Frank Duran

Fueling Research Diversity: A Peek Inside UTEP's Doctoral Pipeline

Frank Duran
Fueling Research Diversity: A Peek Inside UTEP's Doctoral Pipeline

By Victor Arreola

Nina Marie Beltran made several key discoveries while working in a UTEP research laboratory. Chief among them was an epiphany — a desire to pursue a doctoral degree after completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Photo by J.R. Hernandez

Photo by J.R. Hernandez

Such a feat would bolster evidence of The University of Texas at El Paso’s distinction as a top producer of future doctoral degree recipients. It would also contribute to sorely needed national academic diversity in science and engineering education described by a pair of pioneers who promote continual expansion of minority participation in academia and industry. According to research conducted by Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Ph.D., president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and Peter H. Henderson, Ph.D., senior adviser to the UMBC president, UTEP is the top institution in the continental United States for producing Hispanic bachelor’s graduates who continue on to earn doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Since Beltran’s first lab experience, she has taken advantage of every opportunity available to help her become a more competitive candidate for graduate school.

“I’m currently working on a manuscript as first author,” Beltran said. “That’s an opportunity that not a lot of undergrads get at universities.”

Once her doctoral ambitions are fulfilled, Beltran will join the ranks of a robust, diverse STEM workforce that draws on talent of all backgrounds and allows the nation to compete in today’s science- and technology-driven global economy. This growing group was highlighted by a study Hrabowski and Henderson published in February 2019 in Issues in Science and Technology, a publication for discussion of public policy related to science, engineering and medicine.

The article reiterated that UTEP is one of the top U.S. universities for producing Hispanic bachelor’s graduates who continue on to earn doctoral degrees in STEM fields.

There is simply no equivalent to a real life, problem solving, challenging task where you may fail, but where you’ll definitely learn.
— Robert Kirken, Ph.D.

Hrabowski and Henderson co-authored “Challenging U.S. Research Universities and Funders to Increase Diversity in the Research Community,” which analyzed the available National Science Foundation (NSF) data about the baccalaureate origins of the country’s Hispanic and African-American doctorate recipients. Their findings indicate that UTEP was No. 3 in producing graduates with bachelor’s degrees who subsequently earned doctorates. The University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez and the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.

While the recognition may be recent, it is the product of strategies that University leaders systematically implemented throughout several years with the help and hard work of UTEP students, faculty and staff members. Among those entrusted to ensure that UTEP students are well-prepared for graduate school – University policymakers, faculty members and program coordinators – the consensus is that the success of UTEP’s doctoral pipeline is based on construction of state-of-the-art research facilities, comprehensive mentoring, a culture of student-centered service, an emphasis on experiential learning and, most importantly, promotion of undergraduate research.

“There is simply no equivalent to a real-life, problem-solving, challenging task where you may fail, but where you’ll definitely learn,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science, of UTEP’s focus on undergraduate research. “You learn how to troubleshoot; you learn how to persevere, how complicated things are, and how to try to break things down into their simplest pieces to try to understand what possibly went wrong with that experiment. These are lifelong lessons and our students take away the best of all the worlds: they take on challenging problems, they learn how to perform science – the method of science – they have cutting-edge equipment and tools, as well as dedicated faculty and staff who help them utilize all these resources.”

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One essential factor for UTEP’s continued growth in the number of undergraduate research participants is external funding. This financial support comes from a wide variety of sources such as the NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The funds allow UTEP to increase the number of paid undergraduate research positions, which offer students the opportunity to “earn and learn.” This is especially important on a campus where a considerable portion of the student population comes from families with low income levels.

“Funding keeps students on campus, (and) it keeps them in the laboratory,” Kirken said. “They can go study for an hour while their experiment is running, and then come back and pick it up, instead of spending their time driving off-campus to some position that has absolutely nothing to do with what their passion is about, but is simply what provides them the money to support their studies.”

The grants also generate opportunities for scholarships, study abroad, conference travel and summer research experiences at UTEP and partner institutions across the country. The funds are managed by a number of University centers and programs such as the Campus Office for Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI), The University of Texas System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), and Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC), to name a few. LSAMP, RISE and MARC are specifically for students in STEM fields.

The NSF has funded the LSAMP program since its inception in 1993. UTEP President Diana Natalicio was the program’s original principal investigator. Benjamin Flores, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and undergraduate studies in UTEP’s College of Engineering, is the current principal investigator. The program awards qualified science and engineering students with a $4,000 summer stipend, funds to travel to one of the five doctoral-granting institutions in the UT System for a summer research experience, and on-campus housing for approximately 10 weeks for students who participate in a university exchange program at another campus. In addition, the student’s mentor at the host institution receives monetary support for supplies. At UTEP, LSAMP students take part in high-impact research projects such as assisting investigators in the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, one of the country’s leading research facilities focused on the use and development of additive manufacturing technologies, also known as 3D printing.

