NMSU’s Discovery Scholars Program gives students paid research experience

Angelique Amado is a junior at New Mexico State University majoring in chemistry. Thanks to a program that pays undergraduate students to conduct research, she can spend time in the lab without worrying about working off campus to help with school expenses.

Girl and professor looking at liquid through sealed lab area
NMSU chemistry student Angelique Amado works along side her mentor Feifei Li, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry while looking at the color of their sample in a nitrogen filled glove box. The two are part of NMSU’s Discovery Scholars Program (NMSU Photo by Carlos Trujillo).

Group of students and mentors sitting behind table
NMSU Discovery Scholars and faculty mentors discussed the fall semester and their plans for the spring semester at the Discovery Scholars breakfast in December. Back row from left, College of Arts & Sciences interim Dean Enrico Pontelli;, Michael Hout, assistant professor of psychology; Nancy McMillan, Discovery Scholars Director; Chris Churchill, professor of astronomy; Feifei Li, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry;. Roberto Araujo, astronomy physics undergraduate and GregArmfield, associate professor of communications studies. Front row from left, Taylor Nunn, biology undergraduate; Shoshauna Farnsworth-Pinkerton, geology undergraduate and Angelique Amado, chemistry undergraduate. (Not pictured: Rachel Simeon)

“It’s very hard to balance a job on top of research and activities and academics,” said Amado, “So having the ability to merge a job and research is awesome because it helps build skills you’ll need in the future while being able to support yourself financially.”

The Discovery Scholars Program in the College of Arts and Sciences has provided paid research opportunities for 25 undergraduate students since it began two years ago.

“Through the research experience, Discovery Scholars gain not only highly technical research experience, but also practical experience in working on a project with a team, writing in their field, presenting their results at conferences, and day-to-day project management,” said Nancy McMillan, Regents Professor in geology and director of the program.

Feifei Li, assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry, told Amado about the program. Li has been mentoring Amado in the lab for just over a year.

Amado and Li have taken on two different projects: The first was researching the Vitamin B-12 complex to model how plants intake CO2 and reduce it to carbon monoxide; the second involves data analysis from results of X-ray spectroscopy. The overall goal of this project is to gain a deeper understanding of bioinorganic substances in order to solve bioenergy and biomedical related issues facing society.

“As a mentor and teacher, I’ve been able to help teach and train chemistry students,” Li said. “We are training the next generation of leaders in energy science and biomedical fields.”

“So far, our projects have been pretty successful and I’ve been able to learn a lot that I don’t always get in class, as well as gaining experience in the lab,” Amado said. “I’ve always been interested in research fields but the program has solidified that in many ways. I’m excited to start applying to programs with this experience on my resume.”

As a mentor himself, Michael Hout, assistant professor of psychology and assistant director of the program, has seen the impact of the program on students first hand.

“I’ve never seen a program like this implemented anywhere else, and I’d have absolutely loved to be able to take part in something like this when I was an undergraduate. This program affords our students with opportunities that the vast majority of students could not obtain in any other way.”

Other Discovery Scholars and mentors in the program currently include astronomy professor Chris Churchill and physics undergraduate, Roberto Araujo are working on uncovering the element berylium from a quasar; Greg Armfield, associate professor of communication studies and communications studies undergraduate, Rachel Simeon, are studying how women are portrayed in sports magazines, professor Elba Serrano and biology undergraduate Taylor Nunn researching how brain cancer cells “feel” their environment, McMillan and Geology undergraduate Shoshauna Farnsworth-Pinkerton are developing a method to determine the source of ancient sands using the mineral tourmaline and Hout and psychology undergraduate John DesGeorges are studying how humans automatically think of computer- related things when presented with challenging information and questions.

In addition to the research experience, the program also allows students to engage in community service each semester.

“This semester we’ve started working with K-12 students in Las Cruces to show them what its like to do research,” Amado said. “We want to inspire them to go to college and to maybe pursue some kind of research while there.”

Along with going into the public schools, Amado and Li have been working closely with the TRIO program. TRIO is a group of federally funded outreach and student services programs targeted to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to post baccalaureate programs.

Each Discovery Scholar receives $10 per hour for up to 40 hours a week to work on independent, but guided, research with a faculty mentor. For the fall and spring semesters, students receive the same pay for up to 20 hours a week. Funding for the program comes from the College of Arts and Sciences distance education revenue. Students also receive a book fund each semester they participate, including the summer while faculty members receive another fund toward scholarship, creative activity or for conference travel.

“Personally, the best aspect of this experience is being given the opportunity to travel to other laboratories and use resources not immediately available in this area,” said Amado. “I am fortunate enough to be supported by this program to expand my skill set in settings I would not otherwise be able to.”

Amado plans to pursue a doctorate in environmental chemistry or bioinorganic chemistry. She’s also considering law school to work with science and policy.

“I’m really thankful for my time in this program,” Amado said. “And for the opportunities to help undergraduate students, such as myself, in almost all areas of study.”

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