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Northern New Mexico College Student Attends Prestigious Conference in Puerto Rico

Hope Lopez also awarded second place at the New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation

Two recent experiences expanded the horizons of Northern New Mexico College student Hope Lopez. The first was winning second place for her research poster presentation at the New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation (NMAMP). The second was attending the 2022 Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Chapter Officer Leader October Retreat (COLOR) at the 2022 SACNAS National Diversity in STEM (NDiSTEM) Conference in Puerto Rico.

NNMC alumni Jonathan Madrid also attended NDiSTEM, presenting undergraduate research he had done with Dr. Rhiannon West, assistant professor of biology at Northern, and NNMC Associate Professor in Chemistry Dr. Brenda Linnell was one of the Mentoring Judges in the Chemistry division.

Lopez has an Associate of Science in Chemistry from Northern and is currently working toward her Bachelor of Science in Biology. One of the things she likes about Northern is the research opportunities available to her, including summer internships at University of Texas, El Paso, and New Mexico IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) Summer Experience.

“I’m really happy with the experience I’ve been getting with research,” Lopez said. “Overall, I really enjoyed my mentors and I’ve learned a lot. And it’s nice to have scientific conversations with people who really get it, because then I feel like I’ve really understood a lot of the material that I’ve taken in from my classes.”

Since NMAMP was the first conference Lopez had ever attended, receiving second place in the poster competition for her research titled “Genotyping the Major Histocompatibility Complex of a sympatric flock of pupfish (Cyprinodon spp.)” was especially exciting for her.

“I really wanted to place, and I manifested it. I told myself, you’ll place, you’ll do good, but I didn’t expect it to be reality,” Lopez said. “I’m very proud of myself. I’ve accomplished a goal that I set for myself that I didn’t really believe in that much, but I think that because I did it that I know that I’m capable of doing more.”

Lopez hopes to eventually publish the research she has been doing with Dr. Rhiannon West, and as an intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which looks at how the immune system correlates with the behavior of the pupfish.

Lopez’ first fell in love with chemistry in high school. The instructors she found at NNMC, especially Dr. Brenda Linnell, helped that passion grow.

“I loved the way she taught the concepts,” Lopez said. “I’m very lucky that Northern has given me the opportunity to enjoy things, because I know if I went to a bigger university, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the classes or the way that they taught as much.”

NNMC does not offer a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, so Lopez switched to biology to continue her education at Northern. At the COLOR conference graduate school and career expo she learned about career options that would let her incorporate chemistry and biology. Exploring different universities and speaking with PhD and graduate school students helped her clarify what direction she wants to pursue after graduation.

“Talking to other students inspired me, to know that they love what they study. Talking to people who are in the PhD programs was the most helpful for me because they had similar paths,” Lopez said. “Everyone’s just like you. Everyone’s into science. Everybody is doing research. We all have so much in common that it’s very easy to have a conversation with people. I made a lot of really good friends I know I’m going to have for a really long time.”

After those conversations, Lopez is leaning toward forgoing graduate school and applying directly to PhD programs or perhaps pursuing a postdoc research fellowship.

“I think that the conference really did help me find a path,” Lopez said. “It also gave me a sense of clarity. I feel like I’m on the right path and that I do really want to use my degree. I just need to figure out what I want to concentrate on, because with biology or chemistry there are so many different fields that I could go into, and I haven’t really had too much experience outside of one.”

The students she met at the Leadership Retreat, many who were presidents and vice presidents of their SACNAS chapter, were also inspiring.

“They really enjoy what they do, and they’re trying to be better leaders for other students. It shows that they really care about their universities, because not only are they studying for their PhD, but on the side they have all these clubs and extracurriculars,” Lopez said.  “It was inspiring to know that. It made me want to put myself more out there, because I see people my own age or older really being involved in their universities.”

One surprising outcome of the SACNAS conference was how the support and encouragement of the other students expanded Lopez’ aspirations.

“I think I’m actually going to apply to Yale or somewhere that I would never have thought myself to be,” Lopez said. “I think I have the potential. And other students from these bigger universities telling me that ‘you’re capable of it’ gives me a motivation. I’m kind of excited now for what the future holds.”

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