With senior year just around the corner, Northeastern Illinois University students, Angelina Jaimes and Jose Zavala, are taking part in what is sure to be a life and career-changing experience in their mutually chosen field of study, biology.
Jaimes and Zavala, seniors at Northeastern Illinois University, are spending the summer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) where they have both received National Science Foundation fellowships in the Undergraduate Research Mentoring in New Biology (URM in New Biology) program. Jaimes will focus on nutritional science and Zavala will immerse himself in environmental science.
URM in New Biology is a two-year fellowship that offers students the opportunity for in-depth exploration of the biological and quantitative sciences. Zavala and Jaimes will participate in the fellowship in summer 2013, return to NEIU for the fall and spring academic semesters, then return to UIUC to continue their research activities throughout summer 2014. At UIUC, the pair will work under the supervision of and in research collaboration with faculty mentors in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
"Receiving this fellowship opportunity proves that hard work pays off," explained Jaimes.
Zavala added, "The National Science Foundation is very prestigious so this means a lot to me and my family."
Though their journeys have taken them to the same location, their paths were not always the same.
Jaimes grew up in Albany Park and, following in her mother's footsteps, decided to become a teacher. However, it was during the Chicago Public Schools strikes, her mother urged her to go into math or science. Without argument, Jaimes agreed.
"I always enjoyed science so I thought this was a great decision, but it's been more challenging than I thought it would be," explained Jaimes, recalling the poor grades she earned in chemistry and biology in 2012.
An eye-opening conversation she had with a Ph.D. student participating in a research collaboration with NEIU convinced Jaimes that she would have to work harder than had she expected to if she hoped to excel in the field.
"I knew I needed to work harder than I ever had and that if I did, great things would come," explained Jaimes. Just one semester later, she had transformed herself into a straight- A student.
In contrast to Jaimes' recent choice to pursue biology, Zavala always knew he wanted to go into science. Still, deciding on a field of science was a challenge.
"It was not until my first semester of biology I decided on environmental science," said Zavala. "The conferences and immersion programs that I experienced when I came to NEIU expanded my knowledge in the field of science and helped shape my decision."
Zavala was attracted to environmental science because of the fieldwork and the relatively limited time spent in labs.
Both students have benefited from Northeastern's partnerships with organizations and other institutions of higher education, which have provided them with unique vocational and educational opportunities. The pair were both able to attend NEIU's Collaboration and Retention through Environmental and Agriculture Research (CREAR) conference, the Hispanic Association for Colleges and Universities conference and the immersion program at the United States Department of Agriculture National Center for Agriculture Utilization Research.
"I have been able to connect with so many faculty members and students and it reaffirms my decision to go into nutritional science. I know that I am moving in the right direction to attend grad school and succeed in my career," said Jaimes.
"My parents only finished middle school," explained Zavala, "so to get to a higher level in science means a lot to me and I know how hard I have to work to get there. Some students don't seek opportunities because they are Hispanic, but that's why we should take advantage of all that is offered and earn high standing positions, especially in science."
Zavala and Jaimes said that after graduating from NEIU, they would like to eventually return to Chicago, but hope this fellowship is the stepping-stone to attending graduate school at UIUC. The two agree that Northeastern has prepared them well for graduate studies. More importantly, the connections they made at NEIU, both with faculty and with professionals in their fields, allowed them to recognize their potential and encouraged them to confidently pursue their educational and career goals.