NNMC Students Participate In NIH BUILDing Scholars Summer Research

Northern New Mexico College chemistry student Hope Lopez participated in an National Institute of Health program this summer at the University of Texas-El Paso. Courtesy photo

Erica Quezada, a senior at NNMC studying biology, attended the University of Texas-El Paso NIH program. Courtesy photo


Undergraduate student research is an important focus at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC), especially in the STEM and social science disciplines. These research and grant opportunities allow students to work alongside experienced faculty and fellow students in biology, chemistry, environmental sciences, engineering and other programs to present and compete at international conferences and to prepare for graduate school and career opportunities. 

NNMC also encourages and prepares students to compete for external summer research positions. This year, NNMC biology students Hope Lopez and Erika Quezada developed research skills and new confidence as participants in the National Institute of Health’s BUILDing Scholars Summer Research Program at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP). 

Lopez and Quezada co-authored an abstract under the guidance of UTEP faculty Dr. Anita Quintana and presented their work in the COURI Symposia. Quezada won the best presentation award in the area of Life and Biomedical Sciences, which can be viewed at https://openconf.couri.utep.edu/life-sci/67a#narrated-presentation

“When I first submitted my presentation, I had ‘imposter’s syndrome.’ I didn’t expect my presentation to be as good as the other participants,” Quezada said. “When I saw my name, I was so happy. I realized I shouldn’t doubt myself.”

Both students are entering their senior year at NNMC. Quezada is pursuing a Bachelor of Science Biology degree. Lopez will complete her Associate of Science in Chemistry degree this fall then focus on attaining her Bachelor of Science Biology.

Their project involved monitoring anxiety behavior in zebrafish carrying a heterozygous mutation in the HCFC1a gene. Using the novel tank diving test, the pair compared the behavior of zebrafish with the mutated gene with that of wild zebrafish. They observed that the fish with the mutated gene exhibited increased anxiety, indicated by spending greater lengths of time at the bottom of the tank and less time exploring the middle and upper regions. 

This was the first time either student had attended a summer research program. Quezada has participated in research at NNMC’s Cancer Cell Biology lab under the guidance of her mentor, Dr. Sushmita Nandy, who is NNMC’s faculty liaison for the UTEP BUILDing Scholars Program.  Quezada was excited when Dr. Quintana said she would welcome her as a lab assistant if she decided to pursue a career in research.

Lopez’ lab work — including the summer research program — has all been virtual, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Participating in the UTEP program sparked a desire to do hands on research in a lab setting. Lopez hopes to participate in the BUILDing Scholars Symposia in El Paso in September. View her presentation at https://openconf.couri.utep.edu/life-sci/58a#narrated-presentation.

The goal of the BUILDing Scholars program is to implement a suite of programs and activities that positively transform the training of the next generation of biomedical researchers from U.S. Southwest groups and give participants the tools they need to be successful researchers. Students received guidance on everything from how to apply to how to design a successful presentation. They attend weekly workshops on topics such as lab safety and how to write an abstract and hear from experts in their respective fields. Learn more about the BUILDING Scholars program at https://buildingscholars.utep.edu/web/

“The whole point was pretty much to make us want to be researchers, to get the idea of why other people do it,” Lopez said. She appreciated that the program was “beginner inclusive,” introducing participants “very gently into summer research.”

“This was my first time ever being part of a summer research program and I was very, very scared to even apply. I had a little bit of imposter syndrome going into it,” Lopez said, admitting she was even afraid to participate in Zoom sessions.”

Lopez encourages other students to try the summer research experience, even if they are intimidated about applying. 

“I really couldn’t be more grateful for the experience, because I became more confident,” Lopez said. “I found kind of a love for research, even though it might not be what I go into in the future, and an understanding of why people study science.”

Both women would like to participate in the UTEP program next summer. Upon graduation, Lopez plans to attend medical school. Quezada is debating whether to seek a position as a physician’s assistant of pursue her master’s and PhD degrees. 

Learn more about student research at NNMC at https://nnmc.edu/home/academics/schools-and-departments/student-research-nnmc/

Northern New Mexico College has fulfilled the educational needs of the region for over a century. Originating in 1909 as the Spanish American Normal School in El Rito, Northern now offers more than 50 bachelor’s, associate, and certificate programs in a wide variety of fields, including recently introduced programs in technical trades. Popular programs include nursing and health sciences, business, liberal arts, education, and STEM programs. Graduates have gone on to pursue advanced degrees at colleges such as Johns Hopkins University and Purdue University, and employment at NASA and Los Alamos National Labs.  

Northern is an open-admissions college offering the most affordable bachelor’s degrees in the state, and is competitively priced for all other programs. Northern is fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and has earned prestigious national accreditations for its engineering, nursing, education, and business programs. To learn more, visit http://www.nnmc.edu