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UC Merced Students Excel at National Science Conference

October 18, 2013

Two University of California, Merced, students – Viridiana Murillo and Alexandro Perez-Tovar – won first prize in their divisions at the recent Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Nineteen UC Merced students joined other scholars from all over the country at the conference, presenting the details of the research they’ve been conducting.

“The most rewarding thing about winning is knowing that all my hard work and the hours I have put into my project have paid off,” said Perez-Tovar, 21, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student from Los Banos.

“Receiving this award to me was truly an honor,” said Murillo, 23, of Pomona. She is the president of the new local chapter of SACNAS. “For me, this was the moment where I would prove myself and my work. When I heard my name called I did not believe it.”

Perez-Tovar worked with Professor Gerardo Diaz on a plasma gasification system Diaz has been using to burn biomass. Finding the efficiency of the plasma system will help conclude whether it is a strong candidate for converting waste to energy, Perez-Tovar said. He won the Outstanding Contribution and Research Presentation award in mechanical engineering.

Murillo is majoring in biology with a minor in public health. She researches developmental immunology with Professor Jennifer Manilay, and her presentation on “Determination of Cytokine Receptor Profiles for the Enhancement of in Vitro Differentiation of Embryonic Stem Cell Derived Hematopoietic Progenitors” won the Outstanding Contribution and Presentation award in biology.

The students who participated were part of a nine-week, intense summer research experience provided by the Undergraduate Research and Opportunities Center (UROC) at UC Merced.  Forty students took part, each paired with a faculty mentor of their choice, to conduct research in fields such as robotic unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), stroke and diabetes prevention and high-energy density batteries.

UROC is collaboration of five undergraduate research training programs:  UC Leadership Excellence via Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS), Minority Access to Research Careers (NIH MARC), Louis Stokes California Alliance for Minority Participation (NSF CAMP), USDA Undergraduate Research Training in Agricultural Sciences, and PG&E Engineering Summer Scholars. 

Perez-Tovar and Murillo are both CAMP scholars.

Other students who participated: 

  • Rubi Almanza of Planada
  • Arthur Chow of Tracy
  • Enrique Daza from San Mateo
  • Sandra Diaz from Modesto
  • Carlos Gomez of Hawthorne
  • Jose Guadarrama of Fresno
  • Debby Lee from Wilton
  • Jennifer Liberto of Merced
  • Adriana Lopez of Bakersfield
  • Rudy Maltos of Bakersfield
  • Adam Martin from Torrance
  • Kimberly Nguyen from Sunnyvale
  • Azucena Robles of Bakersfield
  • Marco Antonio Rodriguez of Delhi
  • Senam Tamakloe from Palmdale
  • Melissa Williams of Paso Robles
  • Myriam Zavalza of Chula Vista

At the end of the summer, each student offered a 10-minute presentation and scientific poster summarizing their research methods, protocol and results at the seventh annual UC Merced Undergraduate Summer Research Symposium. 

From there, 19 were chosen to go to the SACNAS conference, competing against undergraduate scholars from around the country, including UCLA, Colorado State University and Purdue University. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of the way our students represented the UC Merced community on a national stage,” said Jesus Cisneros, director for Undergraduate Research Programs with UC Merced’s Office of Undergraduate Education.  “We showed that we have the best ideas and the brightest young minds, eager to step into the scientific arena.  This is a testament to the quality of our students and our faculty members who mentored them along the way.”

In addition to the students, three faculty members attended the conference: Professors Rudy Ortiz and Roummel Marcia, and School of Natural Sciences Dean Juan Meza, who is also on the Board of Directors for SACNAS.

The CAMP program is a University of California initiative to diversify the student population and expand the nation’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) workforce, Cisneros said. At UC Merced, CAMP is led by Diaz, who is with the School of Engineering.

More information about UC Merced’s chapter of SACNAS is available at its website.

In addition, UROC will accept applications for the summer 2014 research group from Feb. 1, 2014, to March 15, 2014.