Because the College of Natural Sciences is where the groundbreaking Freshman Research Initiative began, we speak to students about their experiences in the program from time to time.
Joe Angel Espinoza, Jr. is a senior pre-medical, biology/philosophy double major, and a mentor in the FRI Luminators research stream (also called "Functional Materials based on Metal Complexes"). He is the recipient of multiple scholarships and awards across campus and plans to attend the McGovern Medical School in Houston.
What made you decide to get involved in FRI?
As a child, some of my early aspirations were to be a scientist. By high school, I realized that I also wanted to pursue a career in medicine, and so I applied to UT Austin with the hopes that I could combine both of my passions.
As a freshman, I was accepted into the Biology Scholars Program. Through them, I was introduced to FRI. I was drawn to the program because it would give me the unique opportunity to gain practical research experience. After learning about all of the research streams at the FRI welcome picnic, one really stood out to me. "We make stuff that glows," said one of the mentors. Those words were all it took, and I signed up for the Functional Materials based on Metal Complexes Stream. Looking back on this decision, although impulsive, it was definitely one of the best choices I made in my college years.
How did FRI help you/or will help you to achieve your personal goals?
Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, in one of the poorest cities in America, my exposure to research was nothing more than watching videos in class and with little hands-on activities. I had no idea what "real science" was until I got involved in inorganic chemistry research with FRI. As a freshman, I joined the Functional Materials based on Metal Complexes stream, an inorganic chemistry lab. Through hard work and determination, I was able to help determine the structure of a luminescent lanthanide coordination complex using x-ray crystallography. This compound has since been sent to our collaborators to evaluate its potential as a bio-probe for the early detection of various diseases. Although I only offered a small contribution, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to help achieve my goal in contributing to the future of medical research.
What has been the biggest challenge you have had to overcome in your research and how did FRI help you overcome it?
Failure. I've always seen myself as an individual who can do anything if you put your mind to it. However, I quickly realized that this wouldn't be the case in research. I spent the better part of six months trying to get my project to work, and I was never able to achieve what I thought was success. I felt extremely unmotivated, until I decided to talk to my research educator about the situation. She was very empathetic and showed me alternative strategies I could take to move the project forward. From this experience, I now realize that one learns more from failure than from success.
How has FRI helped you in your other classes/activities in college?
As a CNS student, most of my time is spent in lecture or working in cookbook laboratories, doing experiments that so many others had done before me. However, in the Luminators lab, I am able to apply the knowledge that I have learned in my coursework towards research projects that have the potential to benefit the scientific community.
FRI has definitely taught me time management and other life skills—especially collaboration, organization, and the value of showing initiative. I have also learned how to communicate complex scientific information effectively. In Luminators, several times during a semester, we are required to present our research progress. These presentations have helped me to develop confidence in public speaking and to better understand how my results contribute to the overarching research goals of the stream.
What has been your favorite FRI memory or experience?
During the summer of 2016, I attended the American Crystallographic Association Summer Workshop at Notre Dame. At the workshop, I spent one week learning about x-ray crystallography and powder diffraction alongside graduate students, post-docs, professors and other experts in the field. This opportunity would have been nearly impossible for an undergraduate student, if not for FRI.
Interviewed by Elizabeth Ilardi, Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science.