By Daniel Perez
Nadia Herrera enrolled at The University of Texas at El Paso in 2008 with a plan to become a lawyer, but a suggestion from her counselor put her on a different path. It is a path that highlights not only the upward trajectory of UTEP’s status as a national research institution, but also the heights students can reach in the care of faculty and staff dedicated to facilitating student success.
When Herrera graduated from Coronado High School’s International Baccalaureate program in El Paso, she had enough credits to enter UTEP as a sophomore. Her UTEP adviser noted Herrera’s lifelong love of science and suggested she study microbiology to pursue a pre-medical route. The first-generation college student did just that, while keeping her part-time sales job to pay for school before a different counselor suggested she become a volunteer research lab assistant.
A biochemistry professor, impressed by Herrera’s initiative, accepted her into his lab, which allowed her to apply for and earn fellowships that paid for her tuition. She added a second degree plan in biochemistry and was accepted to an internship at California Institute of Technology, where she furthered her love of research. She graduated with honors from UTEP in 2011 and went back to Caltech, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2017 in biochemistry and molecular biophysics. Today she is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, where she studies microbial pathogenesis. Her goal is to pursue a career in academia.
Her colleagues refer to the El Paso native as motivated, diligent and productive with a positive attitude and willingness to help. She appreciates the compliments, but shares much of the credit for her success with UTEP’s programs and professors who encourage students to dream big.
The institution has nurtured many like Nadia Herrera in the pursuit of research that has benefited UTEP students, the University, the Paso del Norte region and beyond. The steady, ever-increasing portfolio of research success, especially in the areas of education and health care, has driven UTEP into the upper echelons of national research institutions in the United States. The University’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning (CIERP) has studied UTEP’s rise and plotted its path under different projected scenarios. Researchers there believe that the institution’s impressive trajectory can continue.
During the past 30 years, UTEP has made a steady climb toward the top of the higher education hierarchy in the United States. At the top of this list of 6,000 institutions are a subset of more than 300 four-year research institutions that are responsible for the majority of the higher education research undertaken and for the training of future college faculty and scholars.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education further divides these doctoral/research universities into three categories – moderate, higher and highest – based on doctoral degrees awarded and research activity. UTEP is classified in the higher research category. However, CIERP’s replication of the classification model shows that the institution is at the threshold of moving into the top category: highest research activity.
“UTEP is already in an exclusive group,” said CIERP Director Roy Mathew, Ph.D. “It is an extraordinary accomplishment to move up the ladder in a hyper-competitive higher education context.”
CIERP developed scenario models to explore UTEP’s future trajectory. Part of the work focused on identifying academic institutions that reflect milestones, such as the amount of annual research expenditures, that the University likely will achieve in the next decade.
However, identifying these aspirational peers is difficult because only a small subset of national research institutions focus on access and excellence. Based on its analysis, UTEP has identified six aspirational peer institutions for the next decade – Florida International University; the State University of New York at Stony Brook; the University of Central Florida; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of California, Riverside; and the State University of New York at Buffalo.
In many ways, UTEP’s aspirational peers for the next decade have similar characteristics in terms of student population served. Most students live near the campus, come from families of modest means and juggle academics with outside employment. As institutions, they have larger student enrollment, are located in larger metropolitan areas and have achieved high-level research programs within the past 25 years.
“They’re kind of like us,” said Stephen Riter, Ph.D., vice president for information resources and planning. “They’re all cut out of the same cloth.”
Riter likened UTEP’s research trajectory to a road race where runners keep an eye on other participants who are alongside or a little bit in front of them; those are the aspirational peers.
“Those are the people we can reach,” he said.
The University’s overall ascension among research institutions is the outcome of University President Diana Natalicio’s long-term strategic plan to focus on “access and excellence” – to provide equal opportunity for education and social mobility to all talented students from the Paso del Norte region by offering them access to world-class faculty and opportunities, such as undergraduate research, that usually are found on campuses that serve more affluent students. The dramatic move up the higher education ladder required a bold vision and innovative strategy, and support from many different groups to include The University of Texas System, the Texas legislature, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and UTEP faculty, staff and alumni.
President Natalicio, who started her 30th year at UTEP’s helm in February 2018, has guided the growth of research activity and doctoral program development. Under her leadership, doctoral programs increased to 22 from one, and annual research expenditures grew to $95 million from $6 million. UTEP’s grants portfolio in fiscal year 2017 was more than $300 million.
One of the many UTEP administrators who have helped the University achieve its research success is Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., vice president for research. He started as an assistant professor of civil engineering 30 years ago and has risen through the ranks. He has served in his current position for 13 years, and is credited with providing support to many top faculty and staff members who have successfully secured grants that bring prominence to the University.
“The research UTEP faculty does is directly related to the mission of access and excellence that Dr. Natalicio has been able to put in place at the University,” said Osegueda, who added that outstanding faculty members deliver the education and provide research engagement to the University’s students. “Research at UTEP enriches the academic experience for our undergraduate and graduate students. We have high expectations.”
