Research creates opportunities for UC Merced grad

05/07/2009 12:52 AM

10/19/2009 10:51 AM

Anita Ghia, a shy, 21-year-old senior in bioengineering at UC Merced, is the textbook definition of a devoted academic.

She nearly embedded herself into campus laboratories as soon as they were opened to students.

Now when she's done researching in the labs, she usually heads to the campus library.

"I've just been in the labs a lot of these three years," Ghia admitted.

Her fascination with research at UC Merced began in her sophomore year when she was accepted to the university's COINS research program.

Named after the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems, the program afforded undergraduate students the opportunity to do research in conjunction with programs at Berkeley, Cal Tech, Stanford and UC Merced.

In the summer of 2006, 10 UC Merced students, including Ghia, participated in the program. Since 2006, the program has grown slightly each year.

Valerie Leppert is the lead professor for the COINS program and one of Ghia's mentors on campus.

"She's driven and bright," Leppert said of Ghia. "She's also an inquisitive student and great to work with."

Leppert's research focuses on the study of semiconductor quantum dots, and other small particles used for nanotechnology, with the transmission of an electron microscope.

Ghia said she regularly visited with Leppert during the professor's office hours to ask additional questions about class lessons.

"That's the best way for me," Ghia explained. "I like to talk to them one on one."

Really, she explained, she didn't always feel comfortable asking questions in front of a full classroom.

Over time, that uncertainty faded.

Ghia spent three summers doing research with the COINS program -- two in Merced and one in Berkeley. She said the experience caused her to open up more.

Ghia is not the type of student who practically memorizes a class lecture after hearing it once. Instead, she sometimes has to work to make things click.

After each class, Ghia will pore over her notes, highlighting critical pieces of information, writing outlines. Then she will print out PowerPoint presentations and find a classmate to discuss them with.

"You can just approach anyone here and ask for help," Ghia explained. "I haven't had anyone be rude to me."

This fall, Ghia will re-embed in a master's degree program for material science engineering in her home town at San Jose State University.

Ghia said it was those opportunities that drew her to enroll at UC Merced her freshman year even though she had been accepted to the honors program at UC Riverside and other University of California campuses.

"Anita has done what a lot of our pioneering students have done," Leppert explained. "They took the resources available and created their own opportunities."

She began planning for graduate school after attending a Hispanic engineering conference in Southern California during her sophomore year. Several UC Merced students -- of all races -- attend the event each year.

As she gets ready for a new chapter in her life, Ghia reflected on her four years in Merced.

"Academically, I enjoyed myself," she said. "The friendships will last a lifetime."

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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