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Pushing Back the Barriers of Science

Hill Fellowship winner goes beyond his major in award-winning research project

Working in a chemistry laboratory at the University of Idaho has taught Lupe Gutierrez how much he has yet to learn – and how much he wants to learn it.

“The more you know, the more you don’t know. That’s how I feel: There’s so much I don’t know yet,” he says. “Chemistry is not my major. I just want to know so much about it. It makes you a well-rounded scientist.”

Gutierrez, 21, a biology major in the UI College of Science, studies organic molecules in the lab of Kristopher Waynant, a clinical assistant professor of chemistry. Gutierrez will spend the next three semesters digging deeper into his research with support from a Hill Undergraduate Research Fellowship.  The Hill program offers scholarship and research grant money for students working on projects with College of Science faculty.

Gutierrez came to UI in 2014 as a transfer student from Santiago Community College in Orange, California. His Santiago classmate and then-girlfriend (now his fiancée, who is studying dietetics at UI) encouraged him to apply, and the beautiful North Idaho scenery and excellent scholarship offers sealed the deal.

Gutierrez quickly felt at home on campus.

“I like how small the class sizes are and how easy it is to approach and talk to the professors,” he says. “They know your name.”

He also jumped at the chance to get involved in out-of-class research. He took an organic chemistry class from Waynant, who mentioned a side project that Gutierrez found fascinating and wanted to get involved with.

“All I had to do was just email the guy. I thought it was going to be a lot harder getting into a lab,” Gutierrez says. “Anybody can do research here. You just have to get your foot in the door. Just ask.”

Gutierrez is working on a project that aims to make pharmaceuticals last longer in the body (as Waynant is fond of saying, they’re “Making the drugs of tomorrow, today”). He restructures organic molecules, swapping in carbon atoms in place of oxygen atoms to protect the molecules from being easily broken down by enzymes.

“We’re playing with this idea that having carbon linkage will increase stability and prevent degradation,” he says.

In March, Gutierrez will present his work and meet chemists from around the country at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in San Diego.

In addition to his work in Waynant’s lab, Gutierrez also conducts research with Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences Larry Forney. His project with Forney involves studying how antibiotic use affects genetic diversity in bacteria, which is linked to bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Lab work has helped Gutierrez learn to think critically, be adaptable and troubleshoot. But the experience isn’t just educational, he says. It’s exciting. As Waynant always tells his students, they’re pushing back the barriers of science.

“It’s a fun idea to keep in the back of your head – knowing you’re the first person to do what you’re doing,” Gutierrez says.

Waynant says Gutierrez has made a fantastic addition to the lab since he first asked if he could join.

“If I need something done, he’s one of my go-to students,” Waynant says. “He really likes the idea of the project. He looks into the literature on his own. I don’t have to send him a procedure, he’ll already have one or he’ll send me one. I’ll find him randomly practicing his chemistry on a chalkboard or on paper. It’s what you want out of a student.”

Gutierrez also has enjoyed the chance to work closely with Waynant, Forney and other UI faculty members.

“They know so much about what they do, and they care about doing it,” he says. “They invest so much time into making sure their students are doing the best they can. They’re making them phenomenal students and scientists.”

Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications & Marketing

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