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UTRGV Engaged Scholar Symposium, Edinburg Campus, highlights student research, service learning, creative works

UTRGV students on Friday attended the Engaged Student 2016 Symposium on the Edinburg Campus. Chemistry student Brenda Gonzales (at right) discusses her research project with Kiana Garcia. (UTRGV photo by Paul Chouy)

By Gail Fagan

EDINBURG, TEXAS – APRIL 22, 2016 – Sophomore Emily Cole and junior Catarina Gutierrez, both students at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, work with brain cancer cells in their Edinburg Campus lab. They look at Parkinson’s and other diseases of the brain, including potential treatments for brain cancer.

“We are particularly looking at glioma, a very aggressive form of cancer with a low survival rate. In our lab, the treatment we have been testing is a traditional herbal remedy that has been used for a long time in India and in other parts of Asia. The plant is called Cissus quadrangularis, or CQ,” Cole said.

“We are trying to find the active component in it and deliver it at a higher concentration,” Gutierrez said.

Cole and Gutierrez are two of more than 100 students who participated in UTRGV’s Engaged Scholar Symposium held April 21 on the Brownsville Campus and April 22 on the Edinburg Campus.

The symposium showcased the talents of students in the areas of research, service learning and creative works through oral and poster presentations and displays, which were judged by faculty.

The event was hosted by the Engaged Scholarship and Learning Office of Student Academic Success, directed by Dr. Robert Dearth, assistant professor of biology.

“There is a large amount of literature showing that students who are engaged in experiential learning – service learning, research, internships and seminars, for example – have more successful academic careers. These types of activities contribute to increased retention rates, decreased time to graduation and improvement in the classroom,” Dearth said.

In a morning symposium keynote address, Dr. David W. Hicks, director of UTRGV’s School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences, told students about the programs the school offers, described some of the research projects students are participating in, particularly in coastal and marine sciences, and touted some of the resources UTRGV offers – like the Coastal Studies Lab on South Padre Island and the water vessels used in classroom study and diving. He also showed an underwater video taken by a student, showing some of the life near the reefs they study.

“Our students are working on anything from putting sonar tags on fish to track their movement on artificial reefs, to using a remotely operated vehicles to studying reefs and corals and using genetics to see how reefs and corals are connected across the Gulf of Mexico,” Hicks said.

Creative art projects were on display outside near the Student Academic Center, where the posters were neatly posted on boards and students eagerly explained their research.

Jesus Garza, who worked on one of four research projects overseen by Dr. Teresa Feria, associate professor biology, pointed out findings in his research, titled “Distribution of Dichanthium Anulatum: Comparative Analysis Native vs. Invaded Regions.”

Garza, an international student studying biology, along with fellow student Jessica A. Tanguma, learned ArcGIS geomapping technology to display the ranges of the grass Dichanthium anulatum, also called Kleberg Bluestem, which is native to Africa but was brought to South Texas and Mexico for use as cattle feed.

“We are trying to see how the grass has adapted to this area,” he said of the invasive plant, which even grows nearby on Schunior Street adjacent to the Edinburg Campus.

“This is the first time I have done real research and I really like it,” said Garza, who hopes to work in Department of Ecology in Mexico.

In their service learning project poster, Jennifer Gomez, a biology pre-med major, and three fellow freshmen described how they helped a local nonprofit organization, Earth Angels Foundation, create a video to promote an upcoming fashion show in which special needs children will be modeling.

Gomez said the experience of working with an organization that addresses the needs of Valley families with special-needs children was eye-opening.

“They touched our heart. We filmed at the McAllen Convention Center and we made the girls’ night. One mother said her daughter had so much fun she slept in her tiara,” Gomez said. “It opened my eyes to appreciate so much more in life.”

A recognition ceremony held during the symposium highlighted the top 5 percent of the poster presentations based on their scores, and the top service learning project presented. The service learning award went to Equality Furr All – Lee R. Cantu, Cassandra Chapa, Leslie Perez, Claudia Cancino and Brandon Ramirez.

The undergraduate research honorees were:

  • Hard Science: Kareem Wahid, Madhab Pokhrel and Yaunbing Mao, “Structural and Optical Characterization of Eu3+ Doped La2Hf207 Nanoparticles”
  • Hard Science: Aryana M. Ibarra, Illeana Lozano, I’say Villarreal, and Ramiro Patino, “Temperature is a Determinant in the Distribution of Chagas Disease Vectors from Texas”
  • Humanities/Social Science: Princess Rodarte, “Saving the San Marcos River”
  • Humanities/Social Science: Cesar Cepeda, “The Leviathan in Francoism”
  • Engineering/Technology/Computer Science: Gabriel F. Lopez, Sonia Parra, and Rebecca Richards-Kortum, “Single Board Computer, High-Resolution Micro Endoscope for Point of Care Cancer Detection (PI-HRME)”
  • Business/Education/Health: Melissa Marie Mendoza, “Chemistry in the Classroom: Does a Teacher’s Empathy Effect a Student’s Self-Efficacy to Achieve Academic Excellence?”

During the ceremony, UTRGV unveiled its new online tool – titled Engagement Zone – which will help students connect with community partners in need. The site was brought about through the collaboration of the Offices of Community Relations, Engaged Scholarship and Learning, Student Academic Success, and Student Involvement, in partnership with many community partners throughout the Valley.

The online portal pairs students with service opportunities that are best suited for their courses, passions and interests. Students can log service hours and provide comments on their service experiences, and community partners can enter their events and needs for students who can assist them.

“The platform will truly aid us as we aim to become a university that is recognized for its efforts in community engagement and outreach and partnerships and will streamline the process of documenting and assessing engagement on campus,” said Cristina Trejo, assistant vice president for Community Engagement and Assessment.

The inaugural Distinguished Community Partner Award was presented to Eduardo “Eddie” Olivarez, chief administrative officer for the Hidalgo County Department of Health and Human Services. The award recognizes the efforts of individuals and community agencies who offer engaged scholarship and learning opportunities for UTRGV students, while addressing the needs of the community.

There are plans to display the winning posters on the Edinburg Campus for a week, at a yet unannounced location and date. For more information, contact Sarah Stegall, assistant director, Office of Engaged Scholarship & Learning, at (956) 665-3146 or

MEDIA CONTACTS UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications
956-665-2742 UTRGV Director of Public Relations