Zaira Barrera got involved in research the summer after her junior year, and has become passionate about her experience. She credits her research with making her a better student—greatly expanding her knowledge and skills beyond what she has learned in the classroom. Her experience has also strengthened her resolve to pursue a research career, and she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry after graduating from UC Irvine. UROP is pleased to recognize Zaira as an example of how undergraduate students can expand their education through research.

1. What is your specific area of research (include the name of your faculty and/or laboratory)?

My specific area of research is in inorganic chemistry under the mentorship of Professor Jenny Y. Yang, Department of Chemistry. Currently, my research involves studying the electron-transfer rates of diphosphine nickel (II) in various solvents via electrochemical experiments. In addition, I conduct research on transition metal hydride complexes. These complexes are important in catalysis because they are able to reduce carbon dioxide into formate; formate can then undergo a few more reactions to produce clean fuels such as formic acid or methanol.

2. When and how did you first get involved in research?

I first got involved in research during the summer after my junior year by emailing professors who conduct research in inorganic chemistry; I learned about their research by reading about the projects they had listed on their group websites. Luckily, Professor Yang emailed me back to set up an interview and I was able to start research a couple of weeks later.

I was interested in conducting research over the summer, so I also applied for the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) Summer Research Scholars Program (SRSP), a STEM program that is offered at UCI every summer. To apply for the SRSP, we needed to find a faculty mentor and make a timeline for our research project. During my interview with Dr. Yang, I told her about the program and luckily, she already had a detailed project that I would be working on with my grad student mentor, Bianca. From then on, I was fortunate to join research that summer and to also get accepted to the SRSP, which offered weekly classes and workshops.

3. How has research enhanced your education?

Since “recipes” for chemical syntheses and NMR characterization of some compounds can be found in papers, research has taught me how to look for and read scientific papers more efficiently. It has also enhanced my writing and critical thinking skills because since starting research, I have written a UROP proposal and an abstract for a poster I plan to present at conferences later this year.

Research has also taught me more about chemistry than what I knew from the classes I had taken. For example, in organic chemistry, we learned about nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and that the parts per million (ppm) range of functional groups spans 0 ppm to 13 ppm. It was when conducting research on metal hydride complexes however, when I learned that hydrides show up around -13 ppm, which is a detail about NMR spectroscopy that I never would have known before starting research.

4. What has been your favorite experience with research (include any interesting stories or specific events)?

One of my favorite research experiences is seeing how reactions change into unexpected colors when the starting materials look nothing like the product. Just recently, I ran a new reaction for my UROP project—a blue nickel-based reagent reacted with a white bipyridine-like ligand to form a hot pink solution. The color change showed that metalation occurred and that the ligand was bound to nickel, but it did not say anything about whether the expected product was generated. Another one of my favorite parts about research is taking NMR spectra of compounds because with spectral data, it is possible to guess the structures of the compounds that were created.

5. What are your future plans and how has being involved in research helped to prepare you to meet your goals?

Next year, I plan to apply to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry. Research has solidified my decision to apply to grad school because it has taught me how to critically think about current problems that we are trying to solve with the help of inorganic chemistry, such as energy storage.

6. What advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing a faculty-mentored undergraduate research project or creative activity?

Don’t be afraid to email or talk to professors about joining their lab! It is never too late or too early to start research. You will find a faculty mentor if you let them know why you think their research is interesting, why you specifically want to join their lab, and your goals for the future. Make sure to dedicate enough time to research and to not worry if experiments don’t go according to plan, because research is all about the progress you make!

Past Researchers of the Month

May. '20 Zaira Barrera
Apr. '20 Iyah Totounji
Mar. '20 Aung Myat Thu
Feb. '20 Gabriela Salcedo
Jan. '20 Sahrai Garcia