Biochemistry, math major earns scholarship from National Institutes of Health

July 21, 2020

Senior researcher on the rise at UIW

Ixtaccihuatl Obregon

SAN ANTONIO – Ixtaccihuatl Obregon was waiting in a hallway at Arizona State University (ASU) when she received an unexpected but thrilling email. Along with her five teammates, Obregon had been preparing to present the progress made on her summer research experience when she got the news that she had been selected for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program.

“We were trying not to scream outside the conference room because another group was presenting,” she said. “I had to hold in all my excitement so I could go present to 20 research professors.” After a successful presentation, she was able to exclaim: “Guys, I got it!”

In late January, Obregon had applied for the prestigious scholarship, something she considered a bit of a long shot. For aspiring science researchers, the scholarship offers a pathway from undergraduate studies to the professional world, and offers a scholarship up to $20,000 per year, paid research training at the NIH during the summer, and a guaranteed position as an NIH researcher after graduation. After meeting rigorous application requirements, waiting months during the application review, and taking part in an intense phone interview, she became one of only 10 recipients selected from hundreds of applicants across the nation.

As a double major in mathematics and biochemistry, Obregon is eager to continue her research in both of these areas. Over the summer at ASU, she participated in a selective eight-week program at The Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute. She learned advanced math over a four-week period in preparation for the final four weeks spent in deep research. She and her four teammates from the U.S., China and Mexico, developed their research question on their topic (“Minimizing Drug Resistant Cases of Gonorrhea through Cost – Effective Treatment Plans”), explored various mathematical techniques, formed a model, calculated new estimated parameters based on known research, and formed a system of ordinary differential equations. The team would then have a daily presentation in front of a panel of 20 researchers. As high-pressure as it sounds, Obregon approached it as a growth opportunity.

“It makes you a much more organized person and more driven,” she said. “Coming up with our research question took about a week, and then you had about 20 professors break down the question to see if you knew what you were going to research. They really tested you. It made you proud to say ‘Yes, I know what I am doing.’ It kept moving you forward.”

Now in her senior year at UIW, Obregon continues to rise to challenges she encounters along her path. She is also an officer in the Math Club and president of the Honors Student Board.

“One thing we stress at UIW is community service,” said Dr. Suleyman Tek, associate professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, who has worked with Obregon in class and through service. Last year, they spent a day leading math activities with a group of middle school students during Sonia Kovaleski Math Day.

What’s more, she is a San Antonio Math Scholar at UIW, a program funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Tek, who oversees the grant, organizes weekly meetings and provides opportunities for professional development and conference presentations. During the previous academic year, Obregon presented cancer cells modeled through ordinary differential equations – a project from Tek’s Math Modeling course at the Mathematical Association of America Texas Sectional Meeting.

As for what comes next, Obregon is considering a gap year after graduation. But unlike students who may enjoy a pause in their academic pursuits as they travel or rest, her gap year will be spent researching for the NIH. At the end of her year-term at NIH, she may stay on or consider a program at Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine that offers a D.O. and M.D. program. Whatever her choice, she is sure to rise to every challenge.