Oscar Villarreal will conduct independent research on cancer therapeutics this year after becoming one of the newest members of the UT Beckman Scholars, an award presented to outstanding undergraduate researchers.
Villarreal was introduced to research through his first year in the FRI, working on epidemic typhus in the Virtual Drug Screening stream (VDS). Despite his misgivings, saying that “in high school I thought that research was ridiculous,” he grew to appreciate and enjoy research as the program progressed.
The Beckman Scholars program at UT receives funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which chooses candidates from universities across the nation. The program allows students to design and execute a full-time independent research projects over 15 months, covering two summer semesters and to the fall and spring semesters in between. Students are expected to work on a research project with hopes of publication, and present their findings at the annual CNS Undergraduate Research Forum, a national or international conference during the spring, and at the Beckman Scholar Symposium at the end of their allotted term.
The research Villarreal is working on for Beckman’s is a natural extension of the bio- and protein engineering he learned with the VDS stream and the Walter Fast lab, a part of the UT College of Pharmacy. Whether it was working with infectious diseases, targeting molecular compounds, or analyzing cancer, many procedures remained the same. “Currently I’m running a Western Blot,” Villarreal said, “eventually I’m going to be doing tissue culturing, cytotoxicity testing, and stuff like that.”
The biochemistry senior advised that “every freshman that’s in natural sciences should join FRI,” adding that the concepts he learned doing research helped in “every single class since I was in VDS.” In his words:
I don’t feel like people can adequately describe what research is like. You definitely have to try it. The introductory laboratories don’t do it justice: that’s not research; that’s very boring compared to what you do in research. It’s extremely challenging but it’s also the most rewarding thing you can do. I would recommend everyone with even the slightest doubt to try research.
Villarreal adds that his experience helped him to be competitive for a pre-MD/PhD program in Michigan over the past summer, and that presenting at local and national conferences has helped to show his potential as an applicant to such programs.
Ruth Shear, the Program Director for the Beckman Scholars UT chapter, says that students interested in research should apply for the program regardless of their background, citing a history of unusual scholarship recipients, including freshmen and students without a history as researchers. One of Shear’s fondest hopes is that students can “hang in long enough to feel the joy and excitement that comes when an experiment works,” so that they can “discover for themselves if this might be their life’s work.”
As a professor for one of the Scientific Inquiry Across the Disciplines classes that most FRI students take their first semester, Shear met Villarreal when he was first starting out in research. “Even as a freshman, Oscar was impressing me with the experiments he designed for my class,” Shear said.
When it comes to the future, Villarreal hopes to complete a MD/PhD program before moving on to train as a surgeon. He wants to work with patients and in the lab, saying that as an MD/PhD “you can see where the gaps are in medicine and you can work on them in lab, better the field, and not just affect one patient at a time but a huge number.”
Villarreal has also been honored at the Aspire Awards Banquet, an event held by the College of Natural Sciences which celebrates the accomplishments of underrepresented students, and has presented at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.
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