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Soto finds the right chemistry at UW-Superior

Posted on May 2, 2014
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Ernesto Soto shows a notebook full of research data as his faculty mentor, Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, looks at fiber samples.

Ernesto Soto shows a notebook full of research data as his faculty mentor, Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, looks at fiber samples.

Ernesto Soto gambled on coming to the University of Wisconsin-Superior and the gamble has paid off.

"I got lucky when I came to Superior," says the freshman from Rockford, Ill., who's majoring in chemistry.

He's referring to meeting, and now working with, Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, an assistant professor of chemistry at UW-Superior, whose work on plastics pollution in the Great Lakes is attracting international attention.

It wasn't only the content of Rios Mendoza's research that makes him feel lucky. "I was happy, ecstatic, really, because I found another Latino here," said Soto as the two sat down together recently with The Buzzletter.

"She is not only my professor, but kind of like my second mom," Soto says, pausing, then elaborating on what that entails: a friend at times, a demanding coach at others. "She's been advising me, not just on academics, but on social aspects and mental aspects too, like training myself to believe 'I can do this.' She says 'you can do this, you're just not thinking about it the right way.' "

EARLY ASPIRATIONS

Even in high school, Soto knew he wanted to get an advanced degree. "I had in my mind I was going to get my Ph.D in psychology, just because I wanted to give back to my community."

But Soto took an AP chemistry class that was taught by a charismatic, enthusiastic teacher who encouraged him to broaden his options. "As I talked to her I realized I could give back in a different way, go into medicine or work in a laboratory and create things to help people."

That teacher, Nina Baldwin, had a way of teaching that made even challenging content seem interesting. "Never once in her class did I get a headache," he says. "Even if I got stuck or didn't understand, I still enjoyed it."

Asked if any of Rios Mendoza's classes give him headaches, Soto quips, "Only when she scolds me."

"Don't complain," Rios Mendoza retorts.

CHALLENGING START

Meeting Rios Mendoza was a turning point for Soto, who in the first semester of his freshman year was not only pursuing a challenging major but also running intercollegiate cross country and involved in "8 or 9" student organizations.

He had played soccer in high school but never run long distances. "The first day of practice we ran nine miles," he says. "I blew it."

He was feeling overwhelmed, not only because of his overloaded schedule but because he missed his more diverse hometown. "At home we talked in slang everywhere, at school, at McDonald's, with teachers," he says.

After confiding in Michael Waxman, his chemistry professor for fall semester, Waxman introduced Soto to Rios Mendoza.

"The first thing she asked was, 'do you speak Spanish?' I can understand a lot but don't speak it much," Soto says.

As the two talked, they realized Soto was looking for a job and Rios Mendoza had a student assistant position open on her research team. Although it's somewhat unusual to hire a freshman, Rios Mendoza offered Soto a job.

"Every student has potential, but they need to do the work," she says. "They need to put in the time and get the work done on time. If you need to come in on Saturdays and Sundays to work, you come."

THE SCIENCE LIFE

As Soto is learning, a career in science isn't just about grabbing headlines and doing exciting field work. It's as much about wrestling with intellectually challenging problems as it is about consistency, repetition, meticulous record-keeping -- and a strong work ethic.

In the laboratory, Soto pops a slide into a microscope to illustrate a project he's working on to document plastic fibers found in air filters on campus.

"I personally look at the microscope, count the different colors of fibers and add them all up. Some of them have 100 plus fibers of the same color," he says.

"Here I found more than 200 fibers," he said, pointing to a page in a notebook full of numbers, notes and images. "That day I almost went blind."

Working in the lab so early in his college career has given Soto a jump-start on his senior project -- a study that looks at the amount of cocaine found on dollar bills collected in various U.S. cities.

Rios Mendoza says other studies and her own research have shown that a surprisingly high percentage of one-dollar bills contain traces of cocaine. She's unaware of other studies that have compared currency from different geographical areas.

"We think it might be higher in some cities, but we don't know," she says.

Besides working in the lab, Soto is looking forward to taking more challenging chemistry courses next fall from Rios Mendoza. "I really enjoy talking to her and having her as a teacher," he said.

News Contact: Tom Wilkowske | 715-394-8516 | twilkows{atuws}
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