Four students from The University of New Mexico-Gallup earned the rare opportunity to conduct undergraduate research in their microbiology class and present their findings at the annual UNM Undergraduate Research Opportunity Conference (UROC).

UNM-Gallup students Arleth Arreguin, Jordan Belmont, Chalanie Davis and Angelina Romero participated in the 2024 UROC in Albuquerque recently. The professional research conference is reserved solely for undergraduates to spotlight their research, explain their ideas and display what they have to offer in their respective fields and majors.

“I was hesitant at first hearing about this opportunity because I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Belmont, a UNM-Gallup junior who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing. “But I was able to sit and talk with a few classmates and the professor about the opportunity this presents. Not only do you get to take part in very important research, but you also learn the skills of how to gather this information, how to apply it and how to network. I really enjoyed that at main campus.”

The research opportunity for these students came about in UNM-Gallup Associate Professor Arunachalam Muthaiyan's microbiology for health sciences class. Muthaiyan has been able to introduce research components into his regular classes thanks to an Expanding Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (ECURE) project.

The project is a National Science Foundation-funded grant designed to leverage UNM’s research mission to enrich undergraduate education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) general education and portal courses. It is led and supported by Academic Affairs, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Division of Equity and Inclusion and the Office of Student Affairs.

The research
In Muthaiyan's class, the students explored essential oils as alternatives for antimicrobial therapy, as in how certain essential oils can kill or slow the growth of bacteria, particularly when trying to prevent wound infections.

Muthaiyan and the students explained that microbes can build a resistance to certain medications and treatments if they get exposed to them for a long time.

“This is a serious problem in the medical field,” Muthaiyan said. “If you take medicine and if it doesn’t work because the bacteria know how to survive, you have to find an alternative therapy. In our project, we tried to use natural products to find alternatives because natural treatments have been used in traditional cultures for a long time.”

They decided to test three kinds of plant-based essential oils – lemongrass, thyme, and orange – to see if they could help kill bacteria. The students worked in two groups. The first group tested the oils to see if they could in fact kill bacteria. Then the second group simulated wound dressing conditions to see how their findings could be applied.

“I was pretty surprised when we did the research,” said Romero, a McKinley Academy junior who wants to study nursing. “I kind of went down a rabbit hole and noticed how much essential oils were actually used in face cleansers, lotions, or soap to get rid of bacteria.”

Presenting their findings
In addition to their experiments in the classroom, the students also had to do extensive literature searches online from credible sources to learn about essential oils and traditional medicines.

While classwork was required for all students, presenting a poster at the UNM conference was optional. Arreguin, Belmont, Davis, and Romero all volunteered to give it a shot.

“It was a bit tedious,” Arreguin, a UNM-Gallup junior who wants to pursue dental hygiene, said of the poster presentation process. “You're trying to condense so much information into small paragraphs and make sure every possible question is answered about the essential oils.”

The students described the conference atmosphere as being similar to a science fair where everyone had their posters set up on tables. This year’s conference featured 152 abstracts and 184 students.

Arreguin said she was excited even though she had never done anything like that before, but her fellow presenters admitted they were nervous going in. After presenting for a few minutes and answering questions from people who visited their poster, the students grew more comfortable and confident.

“Once I got rid of the nerves, I got excited,” said Davis, a UNM-Gallup junior who is pursuing a bachelor’s in nursing. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’ It was fun.”

Muthaiyan commended the students for their excellent work throughout the research process and their presentations at the conference.

“I’m so happy for them because they showed what we do at our Gallup campus and our capacity and ability,” Muthaiyan said. “I’m very proud of them and thankful for their involvement.”

While research is a key component of UNM’s mission, Muthaiyan said it’s difficult for branch campus students to gain that type of experience due to limited time and resources. However, the ECURE grant and UNM’s annual research conference are making those opportunities more accessible for Gallup students like Arreguin, Belmont, Davis, and Romero.

“The main goal was to give them self-confidence and learn how to present and how to think like a scientist,” Muthaiyan said. “Participating in ECURE research enhances students' comprehension of lecture topics, provides insights into research, boosts their confidence and interest in pursuing higher education, and prepares them for future research in their academic or professional careers.”

UNM is designated as an R1 university by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning, which means it has been identified as a doctoral university with very high levels of research activity. UNM is the only university in New Mexico with this prestigious designation.