than 10,000 engineers over the next few years just to maintain the current workforce.

The number of engineering students enrolled at UTEP has increased by more than 30% during the past five years, with over 4,300 students enrolled in engineering alone.

UTEP Center receives TxDoT $600k grant to develop Sustainable Street Surface

The University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Transportation Infrastructure Systems (CTIS) was recently awarded a $600,000 grant from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to implement the concept of balanced mix design (BMD) in the construction of flexible street surfaces throughout the state.

The grant’s co-principal investigators include Soheil Nazarian, Ph.D., professor of civil engineering; Imad Abdallah, Ph.D., research associate professor of civil engineering and CTIS executive director; and Victor Garcia, CTIS research associate.

The trio are joined by doctoral student Prathmesh Jickhar, master’s student Denis Vieira, and 14 undergraduates who are gaining firsthand experience on the implementation of BMD, which develops asphalt using performance tests on appropriately conditioned specimens that address multiple modes of distress that consider aging, traffic, climate and location within pavement structure.

“The main outcome is not only envisioned to be a new generation of high-quality pavement materials but also young civil engineering students who are currently being exposed to challenging concepts,” Abdallah said.

TxDOT and the Texas Asphalt Pavement Association are engaged in a cooperative research effort to actively implement the BMD concept on street surfaces.

Several sites will be selected from participating TxDOT districts to validate the testing requirements and design specifications for BMDs recently developed through an ongoing research project at CTIS.

The test sites will be comprehensively investigated and monitored by UTEP, and the Center for Transportation Research from The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute for at least three years.

“This cooperative research effort is a new platform for DOTs, industry and academic institutions to engineer innovative and sustainable solutions for providing more durable and long-lasting pavements,” Garcia said.

TxDOT is currently responsible for maintaining approximately 197,000 lane-miles of highway infrastructure. With the implementation of the BMD concept, a cost-savings of approximately $75 million annually is expected if the performance of the roadways and mix design process is improved by 5%.

“This project is expected to revolutionize the design and construction process of flexible pavements,” Nazarian said.

Click here for more information on UTEP’s Center for Transportation Infrastructure Systems (CTIS)

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