Two UTEP students receive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships

A pair of students from The University of Texas at El Paso who will pursue research-based doctoral degrees earned fellowship offers from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Isabel Barraza, a senior chemistry major, and Jaime E. Regis, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, were selected for the program, which supports outstanding undergraduate and graduate students who are or will be pursuing full-time research-based doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or in STEM education.

They will receive three years of support within a five-year fellowship period during their graduate education by proving they have “potential for significant research achievements.” The NSF estimates that 1,500 awards are made each year, with anticipated funding of $138,000 per award.

For Barraza, who will enter graduate school this fall at the University of California, Santa Barbara seeking her doctorate in chemistry, the fellowship presents the opportunity to be selective about her research endeavors.

The Eastlake High School graduate has a desire to pursue opportunities related to renewable energy research. She began undergraduate research as a freshman at UTEP as a member of the First Year Research Intensive Sequence (FYRIS) program, and she started volunteering in a formal research laboratory during her first semester.

Barraza was motivated to explore research experiences outside UTEP, which led her to a summer internship at Malawi Polytechnic in southeastern Africa developing water treatment technologies.

Back at UTEP, she earned a Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) scholarship, which allowed her to continue research focusing on energy conversion processes in the laboratory of Dino Villagrán, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry in UTEP’s College of Science.

Her interests in clean energy development led her to spend two summers at Stanford University and one semester at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, where she focused on studying catalysis and materials for energy conversion. She credits being able to take advantage of many of these opportunities to starting undergraduate research so early, something that she believes is unique and accessible at UTEP.

“For me, it’s such a great honor to be able to do this as a student from UTEP,” Barraza said. “That I was able to get this fellowship, which goes to the most competitive students across the nation, makes me happy. I am proud to represent UTEP as a Hispanic woman. The fact that I got it means I get to work with any professor I want. It frees me up from being a teaching assistant and it allows me to focus on my research and to further contribute to the community through outreach.”

For Regis, who will pursue his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at UTEP, the award is the continuation of a dream he once thought improbable. Regis described his desire to earn a college degree as a difficult task coming from modest means. But he persevered.

The Del Valle High School graduate, who was valedictorian of his class, arrived at UTEP with its Presidential Scholarship. He quickly found a passion for research through experiences with the Army High Performance Computing Research Center Summer Institute at Stanford University and with UTEP’s NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR).

Most recently, Regis has worked with a group led by Yirong Lin, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering, in the Functional and Energy Material Systems (FEMS) Lab, where he is developing functional composites fabricated through 3D printing.

Regis also dedicated time to tutoring peers at the university’s Advancement Center for Engineering students. He conducted outreach to the area’s K-12 students as part of the NSF’s Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) program. He hopes to continue doing outreach.

“To me, the idea of going to college had not always seemed very realistic,” Regis said. “Seeing that someone in the family made it through college has motivated my younger siblings to want to become something more. It is my pride and joy to know that I have changed their lives in such a significant way, and I want to light the way to more people just as I did with my younger siblings. Ultimately, if I can reach my career goal and become a STEM professor, I will impact many more students in minority communities and develop a pipeline for the next-generation STEM workforce.”