Monday, February 24, 2020
  Awards and Recognitions, Community

By Letty Fernandez

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – Elaijah Islam, a senior at the UTRGV Math and Science Academy (MSA), was named Grand Champion in the Senior Division at the RGV Regional Science and Engineering Fair, held Saturday, Feb. 15.

This is the fourth consecutive year a student from the UTRGV Mathematics and Science Academy has earned Grand Champion status.

The regional competition is cohosted by the UTRGV College of Engineering and Computer Science and the RGV Regional Science and Engineering Fair Committee.

More than 700 middle and high school students competed individually or in teams to present research in one of the 16 categories. To get to the regional competition, students conducted science and engineering research at their local schools and placed at their school district fairs.

UTRGV hosted the competition and outreach activities at six venues across the UTRGV Brownsville Campus.

Islam, of Edinburg, competed in the Energy: Physical and Chemical category with a project entitled Hybrid Triboelectric-Electromagnetic Nanogenerator for Energy Scavenging.

She said she is grateful for the guidance and mentoring provided by her advisor, Dr. Mohammed Uddin, UTRGV assistant professor in Chemistry, and the graduate students she worked with in the Photonics and Energy Research Lab.

“This win was not only for me, but for the monumental supporters in my life – my parents and the UTRGV MSA. I am filled with gratitude that I had the opportunity to learn about the importance of teamwork, especially in research, because I had great role models to collaborate with and help expand my knowledge,” said Islam, who plans to study medicine.

“I look forward to building on my research to present at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in California,” she said.

Alyssa Sepulveda, a senior from McAllen, was the first-place winner in the Microbiology category and first runner-up grand champion in the Senior Division. She and Islam will compete at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, May 10-15 in Anaheim, California.


The MSA program also is sending 13 students to the Texas Science and Engineering State Fair, March 27-28 in College Station. The students earned the trip after placing first through fourth at the regional competition.

  • Jinna Yoon, senior, Edinburg, first in Biomedical and Health Sciences.
  • Estrella Huerta, senior, Brownsville, and Susan Morales, senior, Brownsville, first and Special Award – third place Stockholm Junior Water Prize, Earth and Environmental Sciences.
  • Pablo Vidal, senior, McAllen, and Samya Ahsan, senior, Edinburg, first, Materials Science.
  • Maya Juarez, junior, Peñitas, and Thomas Saenz, junior, Edinburg, first, Plant Sciences.
  • Steven Betancourt, junior, Brownsville, Special Award – first, Stockholm Junior Water Prize, Environmental Engineering.
  • Maysam Daghestani, senior, McAllen, second, Biomedical Engineering and Translational Medical Science.
  • Dominique De Los Reyes, senior, Mission, third, Chemistry and Biochemistry.
  • Michelle Covarrubias, senior, Brownsville; Noor Karkoutly, senior, Brownsville; and Tara Hazarika, senior, Brownsville, fourth, Behavioral and Social Sciences.

Dr. Wilma Smetter, principal of the UTRGV Mathematics and Science Academy, said she is proud of all the MSA students who competed and advanced.

“They worked very hard to prepare,” she said. “We are also extremely proud that, for the fourth year in a row, a UTRGV Mathematics and Science Academy student has won the Grand Champion at this competition. This is a testament to the dedication of our students, their university mentors and the parents for supporting our students.”

This year was the 60th anniversary of the RGV Science Fair, which promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers to students of all ages in the Rio Grande Valley. In all, 128 students from Valley middle and high schools will represent the region at the state competition.

The top four projects in the senior division compete at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in May.

Area teachers helped students prepare their projects, and more than 100 individuals volunteered their time and expertise to serve as judges during the two-day regional event.

Many UTRGV faculty served as mentors to the MSA students or as competition judges. Dr. Karen Lozano, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the UTRGV College of Engineering and Computer Science, and other faculty also recruited a large group of graduate students to help judge Junior Division categories.

Dr. Roni Louise Rentfro, fair director for the 60th RGV RSEF, said a National Science Foundation grant supplement obtained by Dr. Karen Lozano allowed the fair to provide STEM outreach activities for students, parents and sponsors.

“Dr. Lozano’s efforts in attaining the grant supplement and organizing the outreach activities have made an 18-year-long dream come true. We are very appreciative,” Rentfro said.

For a complete list of winners, visit


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.