University of Arkansas Upward Bound Students Shine at National STEM Conference

From left: students Jade Turner, Tinsley Pretty, Emma Vaughan, Juan Monterrozas, Kabryn Cunningham and Adriana Maqueda.
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From left: students Jade Turner, Tinsley Pretty, Emma Vaughan, Juan Monterrozas, Kabryn Cunningham and Adriana Maqueda.

Six outstanding high school seniors from the University of Arkansas Upward Bound program recently demonstrated their talent and commitment at the 2024 Emerging Researchers National Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics held in Washington, D.C. from March 14-16, 2024.

The students — Kabryn Cunningham, Adriana Maqueda, Tinsley Pretty, and Jade Turner from Elkins High School; Emma Vaughan from Greenland High School; and Juan Monterrozas from Huntsville High School — showcased not just their research but also the spirit of exploration and excellence fostered by Upward Bound.

Upward Bound, a college preparation and access program serving primarily first-generation college students, is funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education and has played a pivotal role in equipping these students for success in higher education. This federally funded TRIO program, overseen by Keith Brink, director of U of A Upward Bound Programs in the Division of Student Affairs, provides vital academic and support services to eligible high school students, preparing them for the rigors of college. 

The students' journey to the Emerging Researchers National Conference began in May 2023 when they were selected to participate in the Research Experience and Mentoring Program at the University of Arkansas Membrane Science, Engineering, & Technology Center, under the guidance of Distinguished Professor Ranil Wickramasinghe. This hands-on research initiative, supported by a National Science Foundation grant secured by Wickramasinghe, was made possible through a partnership between Upward Bound and Wickramasinghe's team, facilitated by Gary Bates and LaShall Bates, both professors at Northwest Arkansas Community College and specialists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM fields. 

"This incredibly impactful experience has helped shape these students' future goals and career paths in STEM fields," said Brink. "We're immensely grateful to Dr. Wickramasinghe and the entire MAST Center team for this amazing opportunity." 

During the Upward Bound's Summer Academy, held on the University of Arkansas campus, the students engaged in cutting-edge research and developed poster presentations outlining their findings. Mentored by Tom McKean, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Engineering, and the Bateses, the students continued to receive guidance and support throughout the school year during Upward Bound Saturday Academy sessions, leading up to their participation in the ERN conference. 

Accompanied by mentors, program leaders, and Lacey Gebhart, associate director of Upward Bound, the students not only presented their research but also explored iconic landmarks in Washington, D.C., including visits to the White House, monuments, museums, and more. 

Reflecting on their experience, the students expressed profound gratitude and enthusiasm. "Attending the ERN conference exceeded all my expectations," said Emma Vaughan. "The amazing speakers opened my eyes to the incredible possibilities in STEM fields. This experience made me feel encouraged to fearlessly chase my dreams of a rewarding career in research." Kabryn Cunningham reflected on the conference, noting, "It was a turning point. Meeting professionals and exploring diverse topics broadened my perspective, igniting new ideas and passions within me." 

For Adriana Maqueda, a key takeaway was recognizing the lack of Hispanic representation in STEM fields. "I realized I want to pursue a STEM career path to inspire other Latinas and show them they belong," she said.

Juan Monterrozas added, "This empowering experience solidified my desire to pursue higher academia and apply my knowledge towards helping society, perhaps working for the federal government." 

Jade Turner shared her reflections on the ERN conference, saying, "It has been such an honor to attend the ERN and REM conference. This experience taught me the importance of embracing challenges and turning nervousness into excitement."

Tinsley Pretty added, "This conference journey has been transformative. Presenting our research and interacting with professionals from around the world has solidified my passion for science and research. I'm grateful for the support and opportunities that have come my way through Upward Bound and this experience." 

The students' success at the ERN conference reflects the University of Arkansas Upward Bound program's commitment to preparing students for higher education and future careers in STEM fields. Their achievements serve as inspiration for other young aspiring researchers like themselves and underscore the value of mentorship programs like REM.

These students' journey doesn't end here. All six will be attending the Upward Bound Bridge program this summer, bridging the gap from high school to college and continuing their pursuit of excellence in higher education. 

About the Division of Student Affairs: The Division of Student Affairs supports the whole student by cultivating transformative experiences and environments that promote student well-being, sense of community, and success. We prioritize student access, well-being, and belonging, post-graduation success, and building a strong organizational culture. 


Scott Flanagin, executive director for communications
Division of Student Affairs

John Thomas, director of media relations
University Relations


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