Students don’t come to The University of New Mexico with the innate knowledge of how to conduct research. The idea of choosing a topic and carrying it through to completion can be daunting and some students are ready to give up before they even try.

As one student noted in a recent presentation, “…For years, I was convinced that I would not be able to do research if I was not ready to do things like slice rat brains or mess with Petri dishes… I thought that I just was not research-minded.”

UNM’s El Puente Research Fellowship, a program under El Centro de la Raza, supports and promotes students in multiple academic areas, offering them the opportunity to increase their understanding and experience of academic research, and gain the knowledge and tools necessary to begin the research process, develop a research proposal, and prepare for graduate school and the professional world.

The application process for El Puente is now under way.

Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera
Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera

El Puente Research Fellowship started as a service internship in the early 2000’s but evolved in 2014 to become the undergraduate research focused program it is today, explained program director Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera. He is an alumnus of the program when it was a service-based internship. His own experience in this program led him to pursue a double major in Latin American Studies and Spanish during his undergraduate career and to become a Student Affairs practitioner focused on advancing educational opportunities for minoritized students.

“We received feedback from our students who were struggling to be admitted into research programs such as McNair or encountering challenges in applying to graduate school, whether here at UNM or elsewhere... We teach the basics of academic research and graduate and professional schools application because we’re trying to bridge students into continuing opportunities and into graduate and professional schools,” Mendiaz-Rivera explained, noting that El Puente means “The Bridge.”

To be in the program, students must be a member of an underrepresented ethnic group in higher education, a first-generation college student, or qualify as low-income.

“Because of the demographics of the university and the fact that we are housed under El Centro de la Raza, the majority of the applicants identify as Hispanic or Latinx but I also work with students who don’t identify that way,” Mendiaz-Rivera said, adding, “El Puente fosters a unique intellectual community premised on incubating the brilliance of Raza and historically underrepresented students.”

El Puente is funded by student fees instead of grants so is not bound by some of the restrictions placed on similar programs. The program is limited to usually around 20 undergraduates but due to increased funding for next school year will accommodate 24. El Puente students are spread across a variety of disciplines and not limited to a certain subset of majors like most research programs.

“I can work with any major as long as they’re interested in doing research and learning about graduate and professional school.”

Research interests are diverse and include Social Media, the COVID-19 Pandemic and Fashion Consumption; Feminist Manifestations in Left-Wing Extremist Groups; Microplastics in Terrestrial Environments and the Impacts on Vegetation Growth; and Gender Roles, U.S. Legislation, and Socioemotional Development in Relation to Dress Code Policies. One student, who researched how New Mexico can increase the rate of development in renewable energy, sits on the PNM Youth Advisory Committee.

 Mendiaz-Rivera pointed to three El Puente alumni who have recently been highlighted for their achievements.

 Biraj Silwal won first place and $5,000 this spring in the 2022 UNM and CNM Mobile App Contest after working with the UNM Basic Needs Insecurity Research Project to develop the LoboEats app. The app enables offices on UNM’s Main Campus to post their food availability and students with the app will be notified in real time. Students can also open the app at any time to see if there happens to be food available nearby. He spent nearly 330 hours writing computer code for the app.

Eric Olaguir has been accepted into the highly competitive Apple Scholars Program. Students from across the U.S. were selected by sharing their views on the future of the tech industry and how they perceived themselves contributing to the advancement of technology in areas of accessibility, education, environment, inclusion and diversity or privacy. He received a $15,000 scholarship, assigned an Apple mentor for the year, and participated in an exclusive one-week immersion event with Apple.

Raven Otero Symphony is the first New Mexican to be selected for the Brooke Owens Fellowship Class, a nationally acclaimed nonprofit program recognizing outstanding undergraduate women and other gender minorities with a multitude of internship and mentorship opportunities including in the aerospace field. Otero-Symphony is a senior studying statistics, and is one of 51 students chosen out of more than 1,000 applications worldwide.

Past fellow (2020-2021) Noah Lucero completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry with a designation from the Honors College. He will begin to pursue his doctorate from the UNM School of Medicine beginning in July. His research topic was Attitudes and perspectives toward screening for Cerebral Cavernous Malformation, a condition caused by a common Hispanic genetic mutation that disproportionately affects New Mexicans.

“El Puente helped me understand that research is not as ambiguous as it is often made out to be,” Lucero said. “The program helped me realize that anyone can do research and that everyone’s contribution to our pool of knowledge on a subject is meaningful. The program supported me all the way through understanding what research is, all the way through identifying a faculty mentor and providing me with the formal resources to conduct research in an institution like UNM.”

Mendiaz-Rivera emphasized students aren’t required to have any research experience.

“I think students are afraid to apply because they don’t have research experience but that’s the point of El Puente. It’s a bridge. We’re supposed to take you from that introductory phase to a point where you are very comfortable with your skills as a researcher and a scholar to then apply for other programs or graduate or professional school,” he said.

That’s why he targets incoming sophomore and junior students: “I’m not looking for students who have already developed and carried out a whole research project.”

And at the end of the program, not all students decide to pursue research.

“That’s OK. We want a space for students to explore their skills and capabilities. Do we want them to continue with research? Absolutely and most of them end up doing it. But there’s no pressure like in other programs.”

Applications for the upcoming year starting in the fall are now being taken and the application deadline is May 31, 2022. Mendiaz-Rivera urges interested students to apply.

The program includes a $2,000 award for completion of fellowship requirements to be split between the Fall and Spring semesters. Students should be enrolled at UNM for Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 and able to commit for full academic year. A GPA of 3.0 or above is preferred. Students must meet one of three of the following criteria:

  • Member of an underrepresented ethnic group in higher education
  • First generation college student
  • Qualify as low income

The program is open to any student regardless of immigration status.

“As director, the most satisfying thing about working with El Puente scholars is seeing their confidence grow exponentially. A lot of students from first-generation, minority backgrounds and low-income households come to UNM with imposter syndrome, feeling like they don’t belong here ̶ ‘UNM is not the space for us, we can’t be topnotch scholars’ ̶ and at the end of the program, all of my students leave knowing that they are the best scholars on campus and that they are contributing to their fields, and that they are absolutely brilliant and that rising confidence in their own skills is amazing. I don’t think that can be directly taught. That’s something they have to discover for themselves.”