San Antonio Scholar Fulfills Dream Through Unique NSF Program
COLLEGE STATION -- San Antonio native Sonny Aguilar '11 remembers her first day at Texas A&M University like it was yesterday.
Standing inside the cavernous first-floor lecture hall of the five-story Kleberg Animal and Food Sciences Center armed with new books and a backpack on the first day of the fall 2009 semester, Aguilar vividly recalls the din of eager chatter emitting like an indecipherable wave from her fellow undergraduates -- a mishmash of identities and personalities -- as well as her furtive visual hunt through the 300-plus-seat room for just one that was empty.
Wherever she ends up sitting Saturday (May 14) in Texas A&M's Reed Arena, Aguilar likely will consider it the best seat in the house and another memory of a lifetime as one of a record 6,800 graduates expected to receive diplomas this weekend as part of spring commencement ceremonies.
Although Aguilar was classified as a junior back in September 2009 unlike the majority of the underclassmen around her, it was her first class as an Aggie and member of the inaugural class of Palo Alto College-Texas A&M University Science Scholars, a National Science Foundation-funded program to increase baccalaureate degree opportunities for students interested in pursuing careers in STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.
As she settled into an unclaimed swivel desk that now-distant day, Aguilar remembers pausing to absorb her surroundings -- a stark contrast to Palo Alto College in southern San Antonio, where she had spent the previous two years cutting her collegiate teeth in an atmosphere more reminiscent of a close-knit high school where everyone knew everyone, and home and a hot meal was just a bus ride away.
"On my first day at Texas A&M, I was freaking out," she confesses sheepishly. "I was worried about how much I was going to have to step up my game from when I was at Palo Alto."
Two years removed from the intimidated and out-of-place newcomer she arrived as, the senior biology major now exudes confidence as she prepares to embrace her future as a prospective veterinarian. Goal-oriented and determined nearly to a fault, she has effectively made the most of her time at Texas A&M by participating in a variety of on-campus clubs and organizations, extracurricular and otherwise, and meeting as many people as possible. Along the way, research also has become a prominent factor in her academics -- past, present and future.
For the past year, Aguilar has been accumulating valuable undergraduate research experience in the laboratory of Dr. Mark J. Zoran, professor of biology and associate dean for graduate studies in the College of Science. Her work has involved rats -- specifically, probing the effects of fatty acids on the signaling that occurs within their suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, a portion of the brain that serves as the master control for the animal's biological clock by synchronizing the brain and body with regard to sleep, feeding and general activity rhythms. She and another undergraduate student have spent several semesters in Zoran's lab cultivating cultures of brain cells and observing their responses to Omega-3 fatty acids. The meticulous work is part of a bigger experiment to understand the importance of lipids present in the human diet to the function of brain cells.
"When you're a kid, you just think it would be cool to play with animals all day, but as I grew older, I became interested in anatomy, organs and how everything functions," Aguilar says, explaining her decision to join Zoran's team of undergraduate researchers.
When Zoran brought her to his lab for the first time, he says he almost immediately noticed her work ethic and passion for learning.
"Sonny has made a significant impact on our research project in the very short time she has been in the lab," he says. "The project she has been working on since the beginning of September 2010 is similar to one I have had other undergraduate students working on during recent semesters. Where some made progress, Sonny has made substantial progress. Where some struggled to progress, she has persevered and accomplished."
Her impact has the potential to be even more significant. Zoran hopes to include preliminary data from her research in a grant proposal to be submitted later this year to the National Institutes of Health -- a submission that will include multiple researchers from Texas A&M's world-renowned Center for Biological Clocks Research. If accepted for funding, the project will enable Zoran and his colleagues to investigate the effects of nutrition on circadian rhythms in brain cells and other tissues in hopes of determining their roles in several diseases.
Much like her Texas A&M mentors, Aguilar notes that biomedical research just seemed to "click" for her. Perhaps it helps that animals have been a big part of her life since childhood -- a learning experience bookended by one of her first pets, a skinny cat named Gandhi, and her current companion, a Border collie mix named Fluffy. She claims she has always been fascinated by animal behavior and the numerous intricacies and quirks of different species.
"When I was younger, I'd watch Steve Irwin out and jumping around in places like Africa and checking out all these animals, and so I really enjoyed that," she says. "I remember wanting to move out there and do that kind of stuff."
