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Student Views

Amy Rivera Lindsey Hoover Nicolas Cortes-Penfield Lalita Calabria Candace Peyton Kiersten Andrews Elizabeth Diltz Priscilla Fite

Nicolas Cortes-Penfield Nicolas Cortes-Penfield
Undergraduate, Microbiology option
Hometown: Austin, Texas

What created your interest in Biology?

Biology examines what I think are the universe’s most interesting questions: how life works, how it’s put together, and how it came to be. You can look at an ecosystem, or a species, or an organ, or even a single cell – at every level you find systems that astoundingly complex, flexible, and harmonious. I suppose I see life as the most interesting puzzle of all.

When I was ten or so my father tried to tell me about the search for a cure for AIDS, describing pathogenesis of HIV – that is, how the virus causes disease – along with all the immunology that comes with it. You can probably imagine how simplified his explanations were and how much still went over my head, but what stuck with me was an amazement that scientists had figured out so much about the ‘bugs’ and about the human body, as well as an unshakeable faith that we could translate all that knowledge into a treatment for every disease. So, for me biology has always been about that struggle against our own mortality, and the allure has always been the opportunity to discover new ways to help people live long, healthy, happy lives.


What do you enjoy most about your studies or research?

Without a doubt it’s the enthusiasm that the professors, teaching assistants (TA), and mentors bring to the table. You might expect such a large program to be nothing but a degree mill, but I’ve found just the opposite. My freshman year, before I was even a biology major, I found myself taking genetics and I ended up the only person in an 8am TA session, the only one I could attend. For the entire semester that TA came to teach me every week, the two of us sitting alone in the lecture hall; knowing that he was willing to invest so much of his time into my education was what motivated me most to do well in the class.

It’s the same way now: my professors have all been vocal about their desire make us the next generation of scientists and professionals, as well as willing to help me with my classes, with finding work and research opportunities, and even helping me plan my future studies after I graduate. One of my current professors, Dr. Leanne Field, has not only worked to set up an internship program that places students in research positions with the Austin / Travis County Health and Human Services Department and the Texas Department of State Health Services, but advertised and encouraged students in her classes to apply. During my internship I conducted research in tuberculosis epidemiology under the mentorship of Dr. Dooley, at the county health department. Had it not been for Dr. Field’s insistence that I try to apply for the internship, I might have missed the most valuable educational experience of my undergraduate studies.


Why did you choose UT's School of Biological Sciences?

It’s funny – I actually started at UT in the School of Music, thinking I would become a band director. When I decided to switch into the sciences I already knew the campus and the city. That was certainly part of it – having gone to college in Austin, it’s going to be hard to study anywhere else. But what convinced me to stay and study biology here was really just the quality of the classes I had already taken. Having taken BIO 325: Genetics with Dr. Finklea, I knew that the program here was rigorous: my new biology classes were going to be fast-paced, demanding, and comprehensive, and that was exactly what I wanted. What’s important is that you be challenged by your classes, be pushed not just to learn as much as possible, but to become a better student. UT’s School of Biological Sciences did that for me, so I knew it was where I belonged.


What's your favorite research tool?

The spreadsheet. I’m not kidding either: when you’ve finished entering your research results into your database and have started sorting variable against variable, shaking your data upside down to see what correlations fall out, that’s the most thrilling part of a project. Even when you find a ‘bad’ association – say, the incidence of a disease is increasing in a certain population, or some new drug inhibits the activity of other drugs – there’s still that elated ‘aha!’ moment when you first sight the trend and realize that you’ve found significant results. It’s like putting the last piece down on a jigsaw puzzle, and seeing the whole picture for the first time. I love that.


What are your career goals?

I want to end up in public health, because it seems to me that’s where I can do the most good. Epidemiology is my main interest, because it turns the stuffiness of statistics and research into something exciting: a search for the cause of an outbreak, or a race to figure out who is at risk for a disease and where a public health program needs to intervene to protect its community. To be honest I haven’t given much thought about working at a particular organization or area or level of service; I’ll consider myself successful if I can make any contribution to the field.


Are there any awards or special events related to your work that you'd like to share?

I was the recipient of an Unrestricted Endowed Presidential Scholarship. At the end of the semester I and other students participating in the Public Health Internship (PHI) will be presenting our research. I'd highly recommend anyone interested in doing research as an undergraduate come see our presentations or any of the other undergraduate research presentations here at UT – any chance to get your foot in the door, right? Along the same lines, a lot of the interns for the PHI program are avid members of the Society for Public Health Students, a student organization here on campus, so that’s another great place to get information. But even aside from being a chance to learn about the internship program, SPHS brings in public health professionals and leaders from all around Texas, so it’s a valuable opportunity for anyone interested in the medical or community health aspects of biology.


What do you like to do in your spare time?

Well I still take saxophone lessons and play in the university’s saxophone choir - a nice escape from my studies in the sciences. Over the weekends I volunteer at the Town Lake Animal Center. During the week I don't have as much free time, but I like to spend it with my friends, playing cards, watching movies, or just talking over coffee.


What fun activity would you recommend to an incoming UT student?

If you mean within UT, join the FIG (freshman interest group) program! You'll make lots of new friends who share your class schedule, explore the university together, get to know students in your field who are ahead of you, meet your future professors, and get the most out of your first year. If you mean here in Austin, everyone should see at least one movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. It's so much better than a regular theater; they serve good food and they'll kick out anyone who talks during the movie. Or check out Zilker Park and the greenbelt. It's amazing - you can go hiking and be surrounded by nature, away from the noise of the city ten or fifteen minutes down the trail.



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