Ready to Put Science to Work

With the looming expenses of courses, textbooks, meals and more, Daniela Fontecha assumed that when she graduated from high school, she’d stay close to home in Charlotte for college, to avoid the housing expenses.

The receipt of a financial aid package changed her plans, allowing her to attend NC State to pursue her passion for the sciences.

Fontecha benefited from Pack Promise, created several years ago to assist qualifying low-income students from North Carolina. Pack Promise guarantees a package – including grants, scholarships, a work-study job and loans of no more than $3,500 per year – to meet all of recipients’ financial needs.

“When I learned about the whole package – I wouldn’t have been able to afford coming here at all if it weren’t for that,” Fontecha said. “The tutoring and mentoring resources also really excited me when I was introduced to it all.”

Born in Bogota, Colombia, Fontecha moved at age 6 to the United States, where she and her brother were raised by their mother. They lived in Florida before moving to Charlotte. There, an introduction to the sciences through coursework in chemistry and physics, along with participation in the Science Olympiad program, motivated Fontecha to pursue a science degree in college. 

She’s scheduled to graduate from NC State’s College of Sciences in May 2020 with a dual degree – a BA in physics and BS in chemistry.

Fontecha hit the ground running at the university, applying for a work-study research experience. That, and her associated experiences – attending conferences and presenting – have been most impactful so far.

The summer prior to her freshman year, Fontecha did a research internship that she said made her confident enough to ask for a research assistant position in the Department of Physics when she arrived at NC State. Mentorship was essential, she said, as she had a network of people with whom she could discuss the possibility of a work-study program. Since then, she has conducted research and earned income with the atomic and molecular physics program, studying nanoparticles and how they interact with certain materials.

“To be able to talk about that when I want to get an internship, or just talking to others who are doing research like me has been really important,” she said.

Additional opportunities have come through TRIO, a group of federal programs established to support the nation’s commitment to provide educational opportunity for all Americans to enter college, graduate and realize their dreams by helping students overcome class, social, and cultural barriers to higher education. TRIO provided her with two years of academic mentorship. 

Through her mentor in TRIO, Fontecha learned about and applied to the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which provides an enriching educational experience for first-generation and low-income and students from underrepresented groups. That program funded her summer research in 2018, and allowed her to attend two conferences – one (the SAEOPP McNair Scholars Research Conference) in Atlanta and one (the State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium) on campus – also in 2018. 

The work-study portion of her Pack Promise package has funded academic-year research, and she has had the opportunity to attend several other conferences thanks to the Department of Physics. 

All of her mentorship and research experience will also come in handy when Fontecha applies to graduate school, where she hopes to do research around sustainable chemistry. Her long-term goal is to do something that will impact the environment in a positive way. 

When Fontecha began her studies in chemistry and physics, she made the choice purely because those were fun topics for her. But through her research work, she has found a passion for putting science to work to better the environment.

“That helped me realize I could use this stuff I was interested in to help the environment,” she said. “I felt really inspired by that.”

She said she’s grateful that Pack Promise and her experiences on campus have opened the doors to this future.

“I know I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if I didn’t go to State, just because of everything that’s available to me,” she said. “Being able to go to the exact school I wanted to go to, and to explore my career has been really impactful.”

This post was originally published in Giving News.