Class of 2012, Chemistry
A trio of honors has combined perfectly to help chemistry major Sean Fuentes achieve his short-term academic goal of studying environmental chemistry issues such as water pollution and remediation techniques and sharing his findings with communities in poor or rural countries in Central or South America.
In 2011, Fuentes was awarded three nationally competitive awards: the Goldwater Scholarship for scientific pursuits, the Udall Scholarship for environmental research, and the Gilman International Scholarship for study abroad. Receiving these three awards is a rare accomplishment for any student; for Fuentes, they are the latest examples of how he meets challenges with a positive attitude and an open mind.
Fuentes comes from humble beginnings. He said he is the youngest of four children whose parents never finished high school. His father is bilingual, and Fuentes’ grandparents, who were born in Venezuela and Costa Rica, speak Spanish but very little English.
He attributes much of his success to his experiences at TU. Fuentes said he first chose TU because it was close to his family, but three years later he said he realizes the benefits of attending a small, private university with an emphasis on personal attention and undergraduate research. Since arriving on campus, Fuentes has participated in the Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Program (CSURP) and Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC), both of which provide unparalleled opportunities for original research by students as early as their freshman year.
“I never would have won these awards if I had gone to college somewhere else,” he said. “The small class sizes and accessible faculty have made all the difference for me.”
When he enrolled at TU, the 2008 Owasso (Okla.) High School graduate was unsure of what he wanted to study, but it was only a matter of time before Professor Gordon Purser approached Fuentes about giving chemistry a try.
“He received the top grade in my class on his first chemistry exam,” Purser said. “Sean had a real aptitude, and I invited him to join my research group. I wanted to show him the opportunities that were available in chemistry and biochemistry.”
He said Fuentes might be the most hard-working and deserving student Purser has taught in his 18 years at TU. “Never have I had a student for whom my efforts as a mentor would mean so much,” Purser said.
For that, Fuentes is grateful. “I couldn’t have done this without Dr. Purser,” he said. “He got me interested in research while I was still a freshman, and that led to meetings with university donors as well as faculty, administrators, and other students from across the campus.”
Knowing that he’d like to communicate better with his family and share his research findings with people from other countries, Fuentes utilized his Gilman scholarship to travel to Costa Rica this past summer. There, he immersed himself in the culture and spent each day expanding his conversational Spanish with his host family and native students at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. He even was able to locate cousins he had never met.
When he arrived back in the United States, he was able to speak fluent Spanish with his father and grandparents for the first time. “They were so excited,” he said, grinning.
Fuentes’ next step is to make use of the remaining two competitive scholarships as he finishes his bachelor’s degree – and related research on the chlorination of sunscreen agents – and begins applying for graduate school. He also works with Oklahoma Blue Thumb, which teaches volunteers to monitor streams in their communities, conduct groundwater screenings, and share their knowledge of water quality.
While he’s not sure whether he will remain at TU for his doctoral work, Fuentes wants to earn a Ph.D. degree and eventually return to the classroom to inspire a new generation of scientists. “No matter what, I want to stay in the Midwest to be close to my family, but I’d really love to be a professor at TU someday,” he said.