Dec. 15--The University of Texas at El Paso has amassed a research grant portfolio of nearly a quarter billion dollars and its research partners are some heavyweights.
They include the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aerospace and Space Administration, the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency.
University officials said UTEP's ongoing research, which takes place across all the campus colleges, is uniquely focused on enlisting undergraduate and graduate students in hands-on, real-life research with experts such as former NASA astronaut John "Danny" Olivas, among others.
UTEP Vice President for Research Roberto Osegueda said that 90 to 95 percent of the university's $248 million research money was obtained competitively, and that it is only one of the factors the university is counting on to attain Tier One status.
From where he sits in his office, Osegueda is familiar with all the research projects that receive grant funding. He said many of them are nothing less than jaw-dropping, capable at any moment of rendering a groundbreaking development that will benefit industries and the public.
"People would be amazed at the kind of space and technology and engineering research we have taking place at UTEP," Osegueda said. "This didn't happen overnight. It's taken a lot of hard work and commitment on the part of the administration and staff, a lot of grant writing."
Students like Efrain Aguilera, 20, a junior, and Lluvia Herrera, 19, a sophomore, are benefiting from programs geared toward getting more minorities and women involved in engineering.
Both were at the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, at the College of Engineering, working on projects related to 3D printing.
"I decided on UTEP because the research opportunities for students are better here than at other universities," Aguilera said. "I compared the school to others that some of my friends are at, and you have a chance to do research in more areas than you do at most other places."
The center takes concepts -- electrical, metals or plastics -- to a 3D process that results in products that can be used for further research or that industries can apply in their processes or products.
Herrera, a graduate of Franklin High School, wants to major in mechanical engineering and has a special interest in biomechanics.
"The research opportunities are excellent and being able to show a project you worked on is in itself better than your degree -- it speaks more of your capabilities," Herrera said.
Ahsan Choudhuri, chairman of the Mechanical Engineering Department and director of the NASA Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR), said students today also have the opportunity to obtain internships with government agencies or private industry while they do research or to help them continue with their research.
Such relationships enable students to move into jobs right away or continue in higher education.
Choudhuri, a native of Bangladesh, said he had numerous options before deciding on UTEP.
"I felt at home at UTEP and in this community," Choudhuri said. "In my country, people are very rich or very poor. I came from an affluent family and got as far as I did because I had my family's help. I had friends, though, who were not as fortunate financially and who were smarter than me, who did not have similar opportunities. I like that we are helping students who otherwise could not do some of the things they are doing here today at the university."
Sergio Maldonado, 25, a mechanical engineering graduate student, and Martin De La Torre, 26, who's working on his doctorate in environmental science and engineering, said one of their research team members, Sudipa Sarker, got scooped up by a global energy firm as a result of her student work at UTEP.
"She gets her Ph.D. this month, but they already wanted her," De la Torre said.
Aguilera and Maldonado were using testing equipment at the cSETR facility, and both have been researching propulsion, combustion and energy.
"My area of research is fuel alternatives that pollute less," Aguilera said.
According to a university list, about 200 research projects are planned or in the proposal stages. Some involve partnerships with firms like Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Kresge Foundation, the Department of State, the Air Force, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Raytheon, and Sandia National Labs, as well as state and local agencies and organizations such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation.
Collaborations with other universities include Howard University, Michigan State University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Czech Technical University in Prague, among others.
A project with TxDOT addresses the transportation of dialysis patients, another project with a different partner deals with literacy, while a third grant is helping with the funding of UTEP's pre-law school program.
Diana Barragan, 19, a sophomore, is seeking a biomedical concentration in biology. She was at the cSETR center, the part that houses a flight simulator and features wheeled robots that simulate the Mars Rover.
Olivas, an El Paso native and former NASA astronaut, joined UTEP earlier this year to direct the new Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research.
He will have a group of students who will be involved in examining what went wrong, from an engineering standpoint, that contributed to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy.
The spacecraft disintegrated upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, scattering over Texas and Louisiana. The seven crew members were killed.
University officials said the Kennedy Space Center loaned UTEP several debris pieces from the shuttle, which will allow faculty and students to investigate unstudied materials behavior issues in the specimens.
"Although the Columbia Shuttle incident was thoroughly investigated, there were still a number of questions that were left unanswered and that bear additional research," said Olivas, who commutes to UTEP from his offices in California.
"We started out with four graduate students for the Columbia research project, and we extended it to include several undergraduate students. Ultimately, what they learn will have many applications for themselves and for everyone in the future."
Olivas said he continues to meet with staff and faculty to finish shaping the new center he is leading, and hopes by next year that the university can make some "strategic hires."
Kent Hill, a research professor at Arizona State University, reported in 2006 on the benefits of university research to local economies. In a report titled "University Research and Local Economic Development," Hill said "the most important contribution universities make to technical advance in industry is in the training of industrial scientists and engineers."
"Scholars also argue," Hill said, "that some of the greatest benefits of university research, especially basic research, are long term in nature. From this perspective, the most important contribution universities make to technical advance in industry is in the training of industrial scientists and engineers."
The Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence and the Genomic Analysis Core Facility are two other facilities that are busy with research activity and have attracted research money.
At Cyber-ShARE, a popular feature is the Visualization Wall, a tool that enables student and faculty researchers to literally visualize their projects on a massive screen. (Cyber-ShARE stands for Cyberinfrastructure for Sharing Resources to Advance Research and Education.)
Ann Quiroz Gates, computer science chairwoman and director of the Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence, said she was in her early 40s when she obtained her doctoral degree.
"Faculty and students are involved in research that focuses on developing more accurate models of the Earth's structure through computational approaches to data integration and model fusion," Gates said. "Incorporating multiple data sources to image the Earth will advance the ability to answer general and specific questions about the evolution of the Earth and its processes."
Kyle Johnson is a biological sciences professor and director of the Genomic Analysis Core Facility, which has sophisticated equipment that can perform DNA sequencing and nucleic acid analysis. The center is used by UTEP and other researchers in the region.
Johnson said UTEP is offering a new degree in forensic science, focusing on either biology or chemistry, with its first students expected to graduate this semester.
The student population involved in scientific research is giving UTEP a national reputation for early quality research, she said.
"It's not unusual for our undergraduates involved in research initiatives to produce an undergraduate thesis, and one of my former students is now at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology)," Johnson said. "I never had opportunities like these as a student. We're seeing students succeeding even as freshman, as they learn to develop analytical skills. Our goal is for every student to have a research opportunity."
Johnson, like most research faculty, teaches, oversees a specialty area, engages in original research, and writes grant proposals.
Grants for research and research support range from $2,500 to $16.2 million for individual projects, according to university officials.
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at 546-6140.
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