Undergraduate Research Played Role in Paper Tied to Early Career Award

May 24, 2022 • by Sophia Kurz

UT Austin alumni involved in Freshman Research Initiative Labs during their time at UT later contributed to a paper that the Journal of Coordination Chemistry singled out for special recognition.

​When they joined the Luminators stream of the Freshman Research Initiative, alumni Tyler King, Alex Bard, Joe Espinoza, Desmond Schipper and Ohri Esarte Palomero all expected to have experiences in chemistry research that would serve them well in their future. What they may not have predicted was that they all would contribute to a paper that the Journal of Coordination Chemistry singled out for special recognition for being among its highest quality articles of the year.

Lead author Lauren DePue, the assistant professor of practice who oversees the FRI's Luminators stream, was chosen this spring by the journal's editors as the winner of the Arthur E. Martell Early Career Researcher Prize. The prize honors a chemist who significantly contributed to a high-quality article published in the previous year. The 2021 paper in question involved DePue and researchers from her FRI stream.

A UT Ph.D. alum herself, DePue has run the undergraduate research lab where students synthesize and characterize compounds, called luminescent metal complexes, since 2013. These so-called "luminators" have the potential for useful technological applications such as probes in biological systems, light-emitting diodes (LED's) and photovoltaic devices (solar cells). Primary investigators for the lab are associate professor Emily Que and emeritus professor Richard Jones. They, too, are authors on the article that the journal recognized.

DePue's research team reported results after synthesizing and characterizing three new wheel-shaped compounds – part of a group called lanthanide coordination complexes – that are the first to be visibly luminescent. According to DePue, the new compounds could potentially be used as single-molecule magnets, which some scientists envision as building blocks for quantum computers.

Portrait of five people

Alex Bard, Joe Espinoza and Tyler King with two other FRI students (Margaret Tran and Emily Reynolds) in the Luminators research stream at the annual FRI picnic in 2014.

Lasting Impact

In the award-winning Freshman Research Initiative, undergraduate students have the chance to engage in real-world research experiences with faculty and graduate students from early in their time in college. FRI has become a national model for science education, as students are more likely to stay in college, complete science and math degrees and graduate better prepared to pursue advanced degrees or jobs in the industry.

"In the past, you did research maybe your junior or senior year of college, and then you went on to graduate school," said DePue. "We can train them and teach them a lot of different techniques and instrumentation. They're exposed to research at such a young age that they gain the benefits of having done research long term."

All of the former FRI students who co-authored the paper are pursuing careers in science, engineering or medicine.

King graduated from UT Austin in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and received his Ph.D. from UT chemistry in 2021. He currently works at the Exfluor Research Corporation.

Bard graduated from UT Austin in 2016 with his bachelor's degree in chemistry and is currently completing his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Washington.

Espinoza graduated from UT Austin with bachelor's degrees in biology and philosophy in 2017. He completed his M.D. at McGovern Medical School and is now a medical resident in psychiatry.

Schipper, who was one of the first students to join the FRI stream under the previous research educator and was involved in the initial stages of the work, graduated from UT Austin in 2012 with his bachelor's degree in biochemistry. In 2019, he graduated with his Ph.D. in chemistry from Rice University. He is now a senior scientist at Sinopec Tech Houston.

The final author, Ohri Esarte Palomero, was a study abroad student from Spain when he worked in DePue's lab. Despite not being a first-year student, any undergraduate who participates in the research of a stream is considered part of the FRI program. He graduated in 2015 with his bachelor's degree in chemistry from The University of the Basque Country. In 2020, he graduated with his Ph.D. in chemistry from UT Austin. He is now an NIH postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.