At The University of Tulsa, students embark on a transformative academic journey under the guidance of distinguished faculty and dedicated staff, acquiring research acumen that paves the way for scholarly publications, coveted professional careers and acceptance letters from esteemed graduate schools. TU offers the distinguished Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) that empowers young students interested in taking on challenging research. These opportunities encompass lab work, travel grants, and support for specialized equipment and other needs.
The program provides students the requisite time and resources to undertake significant and intellectually demanding research alongside faculty mentors. TURC graduates accomplish remarkable feats in their fields, reinforcing TU’s commitment to being an elite research institution.
Charting TURC territory
Luis Juarez (BSChE ’20) participated in TURC and is currently serving as a rotational development engineer at Pfizer Inc.
Born in Campeche, Mexico, Juarez moved to Tulsa when he was 10. He attended Tulsa Memorial High School and, in 2013, joined the TURC Junior Scholars summer program, which allows local high school students to participate in cutting-edge research. Under the guidance of Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Robert Sheaff, Juarez joined a laboratory dedicated to cultivating cells and proteins for the purpose of exploring potential cancer treatment modalities.
“Participating in this research at an early stage in my academic career helped me expand my communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills,” Juarez said. “At the same time, it helped me prepare for my chemical engineering coursework and undergraduate research because I came to understand lab etiquette and how to properly test hypotheses and make data-driven decisions for project directions.”
Juarez transferred from Tulsa Community College to TU to complete his third and fourth years of study. It was during this pivotal transition that he found himself drawn to the research group led by Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Gabriel LeBlanc. Under LeBlanc’s mentorship, Juarez deepened his understanding of laboratory techniques and chemistry and honed his communication skills through scholarly presentations.
“Dr. LeBlanc always took the time to provide detailed explanations of very complex matters,” Juarez said. “He is one of the best mentors I have had in my career and the reason I was able to learn so much during my time at TU.”
Juarez’s project centered around green and electrochemistry, or ionic liquids specifically. “The objective of my project was to find a new, safer and energy-friendly process to obtain purified silicon (Si) from silica (SiO2), which is the main component found in sand,” he explained. “In theory, silica would dissolve in an ionic liquid and then an electric current would be placed in the solution, causing the silicon to separate from the oxygen (O2). The silicon is then used to produce electronics, such as solar panels, computers, and cell phone chips.”
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers
During his first year at TU, Juarez embraced the opportunity to contribute to the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (TU-SHPE) as a freshman representative officer. Juarez claimed the organization’s mission – changing lives by empowering the Hispanic community to realize its potential and impact the world through STEM awareness, access, support, and development – is what piqued his interest. Fueled by his dedication to furthering this cause, he sought to extend the reach of this mission within the academic realm and the wider Tulsa community.
Juarez explained that TU-SHPE organized several outreach events, such as Noche de Ciencia, or Night of Science. These gatherings were designed to foster science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) awareness among students at nearby San Miguel Middle School and Will Rogers High School by employing an array of activities such as bridge building, drone flying, and the construction of cardboard cars.
TU-SHPE also organized information sessions for parents, planned group study sessions for members, research opportunities and preparation for career fairs and graduate studies with résumé reviews and graduate student panels.
Juarez said one of the best opportunities TU-SHPE provided was the option to attend professional development workshops, national career fairs and networking events such as the annual SHPE National Convention. Remarkably, all expenses associated with these experiences were covered by the chapter, ensuring access for all members.
“I had the privilege to serve as president (2018-19) and treasurer (2019-20) during my time at TU,” he said. “Our chapter efforts were rewarded by being selected as the Best Chapter in the 2019 SHPE National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, for our efforts during the 2018-19 school year.”
Juarez returned to campus in March 2023 to speak to current TU-SHPE students about his career with Pfizer. “I was able to share my story and the opportunities that TU provided. In a way, it felt like I was giving back to my alma mater,” he stated.
Proficiency from TU to Pfizer
Juarez joined Pfizer as a process engineer in June 2022, gaining entry through the highly regarded two-year Rotational Development Program, which spans three rotations of eight months each. Currently holding the rotational development engineer (RDE) title, Juarez is stationed at the McPherson, Kansas, plant, operating within the Pfizer Global Supply sector. His primary role supports on-site projects, such as facilitating the launch of new products or production lines.
Juarez’s involvement at Pfizer extends beyond his core responsibilities: He is an active participant in the RDE group, which plans plant drives and recruiting events; he contributes to the Innovation Council, which focuses on identifying methods to drive process innovation within Pfizer; and he is involved in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council.
TU gave Juarez with the skills to succeed in the professional world. Having access to resources like TURC, TU-SHPE and the CaneCareers job placement program, Juarez claimed, not only made it possible, but enjoyable.
“TU provided me with a safe space to fail and learn from my mistakes all while having resources that helped me recover every step of the way,” he said. “My experiences prepared me for my role at Pfizer and for any challenges that may occur later in life.”