For Herrera, the opportunity to do undergraduate research was crucial to her growth as a student and as a researcher. It taught her how things were done in a lab, and how to deal with success and failure that come with scientific research. She learned what it took to start an experiment, get it done, put it on paper and get it published.
“Undergraduate research allows you to get your hands dirty with the necessary work,” Herrera said. “You read about it. You get told about it in class, but it’s not until you are in the lab actually doing something that it clicks, and you realize you are doing research. This is what it takes to make discoveries.”
Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science, called Herrera an outstanding example of someone who took advantage of the mentorship and opportunities presented by the University and the college, especially to participate in undergraduate research at a level not commonly seen in other institutions. For example, she participated in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program and UTEP’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers program, funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“To complete one of these majors (microbiology and biochemistry) is challenging enough, but Nadia performed very well in both areas while also working and navigating the academic setting as a first-generation student,” Kirken said. “This speaks volumes about her skills and dedication, which she has carried through her doctoral degree and subsequent postdoctoral appointment at two of the most competitive institutions in the country.”
UTEP's decision to focus critical research in the fields of health care and education has generated additional opportunities to conduct studies in science, engineering and the humanities with results that have benefited the region and the communities beyond.
One of the best examples of how the University fulfilled its mission to advance the welfare of the El Paso region through teaching, research and service was the creation of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. The partnership of academic, business and civic leaders was established in 1991 as an applied research center. The collaborative, initially funded through a $15 million National Science Foundation grant, has been hailed as one of the country’s most innovative and transformational PreK-16 education reform initiatives for its success in establishing systemic academic reforms, helping close the education gap, and building a college-going culture.
Today, the El Paso region, despite being the lowest income region in Texas, has the highest percentage of high school graduates completing the college curriculum. In addition, a high percentage of graduates enroll in public higher education after graduation. The region also has the highest share of students enrolling in public four-year institutions.
Armando Aguirre, executive director of the Region 19 Education Service Center in El Paso, which serves more than 185,000 PreK-12 students, recalled noticing the research-based ideas percolating out of the collaborative as a new elementary school administrator in the early 1990s.
“We started to see areas highlighted that needed to be addressed,” said Aguirre, Ed.D., who led the collaborative for four years starting in 2011. “That was helpful because to that point we knew we needed to hurry up and fix something, but we weren’t sure what we needed to fix. Things started to make more sense after we got the (collaborative’s) information.”
Another example of UTEP’s efforts to advance the welfare of the region is the Border Biomedical Research Center (BBRC). For more than 25 years, BBRC faculty members have focused their research on areas that impact human health along the U.S.-Mexico border, specifically in such areas as infectious diseases, cancer and environmental toxicants, and neuro-modulation disorders such as obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Through funding from the National Institutes of Health, the BBRC has contributed to the development of UTEP’s talented faculty and its resources to conduct research. In turn, this development has created opportunities for students at all levels to become involved in research and prepare for future academic and professional opportunities.
Currently, 85 percent of UTEP’s more than 25,000 students are from the El Paso region, 80 percent are Hispanic, and 50 percent of undergraduate students are from the lowest income quartile. UTEP awards more than 4,500 degrees annually and is one of the nation’s top producers of Hispanic graduates. UTEP also is the country’s fourth ranked institution of origin (college or university where students earn their bachelor’s degree) for Hispanic doctoral graduates. Researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities also have identified UTEP as one of the Top 10 institutions that move undergraduate students from the lowest income quintile to the highest income quintile after graduation.
This focus on access and excellence, and its resulting impact on students, was the reason that UTEP was recognized recently by the Brookings Institution and the New York Times as one of the top academic institutions for social mobility, or the movement within or between society’s social strata, which benefits low-income and other nontraditional students.
Educational researchers have identified undergraduate research experiences among the most effective ways to engage students, which lead to timely degree completion, enrollment in graduate school, and eventual professional success. The growth in research activity and funding allows for more undergraduate students to participate in labs and doctoral programs. UTEP’s growing record of success in this area led to the development of BUILDing SCHOLARS, a research-intensive training program funded by the National Institutes of Health to prepare highly motivated undergraduate students at UTEP and smaller institutions throughout the nation’s Southwest who want to pursue research in biomedical engineering or health, social, behavioral or biomedical sciences. It also aims to support faculty members as effective mentors.
The program’s name is a partial acronym for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars.
BEYOND THE STRATOSPHERE
UTEP has demonstrated that institutional excellence can be achieved without hindering the University’s commitment to providing access and opportunity for the region’s talented students and, through them, advancing the El Paso region.
The CIERP team conducted additional studies and the results showed that UTEP could continue its upward trajectory for decades to come.
If the University follows its current strategic path, CIERP’s models show that UTEP can achieve parity with major public research universities such as the University of California, Los Angeles within the next 50 years.
Although it will not be easy or inevitable, if the University can maintain its enrollment growth and research productivity, it can achieve the outcome, said CIERP’s Mathew. The challenge is exciting, inspirational and achievable, he said.
The scenario is reminiscent of the early days of the space race when President John F. Kennedy boldly set a course for the nation during a 1962 speech at Rice University.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”