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Saturday, December 20, 2014

NM universities receive $16 mil research grant

Universities in New Mexico will receive $16 million over the next four years in a bid to permanently increase research funds in the state.

The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research is donating the money for universities to focus on research in sustainable energy, said Mary Jo Daniel, Associate Director of the EPSCoR state office. She said the initiative, Energize New Mexico, will help increase the state’s capacity for research.

The goal is to make the project fully collaborative across the various institutions in the state, said Daniels. Those directly enjoying the resources brought by the funding are all faculty and students of New Mexico universities, but scientists and professionals from other labs and research facilities, such as Sandia National Labs, often serve as mentors to students and supply intellectual support, she said.

Natalie Willoughby, EPSCoR’s public relations specialist, said UNM is not the only university in the state involved in the initiative, but that the University plays a unique and vital role in the program’s execution.

“UNM is not only our kind of house, where we get paid from and we have our state office, but we also work with several different departments and UNM and faculty members, including biology and economics, as part of some of the science components of the project,” Willoughby said.

Alexandria Bazan, who graduated this spring with a degree in political science and environmental science, said she was first hired by EPSCoR as a student employee before she moved into a group focusing their research on the geothermal aspects of the sustainable energy initiative.

Working with EPSCoR was an experience that allowed her to branch out and realize the scope of her interests, Bazan said.

“As far as student employee part, it really gave me an outlet to network and get to know people within my field and within my department to find research opportunities,” Bazan said. “As far as the geothermal component, this was the first time I was able to see the whole team, and it was really cool to see where I can go from here, since I just graduated.”

Bazan said her involvement in the initiative was crucial to her pursuit of a career in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics field.

“It’s absolutely piqued my interest and encouraged me to keep going and seek jobs within STEM and further education within the STEM field,” Bazan said, “It has opened my eyes to what you can do with a STEM education.”

EPSCoR is a branch of the National Science Foundation meant to help supply funding to states with smaller populations or research capabilities, Daniel said. She said EPSCoR acts as an intermediate step, and the end goal is for New Mexico to, through this financial help, be able to receive primary funding from NSF.

“EPSCoR acts as a catalyst,” Daniel said, “The idea is (researchers) are getting a lot of equipment, training a lot of graduate students, and as they get a foundation they can be much more competitive writing proposals because they have the people and the equipment to do more work.”

New Mexico became an EPSCoR state in 2001, and it has already seen an increase in the amount of research funding received and researchers involved in it, she said.

Willoughby said the EPSCoR research initiatives are great opportunities for students to get involved, make connections and get some experience under their belts.

“Not only make connections, but learn how to do presentations, how to publish your work, learn how to work with younger students and teach them how to work in the field,” she said. “In this project especially we’re focusing on collaboration.”

Zach Pavlik is assistant news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at assistant-news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @zachpavlik.