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Chemistry Grad Makes the Most of Her Time as a Torero

Chemistry major Alexia de Loera, who graduates on Sunday, has co-authored four published papers, done research in France and been doing summer research at USD since she was still in high school.Chemistry major Alexia de Loera, who graduates on Sunday, has co-authored four published papers, done research in France and been doing summer research at USD since she was still in high school.

Alexia de Loera's response to her time as a student at the University of San Diego is like most when graduation arrives — "four years went by really fast."

But de Loera's story is a bit different. She's actually been connected to USD since June 2013, which was the summer prior to her senior year at Chula Vista’s Mater Dei Catholic High School. She took part in a science partnership that USD has enjoyed with Mater Dei for several years now, exposing the high school's students to a college science lab and the chance to be part of a research project. De Loera's pre-USD student affiliation continued when prior to her first fall 2014 class on the USD campus she participated in a Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE).

"It's gone by so fast, but I feel so much has changed," said de Loera, a chemistry major and French and Theology and Religious Studies minor. "I've changed so much."

You'd probably have the same whirlwind feeling if, during your time in college, research you contributed to was professionally published an amazingly rare four times. De Loera has presented atmospheric chemistry research posters at multiple conferences in Southern California, did a fall semester study abroad trip to Paris where she continued her research, and she even did analytical chemistry on ancient pottery mugs donated to USD's David W. May American Indian Gallery. Her mission? To extract and analyze food residues to determine if the mugs contained traces of cacao, or chocolate.

De Loera's time at USD also includes involvement in Gamma Phi Beta sorority, University Ministry, earning French Honors, being a French tutor, being a member of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Club and serving as an International Buddy to help USD international students acclimate to San Diego and U.S. culture. The latter role was helped by the fact that she speaks three languages, English, Spanish and is proficient in French.

Born in Texas, de Loera actually spent the bulk of her childhood living in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she attended school until age 11 when she attended Sacred Heart School in Coronado and then Mater Dei High. She's actually known about USD for many years. One of six siblings, de Loera has two older sisters who are USD alumnae and a brother who is currently a student here.

But de Loera's time at USD has really been a foundational experience for her future. She's worked in Chemistry Professor David De Haan's lab since her Mater Dei summer student stint. She worked with De Haan while in PURE and has been working in De Haan's lab all four years, including three summers, all while logging more than 2,000 hours of research lab time.

"It's been a blessing to work with Dr. De Haan," she said. "He's helped me through so much and I've had so many great opportunities. Being in his lab has been an honor. Getting to work with him and to be around the other students, including great post-docs who've helped me. I can always email him, talk to him and he's always helpful."

The published research she's done with De Haan and other students in his lab — the Environment Science and Technology Journal, Environmental Science and Technology Letters and, most recently, the Journal of Physical Chemistry — is remarkable, but one reason why is because atmospheric chemistry is a somewhat newer field.

"It's often new information we're learning about, an up-and-coming field,” she said. “I'll be working on something, saying 'this and this happened, what is it?' The response might be, 'I don't know either!' You can't Google it. What do you mean there are no results and not 30 pages of information on Google? Getting our work published, we've had professors at other colleges comment, ask questions and if they can see what we've published."

The titles of these published works are long and filled with scientific terminology — the latest one in the Journal of Physical Chemistry is titled, "Methylglyoxal uptake coefficients on aqueous aerosol surfaces" — but everything she's done since her first exposure as a high school student has energized her desire.

"When I did the summer program through Mater Dei, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Coming to USD and doing a whole summer of research really opened up a new world for me. It was amazing. I fell in love with it. Everyone I met was very welcoming. Everything was super hands-on. Everything was over my head and what I was doing then was very surface-level stuff. But I was able to shift between multiple projects to get a taste of what everyone did in the lab. The first paper that got published was for a project I worked on that summer."

That would be for "Secondary organic aerosol formation by methylglyoxal, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde via aqueous-phase production of imidazoles."

Her research experiences and presentations have taken her from the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Diego to symposiums in Irvine, Calif., and Cal Tech, to France where she did data-collection research in a giant chamber alongside scientists and students from all over the world and took classes at the International American University in Aix-en-Provence.

As fast as she believes time has gone, she’s produced such a strong resume of experiences that it will undoubtedly help her in the future. She's planning to take a well-deserved break from science this summer for an extended family visit following Sunday's graduation ceremony. She hopes to land some lab work for a bit before applying to graduate schools and continue pursuit of a passion she gained only a few short years ago.

"I've made a lot of good memories in the time I've been here and I'm very excited about the future," she said.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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