Photos courtesy UTEP

UTEP Student Researchers present at Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol

Kenji Santacruz readily admits he was awestruck when he opened an email from The University of Texas at El Paso Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) informing him that he would have an audience with the state legislature to showcase his work during the 2021 Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol on February 23-24, 2021.

The senior electrical engineering major joins Jacob Hooper, a senior biological sciences major, as the 10th and 11th students to represent UTEP since the biennial event began in 2011.

“There were so many other students that applied, and I didn’t expect to be chosen,” Santacruz said.

Now in its sixth edition, the Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol is always scheduled to coincide with the state’s legislative session. Its purpose is to showcase the experiences of undergraduate students engaged in research for Texas legislators and the public through high-quality poster presentations.

Student presenters also have the opportunity to discuss their work individually with the state legislators who represent their districts.

“On behalf of the Texas Senate, we are honored to recognize your hard work and talent,” said Sen. Brandon Creighton, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education. “Higher education and our state’s economic future are inseparable. It is your hard work and dedication that will attract new businesses to the state and keep Texas number one.”

Because of the ongoing pandemic, this year’s event is virtual. And as it does in its physical format, the online version of the event highlights how research conducted by undergraduate students positively impacts Texas and its residents.

More than 60 research projects reflect the work of undergraduate students representing more than 30 academic and health-related institutions across Texas, including public and private or independent universities and colleges.

While the virtual experience may not be what students and organizers had hoped for, it does give the event the opportunity to reach a much wider audience, since anyone with a computer and an internet connection can “attend.”

Viewers have the opportunity to see a wide range of research posters accompanied by a brief description of the research. Many students also added video and audio descriptions of their research.

The theme this year is “Transforming Texas Through Undergraduate Research,” and the projects put forth by the participants from UTEP certainly have the potential to be transformative.

The purpose of Hooper’s project, titled “Isolation of Circulating Lung Tumor Endothelial Cells Using Microfluidic Device” is to find a new way to detect cancer, especially lung cancer, in earlier stages of its progression, and thus increase the chances of survival and recovery for patients. His mentor on the project is Taslim Al-Hilal, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy.

Hooper said this opportunity to present his work is an excellent example of the importance of undergraduate research for students.

“You’re always going need the skills you learn,” Hooper said. “The critical thinking and the discipline it takes to actually run an experiment are invaluable assets.”

Santacruz’s project also has the potential to have a direct impact on state policy. Titled “Tracking Renewable Energy Consumption in an Electricity Market,” it aims to give electricity consumers the ability to know exactly how much of their power is supplied by renewable energy resources, and to evaluate their level of environmental sustainability.

“I think that energy and renewable energy, and how to track it, is incredibly important,” said Santacruz, whose mentor is Yuanrui Sang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Especially now with the energy issues Texas has faced in recent days.”

The Undergraduate Research Day is organized by the Council of Public University Presidents and Chancellors (CPUPC) and Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, Inc. (ICUT).

“ICUT is proud to partner with CPUPC to host the 2021 Undergraduate Research Day,” said ICUT President, Steve Johnson.

“This year’s virtual event provides a unique opportunity for all to learn from student research and appreciate the skills developed by Texas institutions. We are thrilled to have thirteen ICUT member schools participating in this year’s event. Our member’s commitment to innovation in education grants students the flexibility and support to experiment, drive research, and foster learning.”

Posters will be available to view through February 24, via this link.