While she enjoyed being close to home and sharing her initial college experiences with her closest friends as a student at Palo Alto, Aguilar says she knew she couldn't stay in a community college if she wanted to fulfill her overall goal of becoming a veterinarian. However, any prospects of higher education were constantly overshadowed by one looming issue: money.
As the only daughter of a loving middle-class family from San Antonio's south side, Aguilar says she enjoyed a happy childhood with her two older brothers and one younger brother. Her father was a struggling musician, a bass guitar player who had come over from Mexico seeking the proverbial better life, while her mother had graduated from a technical school at her own expense and found work at a collections agency. With five mouths to feed, even a fulfilling familial bond didn't always mask the fact that money was often tight. Texas A&M had long been on her mind, if only for its highly acclaimed vet school, but she knew it would be a costly venture.
After toiling for a few weeks at PAC during her first year in 2007, Aguilar says she found a possible answer. She noticed flyers promoting a unique undergraduate scholarship program for students majoring in biology, chemistry, mathematics or physics to begin their studies as part of Palo Alto's two-year program and then transfer to Texas A&M to complete their four-year degrees, complete with full scholarships. Perhaps even more attractive than its funding was the program's premise -- that academically talented students who might otherwise not have the financial resources to do so would have the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree from a major university.
Aguilar says she consulted with Palo Alto advisor Sara Wilkins and then decided it was a perfect opportunity for her and her family. One signed and delivered application later, she was one of eight students chosen in summer 2008 to be inaugural members of the program and a life-changing quest.
"I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to come to Texas A&M," she says. "My family was very supportive of it. My dad was very excited and said it was a great opportunity, and my mom was a little sad her daughter was going away, but we talk like three times a day."
According to Dr. Timothy P. Scott, Science Scholars Program director and associate dean for undergraduate programs in the Texas A&M College of Science, Aguilar is the epitome of what he and other administrators -- not to mention the NSF -- had in mind when they proposed the initial idea for the program.
"The faculty at Palo Alto thought very highly of Sonny," Scott notes. "She's very bright and very well-grounded; you almost want to say she's mature beyond her years. She made the best of a difficult transition to a major university, took advantage of research experience, and now she's ready to graduate and take on the world."
As wary as she was of leaving her family in San Antonio two years ago, Aguilar says her perception has changed -- a shift she attributes directly to the Science Scholars Program and scholarships in general. She has yet to take out a single student loan thus far during the course of her entire college career, thereby fulfilling her goal of obtaining a degree without financially burdening herself or her parents. She credits this valuable financial support for enabling her to cash in on the one-of-a-kind experiences to be found in Aggieland as well as a priceless opportunity to experience life.
"Coming to a different college, it's a different town with a different atmosphere and different people," Aguilar says. "It's change. It opens up your mind."
After graduation Aguilar will embark on a two-week internship in South Africa, where she will trail experienced veterinarians, take notes and assist in a variety of related tasks while getting an up-close look at lions, rhinoceri and other beasts of the savannah. From there, she will return to Texas A&M in the fall for graduate school. She has been accepted into the master's program in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, where she will work in another laboratory -- that of Dr. Michelle D. Pine, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences, to investigate the possible relationship between pesticides and the onset of puberty and neurodevelopment. She still plans on applying to and getting into vet school to fulfill her ultimate goal of opening small-animal clinics in countries that may lack the resources to do so and to contribute her skills, even for free if necessary, in an effort to help animals that have never experienced the care of a veterinarian.
Aguilar admits she has huge aspirations, but given how far she has come in such a short amount of time, she contends they are feasible. In addition, she acknowledges that, while scholarships are a blessing, both a quality education and a drive to succeed are required prerequisites to reaching one's highest potential.
"Be well educated in whatever it is you want to do as a career, but most importantly, be determined," she asserts. "I'm not the smartest person in the world, but I‘m very determined and that's why I got here. Determination can get you anywhere."
To learn more about the PAC-Texas A&M Science Scholars Program, visit http://www.science.tamu.edu/sciencescholars.
For more information on undergraduate research opportunities at in the College of Science and at Texas A&M, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/research/REU/.
Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or email@example.com, Dr. Mark J. Zoran, (979) 862-6299 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Timothy P. Scott, (979) 845-7362 or email@example.com