A PURE Opportunity for First-Year Students to Shine

Research is debatably the height of academic pursuit. Through systematic investigation and study, research holds the promise of establishing facts and reaching new conclusions about the complex, the intriguing and the unknown. This research experience is often reserved for those well into their undergraduate career, but for five incoming first-year students, a research experience was made available to them summer before their first day of fall classes at the University of San Diego.

The Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program, run by the Office of Undergraduate Research and generously supported financially by the Genentech Foundation and Beckman Coulter Foundation, is dedicated to making this research experience possible for low-income, first generation and under-represented students. Each PURE student selects an area of academic interest as well as a faculty mentor who guides them through an eight-week summer research project. This summer’s students did research in Mechanical Engineering, Mathematics, Behavioral Neuroscience and Chemistry.

For Victoria Cendejas, a neuroscience PURE student, this summer goes beyond the opportunity to gain research experience. It is the first step in getting involved in a field she has a history with and a passion for.

“Disease, in general, is kind of prevalent in my family because my mom, she passed away from cancer seven to eight years ago,” Cendejas said. “My father has Parkinson's disease. It is a neurological disease and going into science and research, it almost kind of gives you inspiration — maybe I can someday help other people with that disease.”

Cendejas joined a team of two senior researchers, led by Psychology Sciences Assistant Professor Jena Hales, PhD, to investigate cognition and memory. Their research consisted of studying the hippocampi of rats. Logging 40 hours a week, Cendejas learned many research methods and techniques. To Cendejas, this is just the start and she hopes to continue research in either neuroscience or biology with the dream of aiding others either through disease education or research.

“I want to at least go into a future where I can help,” Cendejas said. “Either find research for diseases or practices. Whatever I end up doing I want to possibly help people, or just provide education, or something like that.”

With a deep passion and wise intellect, Cendejas knows the road to solving these medical unknowns through research is a long one, but the PURE program acts as a great catalyst for her dream.

“PURE is basically the first step,” Cendejas said. “You have to start somewhere. PURE gives people like me — those who are interested in something bigger — an introduction. The hardest thing is to start.”

And start she has. From getting to know those within her research lab, the USD campus as a whole, and having a faculty mentor this past summer, the first year of university for Cendejas and fellow PURE students Carlos De La Rosa, Devin Villalpando, Ashlee Osborne and Trina Nguyentu, is far less daunting.

De La Rosa, who focused on mechanical engineering this summer, spoke about the confidence and comfort that PURE provides.

"The role that PURE plays is just being a source of connections," De La Rosa said. "Building those relationships with your mentor so that once you are at USD you are not alone ... I am, actually, the first in my family to go to university. You feel like you have accomplished a lot and it is not scary because of programs like (Student Support Services) and PURE."

De La Rosa worked on two projects this summer. The first dealt with the biomechanics of shoes with Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Associate Professor Bryan Cornwall, PhD, PEng. The second was volunteering to help construct a 15-foot sundial that was recently on display at Burning Man.

With the fall semester in full swing, there is no telling where these five PURE students will go as they continue their academic careers. Wherever they do end up, this summer experience has surely provided them ample confidence and resources for their future.

— Luke Garrett ‘20

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