December 12, 2003  


Gateway Program Trains Hispanic Students to Use Synchrotron

By Heather Rock Woods

Myriam Perez De la Rosa drives across the Mexican-U.S. border every morning to her graduate lab at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP). The trip north takes 80 minutes since 9/11, but only 20 minutes south, back to her hometown of Cuidad Juarez.

Gateway students Myriam Perez De la Rosa (left) and Guadalupe de la Rosa presented their scientific results at SSRL’s 30th Annual Users Meeting. (Photo by Diana Rogers)

During the last three years, Perez crossed a less tangible border, becoming an up-and-coming, award-winning Latina scientist with expert training at a world-class synchrotron light lab—namely SSRL.

Perez is an outstanding student in a DOE-funded program called Gateway. UTEP students receive training at SSRL in advanced synchrotron radiation techniques—powerful tools increasingly used in many scientific fields. The program opens a gateway to expanded careers in science for the predominately Mexican-American and Mexican students at UTEP who otherwise wouldn’t gain access to big science.

"The experience at SSRL opened my view about science by learning about the different on-going research studies at different beam lines," said Perez. "The program gave me the tools to break new ground on the catalyst I study, a subject that is over 30 years old. On the border, what pays well for a chemist is quality control. Now I know I can do real science."

The program started from conversations between Iran Thomas, the late Deputy Director of the DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences, SSRL Director Keith Hodgson, former SSRL Director Artie Bienenstock and Russ Chianelli, UTEP chemistry professor and chair of SSRL’s proposal review panel.

The idea came in part from several government reports pointing to the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the U.S. and to an inadequate future workforce in science, engineering and technology.

"A lot of federal agencies want to know where the next generation of scientists and engineers will come from," said Chianelli, Gateway’s UTEP faculty director. "Many of the Gateway students have never been out of the El Paso area, and certainly not seen something like a synchrotron. They are seeing a bigger world. They have done extremely well."

Masters, graduate and even undergraduate students are in UTEP’s interdisciplinary programs: Materials Science and Engineering, and Environmental Science and Engineering.

Gateway graduate students have to write a proposal to gain access to time on one of the SSRL beam lines. UTEP Professor Nicholas Pingitore teaches a proposal writing course. Gateway pays the students’ way to SSRL, where they learn to carry out experiments at a synchrotron source. The scientific results from analyzing these data go into their theses. Some 40 students have been trained during approximately 120 trips here since the program began in 1999.

SSRL’s beam line scientists, including Apurva Mehta and John Pople, work directly with the students on their experimental set-up. "I interface with them as with any other graduate students," said Pople. "I’m just on hand a little more to talk them through the processes and give them background on physics and data collection and analysis because they don’t necessarily have the same knowledge base." He added, "They’re bright, they’re extremely eager to learn and very hardworking."

Gateway students and professors return the compliments. "People at SSRL are always so helpful and patient and want to know about your projects and find out what you need," Perez said.

Perez works with chemical catalysts that take sulfur out of oil to produce lower-emission gasoline. Her synchrotron studies of the catalyst overturned the picture of how the catalysts operate, and suggested using synchrotron tools along with more standard techniques to better understand catalyst activity.

She was one of three Gateway students to present SSRL-based research at SSRL’s 30th Annual Users Meeting in a special tribute session for Thomas, who died earlier this year.

In addition to building valuable skills, experience and better research, Gateway has encouraged studies of Mexican art and archeology. One student, Lori Pole.e, used synchrotron light to examine the mysterious and beautiful pigment Maya Blue, used by ancient Meso Americans. She found its secret: a stable combination of indigo and clay, and now has a Ph.D. and private funding to start producing the pigment commercially.

The Gateway program reflects Chianelli’s philosophy, which Pople describes as, "Do not let a lack of money or a poor country’s economy determine who can get a Ph.D. Let’s get talent from wherever we can."

To learn more about Iran Thomas, see: (item 5).

For more information on Gateway see:


The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Thursday December 11, 2003 by Emily Ball