Biology major plans summer study in Saudi Arabia

When Itzela Cruz was a high school student in the Central American country of Panama, she dreamed of studying in the United States.

Three years ago, after Cruz was identified by a U.S. Embassy program in Panama as one of the best potential biology majors in that country, Henderson State University began recruiting her.  After a series of tests and interviews, she enrolled at Henderson.

Cruz has studied marine biology with Henderson in Panama and Belize, and will be part of a group going to the Galapagos this summer. Last year, she assisted with research in one of the top sea urchin labs in the world at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

While looking for a summer internship opportunity, the junior biology major discovered the Visiting Student Research Program in Marine Biology at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and submitted her application. This highly competitive program attracts a large number of applicants from across the world.

Cruz learned last month that she had been accepted into the program, which will pay all her costs, including travel, tuition, room and board, and a stipend.

“I am really excited about this. Getting accepted was a surprise for me,” Cruz said. “I want to learn as much as possible. I want to ‘absorb’ whatever they want to teach me, from the Red Sea’s genomics and ecology, to biological oceanography and microbiology. I am looking forward to the field work as well.”

“This summer, she will participate in a research program in state-of-the-art facilities on the shore of the Red Sea,” said Dr. James Engman, professor and chair of the biology department at Henderson. “Itzela is an outstanding student who works hard and has taken advantage of every opportunity to make herself competitive. Since coming here, she has exceeded every expectation.”

Cruz credits Engman with much of her success. “I knew I wanted to come to study in the U.S. since I was in high school. I had an educational advisor who was helping me find the right program,” Cruz said. “My advisor had worked with Dr. Engman by helping a previous Panamanian student attend Henderson. Dr. Engman wanted to offer another Panamanian student the opportunity to study biology at HSU, so after a couple of tests, interviews, and financial aid hunting, I made it here.”

Cruz said Engman is her advisor and has helped her throughout her undergraduate career. “He’s the mentor of the undergraduate research project I’m currently involved with,” she said. “He also helps me find programs and opportunities to do over the summer. And, of course, he writes my recommendation letters.”

Current research has taken Cruz to the caverns of Blanchard Springs. “In our research, we are using molecular genetic techniques to survey the bacterial flora from cave crickets. It is really fun, and I have learned a lot of laboratory and research techniques,” Cruz said. “It also opens opportunities for more research experiences.”

While working one summer at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Cruz said she used similar molecular genetic techniques to sequence species of sea urchins from Malaysia. “I also had the opportunity to participate in field work, collecting sea urchins to perform hybridization experiments,” she said. “It was a tremendous experience.”

When asked about her future, Cruz said she has her sights set on research and teaching. But first, she plans on attending graduate school and earning a Ph.D. in a marine biology science-related program.

“Itzela and I met this week to discuss her approach to applying to Ph.D. programs in marine biology,” Engman said. “I encouraged her to apply to the very best programs out there, and I am confident that she will be competitive.”

Cruz said she “firmly believes that the biology program at Henderson is one of the best, offering many opportunities. The faculty is reachable and eager to help you be successful. I don’t think I would have felt so involved at a larger university.”