Engineering, Chemistry Students Showcase Research at "Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol"

Two students were selected to represent The University of Texas at Austin during an event at the Texas Capitol Feb. 14 that showcased ground-breaking undergraduate research and its impact on Texans.

Oscar D. Ayala and Matt Welborn

Matt Welborn and Oscar D. Ayala.

Cockrell School of Engineering senior Oscar D. Ayala and College of Natural Sciences senior Matt Welborn presented their research projects and were among nearly 140 undergraduate students representing 51 higher education institutions across the state.

"The enthusiastic response of public and private universities from across the state to participate in this program demonstrates a widespread commitment to quality undergraduate education," said Rissa Potter of the Council of Public University Presidents and Chancellors, which organized the event in conjunction with Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas Inc. "Texas legislators are also interested in providing students with solid baccalaureate educational opportunities — including research opportunities. This event provides the perfect forum to showcase current student research."

Ayala, a biomedical engineering student, presented on his research which may be a precursor to developing ways for noninvasive detection of tumors in real-time. Guided by Biomedical Engineering Professor Thomas E. Milner, Ayala's research uses nanoparticles that are inserted into a synthetic material designed to mimic real fat tissues. The nanoparticles, developed by Dr. Keith P. Johnston's research group in the Chemical Engineering Department, allow for enhanced permeation into tumorous cells in the body and react once heated with a laser. Unlike nanoparticles traditionally used for this type of research, those used by Ayala can absorb light at a much higher degree for the wavelength of light used — which may allow for more accurate tumor detection.

For Ayala, the opportunity to present at the Capitol is testimony to the sacrifices his parents made in moving to the U.S. from Mexico so that he and his siblings could have greater opportunities.

Oscar D. Ayala presents on his research at the Texas Capitol.

Oscar D. Ayala presents on his research at the Texas Capitol Feb. 14.

"They told us, 'We didn't have the opportunity to go to college, but we see it's a must for you. By you going, it's like we did, and we see our dreams through you,'" Ayala said.

In addition to research, Ayala has helped start two student organizations, Hook the Cure, which promotes awareness of diabetes through education, research, and philanthropy, and the Graduate Undergraduate Research Union (GURU), an organization that helps connect undergraduates with graduate students on biomedical engineering research projects.

Ayala is a McNair Scholar and member of UT’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE), a cross-disciplinary consortium on campus that offers independent study courses, internships and mentorships. Ayala is founder and director of a new student organization, IE Citizen-Scholars.

Welborn presented his research on the structure of platinum nanoparticles. Working with Chemistry Professor Graeme Henkelman, Welborn combined experimental X-ray diffraction data and electronic structure theory to quantify the disorder at the surface of the 140-atom nanoparticles. Knowing about the disorder at the surface, Wellborn said, is critical for understanding reactions that occur on the those surfaces, including reactions that are key to the workings of hydrogen fuel cells (and other alternative fuel technologies).

"Matt is off the charts," Henkelman said. "I am not exaggerating when I say that his abilities rival that of any graduate student or postdoc in my group."

For more information about the event, visit Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.