Daisy Belmares-Ortega will graduate from The University of New Mexico this week with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. The degree will mark an achievement in both academics and perseverance for the first-generation college student and Presidential Scholar who worked as both a UNM research assistant and an overnight dispensing nurse throughout her studies.
Some students choose a major based on subjects they feel come most naturally. Belmares-Ortega took the opposite approach. For her, studying mechanical engineering was about proving that through hard work she could tackle the subjects that had most challenged her in middle and high school when she was growing up in the South Valley of Albuquerque. Her parents, who worked multiple jobs to support her family, found time to sit down and help her with homework.
“During high school, I struggled a lot with math. Even basic algebra was difficult for me and toward the end of high school I started to take some calculus courses and I succeeded in those and that gave me the motivation to continue to use math and potentially combine it with science,” Belmares-Ortega said.
While in high school, Belmares-Ortega completed the Licensed Practical Nursing program through the Albuquerque Public Schools Career Enrichment Center. She loved working with patients but when she started at the University in 2019, she initially chose to focus on school and related opportunities. She got involved with research early on in her undergraduate career, first working in a mechanical engineering materials science lab. The work got her interested in the experimental process but also showed her she needed a human connection to scientific work.
“Going from having a nursing license to mechanical engineering — I wanted to combine both of them,” Belmares-Ortega said. “I know what it takes to take care of a patient and I know the needs that they have and the very human side of their disease process and with mechanical engineering, you get those hands-on skills of problem-solving and critical thinking and you can use those skills for a greater purpose with patients.”
After acceptance into the competitive U-RISE program, which supports undergraduate research for students committed to earning a Ph.D. in a biomedical field, she began working in the Rama Gullapalli Lab in the Department of Pathology at UNM Health Sciences. There she studied cancer cells and worked on a project to help develop a 3D cell spheroid platform using CAD skills she learned through her mechanical engineering classes. Working in the lab fueled her interest in pursuing a combined MD/Ph.D. where students spend roughly eight years studying medical school curriculum and working on dissertation research in biomedical science. She plans to take time after graduation to study for entrance exams and work on her program application.
As an undergraduate student, Belmares-Ortega loved her work and engineering classes. However, after experiencing housing insecurity during her second year of college, she decided it was time to put her nursing certification to use again and took a position working night shifts as a dispensing nurse.
The intense schedule of STEM courses, lab research and night shifts as a nurse, was challenging, but Belmares-Ortega will sooner point out the difficulties other students and community members face before acknowledging the hard work that has brought her to graduation. She never found her classes boring and was able to study under rocket scientists and even participate in the LOBOmotorsports program where mechanical engineering students work to build a Formula One racecar. In the throws of managing all her commitments, she took comfort in the fact that she had reached a point in her life where math and science were no longer so difficult for her. Her next challenge wasn’t so much doing the homework as it was scheduling the time to complete it around classes and multiple jobs and she took that new obstacle as encouragement she was one step closer to her ultimate goal of working as a biomedical scientist.
Many of the patients Belmares-Ortega serves as a dispensing nurse have substance use disorders. Witnessing their journeys has helped further shape her goals and research interests.
“I worked with patients who were overcoming substance use disorders and I got to hear their stories, their hopes, their dreams, and I came to realize they are a very resilient population here in our very own community,” Belmares-Ortega said. “I thought that would be the greatest impact and the greatest way I could give back would be to use the science skills I’ve gained and keep asking those questions so eventually I could apply that to a real patient need or diagnosis.”
Now, as Belmares-Ortega reflects on her upcoming graduation and future plans, she said she hopes to encourage other university students.
“There were times — nights, mornings, preparing for tests — that I felt that maybe this isn’t the place I belong and maybe I won’t make it to graduation the way things are going, but I stuck to the right mentors, I’d speak to my advisors and I always found motivation in at least someone at UNM that told me, ‘you have to keep going,’” Belmares-Ortega said. “I would say every student has the opportunity to make it to graduation and although everyone faces their own unique set of circumstances and challenges, there is always someone at UNM who is going to care about your story.”