Setting the Pace for Education Through Research

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by Leticia Elizondo

Progress is typically viewed as a slow labored work, yet with even just one glance at The University of Texas at Brownsville, one gets the sense that somehow this progress is achieved through different means and yet with the same remarkable results. In September of 2011, The University of Texas at Brownsville celebrated its twenty year anniversary. In concordance with this milestone came the establishment of three new colleges to the university: the College of Biomedical Sciences and Health Professions, the College of Nursing and the University College.

“A pyramid cannot begin at its peak” says Dr. Garcia, president of The University of Texas at Brownsville, referring to the growth that has taken place over these past twenty years. Recognizing that there will always be work left to accomplish, Dr. Garcia takes pride in assesing all that the university has managed to achieve in just twenty short years, and looks foward to maintaing its commitment to students of the lower Rio Grande Valley. In establishing these new colleges, it became clear that recruiting talented faculty in each field would be of the utmost importance.  Students in the College of Nursing and the College of Biomedical Science have the unique opportunity to work alongside their professors in specialized research projects, many of which focus precisely on health issues pertaining to the the local community.

The following faculty members comprise a small yet significant portion of both the College of Biomedical Sciences and Health Professions, and the College of Nursing.

Dr. Luis V. Colom, Vice President of Research in the Department of Biomedicine, made the life altering decision to leave Baylor Medical, and relocate his family to the Rio Grande Valley after visiting UTB. Admittedly, there was not much to work with as Dr. Garcia recounts the moment she presented Dr. Colom with UTB’s research laboratory-a large storage closet. However, Dr. Colom believed in the potential for growth of the university, and perhaps most importantly, recognized the need that exhists in the Rio Grande Valley for qualified health care professionals. In addition to serving the community, the creation of this new College of Biomedical Sciences and Health Professions, formerly existing as the School of Health Services, creates the potential for the acquisition of new degree programs such as the new bachelor’s degree in Biomedicince.

Dr. Michael Lehker, Professor and Chair in the Deparment of Biomedicine emphasizes the importance of collaboration amongst local universities in order to prepare students of the Rio Grande Valley for medical school. One of the department’s most unique attributes is the dedication of its faculty to cultivate what Dr. Lehker describes as a “hollistic education experience”, where the student is mentored in all aspects of their college experience.
In additon to the College of Biomedicine and Health Professions, this year The University of Texas at Brownsville also introduced the College of Nursing, where students can obtain a vocational, associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in Nursing.

Dr. Anne Rentfro, professor in the College of Nursing specializes in Diabetes research. Diabetes, a condition of nearly pandemic proportions in the Rio Grande Valley, is studied through various preventative programs for school age children.  The all encompassing research also includes creating public awareness amongst adults regarding healthy diabetes prevention habits. Dr. Rentfro’s dedication to providing local residents with outstanding nursing care can best be conveyed through her own observation, that the research done at UTB is only as important as the questions one wishes to answer through that research.

Dr. Saraswathy Nair, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedicine is also deeply invested in local diabetes/obesity correlation research. Demonstrating how the two colleges, while seemingly two very different institutions, come together just as a nurse, doctor and scientist work together in investigating, educating and treating disease.

Finally, Dr. Emilio Garrido, associate professor for the Department of Biomedicine focuses on epilepsy studies, including underlying molecular abnormalities that lead to neurological disorders.
Dr. Colom’s research closet has been transformed into a building that houses a multitude of research laboratories, all with state-of-the-art equipment and technology. The students benefit from assisting with the research, bringing traditional textbook study to life, and givng the much needed experience often required by institutions of higher learning.

In the next twenty years, the local community will already be experiencing the postive effects of this expansion, as students enter the workforce prepared to tackle the challenges that are unique to this region. Meanwhile, funding is essential to maintaining UTB’s current growth rate.  As for the coming year, thanks to a grant funding through the state of Texas, a second biomedical research building will soon be installed.