Engineering, Chemistry Students Showcase Research at “Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol”

Feb. 14, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — Two students have been selected to represent The University of Texas at Austin during an event at the Texas Capitol today that showcases ground-breaking undergraduate research and its impact on Texans.

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

Cockrell School of Engineering senior Oscar Ayala and College of Natural Sciences senior Matt Welborn
Cockrell School of Engineering senior Oscar Ayala and College of Natural Sciences senior Matt Welborn will present their research projects and be 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, will present 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.

"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.

Welborn will present 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."

The public is invited to view the student research projects during poster presentations, which begin at 1 p.m. in the Legislative Conference Center, E2.002.

For more a schedule of the event, visit Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.

For more information, contact: Melissa Mixon;  Daniel Oppenheimer, Hogg Foundation, 512-745-3353.