Here's What Research Did for Me, Student Stories

April 13, 2016 • by Marc Airhart

Students and scientists discuss the importance of getting involved in research early.

Portraits of five college students

As the College of Natural Sciences' Freshman Research Initiative celebrates its 10th anniversary, we speak to students and scientists about how doing research as freshmen and sophomores impacted them.

Opening Doors

In FRI's Autonomous Robots research stream, Patricio "Pato" Lankenau built a "telepresence" system that let users anywhere drive a robot around one of UT Austin's buildings and see what it sees. His experience as a freshman and sophomore helped him land internships at Google and Apple. He's graduating next month after only three years in college. In the fall, he'll go back to work for Apple full time on a distributed computing project. He says the FRI was the conversation-starter that got him an in with companies he might want to work for one day.

Heaadshot of a young man with the words "I would talk to recruiters and they'd say, 'Wow. You're doing research already? Tell me more." Pato Lankenau

Changing the World

Sophomore Jessica Popoola worked on a project in the DIY Diagnostics research stream where students used a 3D printer to build an inexpensive platform for detecting mosquito borne diseases such as malaria and Zika. She's now part of a biotech startup that plans to commercialize the platform they developed. Instead of her original plan to be a doctor, she found a passion for saving lives by getting research innovations out into the real world.

Heaadshot of a woman with the words: "You know how they say, 'What starts here changes the world'? I feel like FRI has really helped do that." Jessica Popoola

Finding a Path

Kate Thackrey's original major was neuroscience, but she also loved writing. In FRI, she was invited to write articles about her fellow students and their research for the official FRI blog. That writing experience helped her decide she wanted to be a science writer. It also helped her land a science writing internship at Argonne National Laboratory this summer.

Headshot of a woma with the words: "FRI was one of the keysytone moments of my life, a turning point when I realized I can do the things I love." Kate Thackrey

Fostering Success

In FRI, Ajay Mohan Narayanan and his lab mates searched for naturally occurring antibiotics produced by microbes in the soil to fight the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. The skills and experience he acquired as a freshman and sophomore made him a good candidate to do research in the lab of professor Marvin Whiteley as an upperclassman. After graduation next month, he heads to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he plans to train to become a surgeon.


Headshot of a young man with the words "Participating in the FRI program ... doing research strengthened my application for medical school." Ajay Mohan Narayanan

Following a Star

Zili Shen was born in Beijing, China and moved with her family to Georgia in high school. When she came to UT, she wasn't sure what she wanted to major in. She was curious about psychology, linguistics and astronomy. By getting to walk in the shoes of an astronomer, through doing real research in the White Dwarf Stars research stream for FRI, she discovered her passion in astronomy and chose her major.

Headshot of a young woman with the words: "FRI turned out to be the perfect way top explore different fields." Zili Shen

Becoming a Scientist

Cristy Portales couldn't believe the opportunities she got as a freshman in the Biofuels research stream back in 2010. She would tell her family back home about the opportunities she was getting to delve into science and see their tremendous pride in her. Cristy went on to join the Antibiotics research stream as a mentor, before graduating in 2014 with degrees in biology and biochemistry. Today she is a graduate student in plant biology at the University of Minnesota. Learn more in the video below.