At the University of New Mexico, undergraduate students engage with world-class researchers to develop innovative new knowledge and solve important societal challenges. In keeping with this important mission, UNM’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the Undergraduate Research, Arts & Design Network collaborated to celebrate these amazing partnerships through the new Faculty-Mentored Undergraduate Research Award that recognizes exceptional examples of faculty research mentorship and student professional development.

The inaugural winners of the 2022 Faculty-Mentored Undergraduate Research Award include Research Assistant Professor Achraf Noureddine and biochemistry BA/MD student Lien T. Tang. Together, Noureddine and Tang demonstrate UNM’s tenet “research IS education” by fostering a culture of diverse research participation, advancing UNM students into successful futures, and increasing capacity for research that impacts society.

“We are so pleased to introduce this new award that truly highlights one of our most important activities at the University – mentoring students in the discovery of new knowledge,” said Vice President for Research Ellen Fisher. “This type of experiential learning forges the next generation of passionate, innovative leaders who will change our world.”

As a first-year student in Fall 2018, Tang joined the UNM Nanoscience and Nanomedicine lab under Distinguished Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Brinker and Early Career Faculty Mentor Achraf Noureddine, who is a research assistant professor in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering.

“I was motivated – and continue to be motivated – by the hope to make a contribution towards finding solutions to currently unsolved problems in society and possibly help others through my research,” said Tang. Noureddine and Tang collaborated on research utilizing silica nanotechnology to create versatile platforms for the treatment of different types of cancer and other diseases such as obesity.

“By intellectually owning the project, Lien launched her approach by a thorough literature search to strengthen her background about the state of the art of her project,” said Noureddine. “This helped direct the research pathway by selecting the specific experimental procedures/items to follow or to avoid, hence allowing for a significant forge ahead.”

Through weekly meetings, Noureddine helped Tang to design, conduct and evaluate her experiments. The results speak for themselves. Tang is the lead or co-author of at least five scientific articles, including one honoring the Department of Energy Centers and another one in Nature Biomedical Engineering in collaboration with UNM Health Sciences Center Research Assistant Professor Rita Serda. She is also co-inventor of a patent application through UNM Rainforest Innovations, and has mentored high school students, five undergraduates and one graduate student.

In addition to Tang’s successes, the awards selection committee was impressed by the evidence of Noureddine’s responsive and holistic mentoring process, which contributed significantly to Tang’s professional growth and development of ethical, engaged, and collaborative research practices. Like many projects, this research necessitated significant hands-on training for the development of theoretical and technical skills to perform the work safely and independently.

Noureddine carefully balanced this training with strategies to allow Tang to feel comfort and ownership in her research, gain confidence, and make independent decisions rather than “working for a supervisor.” The results of this strategy were evident in an outstanding ‘lightning’ talk that Tang produced, where she demonstrated a sophisticated knowledge of the research and its significance, and a clear, organized understanding of the research process, from concept to revalidation of key results. In describing the project’s success, Tang noted particularly how valuable Noureddine’s guidance was to help her cope with COVID-19 restrictions and adapt to these difficult circumstances without sacrificing research momentum.

Tang noted in her nomination form the importance of professional development beyond the research itself. “I have been able to engage in multiple external opportunities to share my results or research experience with others,” she said. “I have presented my research as both posters and oral presentations in multiple conferences, including the Rio Grande Symposium on Advanced Materials as well as the UNM Undergraduate Research Opportunities Conference.

“Using my experience in research, I have mentored several high school students in the lab by sharing my expertise in both the technical skills and scientific knowledge associated with my project. Outside of the lab itself, I have participated in a science fair alumni panel to share my general research experiences with current science fair students and have been a guest speaker at the ABQ School of Excellence to share my experiences with younger students and help foster an interest in pursuing science.”

The research of Noureddine and Tang exploits the power of silica science in creating novel systems capable of treating relapsed drug-resistant prostate cancer by wisely interfacing nanotechnology with biotechnology. In addition to this crucial research, their partnership demonstrates the value of research in educating future scholars. Indeed, Tang moved beyond the realm of “future scholar” and became a “scholar” the day she stepped into UNM’s UNM Nanoscience and Nanomedicine lab.

Tang graduated from Manzano High School as a class valedictorian and graduated from UNM with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry last May. She subsequently enrolled at the UNM School of Medicine. Noureddine, who earned his Ph.D. in Nano-Engineering at the School of Chemical Engineering of Montpellier (France), has been a research assistant professor at UNM since 2019. His research interests include sol-gel materials engineering, nanoparticle architecture, and nanomedicine, among others. Noureddine is also a dedicated supporter of diversity-inclusive mentoring.

Photo cutline: Biochemistry student Lien Tang and Research Assistant Professor Achraf Noureddine are recipients of the inaugural Faculty-Mentored Undergraduate Research Award.