Cancer research, water treatment give REU students chance to learn about themselves

Nov 6, 2022Courtney Morris
Research lab

A similar experience led Briana Ibarra and Jorge Medellin to two different outcomes.

The two San Jacinto College students participated in research experiences for undergraduates, or REUs, this summer.

While REUs allow students to dive into research projects with faculty and researchers at host institutions, Ibarra and Medellin had another opportunity: to learn more about themselves and choose different pathways.

Do hard things

Briana Ibarra

Ibarra has been pursuing a natural science degree at San Jac to transfer to the University of Houston. This spring, a chemistry professor urged her to apply for the University of Iowa's Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences Program.

"I hesitated because I'd never gone away like that," Ibarra said. "Then I talked to my family and my professor about it. How could I pass up this opportunity?"

Things started rolling after that: She got accepted, boarded a plane to Iowa, and soon was attending lectures by cancer researchers and working under two Ph.D. students. Their project, titled "The Role of Endosomal Toll-like Receptors in Immune Cell Activation," investigated which cell receptors could best be stimulated with immunotherapy drugs to activate the immune system.

"This was all new to me," she said. "It was daunting because I didn't have prior research experience."

After eight weeks, Ibarra went from knowing nothing about cancer research to presenting her group's findings to more than 50 people.

"I've always had an identity crisis," she said. "I think I'm not good enough. This taught me I can do hard things and be good at it."

Expect to fail

Jorge Medellin

Wanting to take a different course after a chemical plant job, Medellin enrolled in San Jac's engineering program. His REU, Rice University's Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Program, is helping him reach higher for his family and community.

"We have to be able to turn things around," he said. "I liked this REU because water is necessary, and one-fourth of the world's population lacks good water."

After applying and interviewing, Medellin went from thinking, "There's no way," to snagging one of only 11 available NEWT spots.

Medellin, two other students, and a Rice researcher collaborated on the project "Electrothermal Membrane Distillation for Treating Hypersaline Feed Water." Their goal? Finding an efficient, cost-effective way to make water two to three times saltier than seawater clean and drinkable.

Medellin kept hearing, "Expect to fail." The reality sank in when he returned to the starting line almost daily. But with each failure, he inched toward progress.

By the end, his team removed almost 99% of the salt from the water and won two awards at the capstone poster symposium. Thanks to this experience, Medellin is laser-focusing even more on his studies.

"I came out more eager to get done what I need to get done," he said. "I have to work harder and be more focused to be at the level of Rice, my dream school."

Grow and go

How did REUs impact Ibarra and Medellin, and what's next for them?

While the REU grew her confidence, it cemented for Ibarra, a social butterfly, that she shouldn't pursue a Ph.D. program with isolated lab research. Instead, she plans to attend medical school to become a pediatrician.

"This opportunity helped me choose which direction to go in my future studies," she said. "It really did align everything I thought originally."

Medellin honed his communication skills. He hopes to transfer to Rice through the Take Flight STEM Pathway, then get hands-on experience in electrical engineering.

Unlike Ibarra, Medellin sees research in his future. While the two reached different outcomes, they can agree their REUs were eye-opening.

"REUs show you where you can be," Medellin said. "A lot of times, we lose our focus. We know what we want, but we can't see it. If you can see these doctors and engineers at work and work alongside them, you can see yourself there."

To learn more about advanced learning opportunities at San Jac, visit

Summer Researchers

Six other San Jac students participated in REUs at Rice this summer:

  • Umahi Agwu, Evolutionary Behavioral Genetics
  • Christopher Avalos, NEWT
  • Beatriz Cespedes, BioNetworks
  • Kevin Juarez, BioNetworks
  • Briana Loredo, SCRIP
  • Nhi Pham, BioNetworks

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