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Conservation Yields Undergrad Awards

Two Honors College Members Earn National Research Recognition

By Eric Gerber

From Left: Sophia Ewens and Sujata Gautam

Two University of Houston undergraduates have been nationally recognized for research excellence. While both have a general interest in conservation, they have been following different scientific paths in exploring that crucial subject.

Sophia Ewens, a junior biochemistry major, has been focusing on bioremediation, essentially converting hazardous materials and pollution into more beneficial forms. That work, along with earlier efforts in Professor T. Randall Lee’s lab investigating nanoshells as carriers for drug molecules, earned her recognition as a Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention. The Goldwater program acknowledges sophomore- and junior-level students with outstanding scientific potential.

Sujata Gautam, a sophomore civil engineering major, was recently recognized as an Udall Scholarship Honorable Mention, reflecting her dedication and achievements in environmental studies. In her freshman year, she was selected to participate in the prestigious three-year Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program and spent her first summer conducting field research in post-wildfire plant growth in the Ponderosa Pine Forest near Bandolier, New Mexico. This summer, she will be doing more field research in Utah.

Both are members of UH’s Honors College.

“Gautam and Ewens are wonderful examples of the emphasis UH places on encouraging our undergraduates to participate in research and of the quality of the research they can be involved with,” says Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Ewens came to UH as a National Merit and Tier One Scholar after growing up in a small — “make that very small,” she corrects — town in Wisconsin. Her wanderlust, along with an interest in attending a strong, research-oriented institution, brought her to UH — albeit with a few reservations about Houston.

“I was concerned there might be an element of that stereotyped Southern, small-town mentality,” she concedes. “Once I got here, I realized it wasn’t really an issue. And the diversity at UH is just amazing. I’m still in awe of how many friends I’ve been able to make from different countries,” she says.

Her initial foray into serious research at UH involved the generation of nano sized particles that could be customized to transport therapeutic drug molecules.

“That was intriguing, but I realized I wasn’t passionate about nano chemistry,” she says. Ewens has been using her UH experience for specialized research in protein analysis at the University of Minnesota during the summer, concentrating on bacterial cell reactions with an eye toward renewable biofuel and pollution-abatement products.

In addition to her obvious scientific acumen, Ewens is also an accomplished pianist, with two Distinction Awards and one Merit Award from the London College of Music Examinations for performance and music theory. That classical background hasn’t prevented her from “rocking out” with a number of bands on occasion. She’s also a big outdoors buff, with windsurfing, long boarding and snowboarding among her pastimes.

Looking ahead, Ewens may pursue graduate studies in environmental biotechnology at Santa Cruz, UCLA or even Queensland, Australia.

“I started studying biochemistry because of my unending desire to know why things work the way they do,” she says. “I just can’t wait to find out where life takes me next.”

A similar enthusiasm for discovery and environmental concerns inspired Sujata Gautam — “Susie” to her family — to come to UH.

“I want to focus on the scientific aspect within the broad, interdisciplinary approach to solving environmental problems,” she says. In particular, she is interested in waste and sustainability.

“We need to find practical ways to position waste as a potentially valuable resource,” she explains. “Something like urine, for instance. Used properly, it can be a real asset in gardening.”

Gautam’s interest in recycling and repurposing reaches back to her early days growing up in McKinney, Texas (30 miles north of Dallas) in a family of Nepali heritage.

“Most people look at things and think, ‘That’s junk.’ But I think, ‘Hmm, what could you do with that?’ Even as a child, I was always collecting things like empty cereal boxes and broken Barbie dolls, trying to find useful things to do with them. I once built a pretty cool log cabin out of old Kleenex boxes,” she recalls.

Attending UH on an Academic Excellence Scholarship, she also serves as a student residence hall assistant, bringing supervision and harmony to 40 of her fellow Cougars, as well as an “All-Star Committee Member” with the University’s Metropolitan Volunteer Program. When Gautam’s not immersed in school and community work, she can be found rock climbing, kickboxing and hiking.

Her future plans include …. well, she’s not so sure.

“I’m interested in a master’s degree at Arizona State’s School of Sustainability, but after that …,” she says and shrugs. “Eventually, I see myself working in an agency addressing environmental issues— not necessarily broad, sweeping changes so much as helping smaller communities individually.”

She does have a more immediate objective, actually — more of an ardent desire.

“I’d really like to visit a landfill,” Gautam says. “How cool would that be?”

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