The contribution of LSAMP to the establishment and expansion of UTEP’s STEM doctoral pipeline is unquestionable. According to the program’s most recent data, 87% of all participants in the 2012-17 cohort have gone on to graduate school.

Having the funding to support me to go to multiple conferences has allowed me to network with other graduate programs, and to really understand their realities.
— Nina Marie Beltran

News about this level of success spreads quickly. According to Ariana Arciero-Pino, LSAMP associate director, the program needed to extend its application deadlines to get 40 applicants in its early years. Today, it has more than 200 applicants for its summer sessions.

There are several other campus programs that contribute significantly to the culture of undergraduate research. Many of these programs are directed by COURI, which places students in paid and unpaid research positions in STEM and other fields. These students present their findings to the public in one of COURI’s two annual symposia. The office also has seen considerable growth since its inception in 2010. By 2014, COURI had successfully instituted a noncredit course

for students engaged in faculty-mentored research, scholarly or creative activities. In that first year, nearly 500 students signed up for the course. By the 2017-18 academic year, that number had grown to nearly 700, which outpaced the University’s overall enrollment growth rate for the same period. Another sign of COURI’s success is the number of research projects displayed during the unit’s two annual symposia. According to COURI Director Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., the spring 2011 symposium included approximately 40 student projects. That number ballooned to 160 at COURI’s spring 2019 event.

Evelyn Tovanche, a senior biomedical sciences major, said her COURI research experience changed her life. She believes anyone could benefit from it.

“Go knock on every door that you can to have this opportunity because it’s amazing,” said Tovanche, who spent eight weeks in the summer of 2018 in Costa Rica studying the health effects of water contamination on a local community. “Not only do you get experience doing research, but it also opens a lot of doors, you get to meet a lot of people, and it really broadens the way you think.”

With funding from the NIH, RISE is another program that provides stipend support for undergraduate research to prepare UTEP students for graduate school success. The primary objective of the RISE Scholars Program is to increase the participation of disadvantaged, underrepresented minority students in biomedical research. According to RISE data, of the 231 undergraduate program participants since 2004, more than half have gone on to postbaccalaureate or graduate studies, including 70 students who have earned doctoral degrees.

Beltran, the psychology major whose doctoral degree ambitions were inspired by her undergraduate research, is a RISE trainee. She said the program had a transformative impact on her journey to become a better graduate school candidate.

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“Having the funding to support me to go to multiple conferences has allowed me to network with other graduate programs, and to really understand their realities,” Beltran said. “RISE is also amazing for having workshops where we talk about our applications, our essays, our resumes; we do mini-interviews – all of those things that prepare us for grad school. If I had just worked in a lab, I wouldn’t have gained that expertise.”

Beltran mentioned two other essential factors to the success of UTEP’s STEM doctoral pipeline: experiential learning and comprehensive mentoring. Experiential learning includes internships, practicums, cooperative education and service learning. It also involves simulations, group work and presentations at out-of-town workshops and conferences. These types of experiences are critical for students who want to be successful in graduate school, campus stakeholders said.

“It’s very rewarding to see how students return from those experiences with added motivation,” Kirken said. “This is because they were exposed to other professional and academic opportunities and institutions that also understand the value of their work.”

As for mentoring, UTEP students have access to several sources of support, whether for academic or career counseling, or simply advice from people who know their struggles firsthand. For faculty and staff members who serve as mentors, one common goal is to introduce undergraduates to graduate school opportunities as soon as possible.

For example, College of Science administrators have revamped the college’s advising process. They created an advisory unit of counselors whose sole purpose is to guide students on such things as course selection and section availability every semester. This has given the faculty the freedom to counsel students about career paths, earnings outlooks and courses that may prepare them for graduate school. They can also now devote more time to introducing students to alumni who may be helpful as professional and academic connections in the future.

When one considers UTEP’s initiatives and strategies in conjunction with the University students’ access to excellent research facilities such as the laboratories in the Keck Center and the Border Biomedical Research Center, it becomes clear that UTEP has the tools necessary for a productive STEM doctoral pipeline. With a steady supply of talented students who are eager to make the most of their UTEP opportunities, as well as administrators, faculty and staff with vision and determination, the number of Miners in STEM Ph.D. programs at UTEP and across the country will continue to grow.