Undergraduate Academic Affairs

June 19, 2019

Research as a platform for change

Hugo Pontes

Rising senior Hugo Pontes recently presented his research at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill Conference in Washington, D.C. Here, Hugo shares his journey from arriving in the states not speaking English to sharing his research and story with members of Congress.


Hugo presented his research to members of Congress at the Posters on the Hill conference in Washington D.C.

Hugo presented his research to members of Congress at the Posters on the Hill conference in Washington, D.C.

“You won’t be able to get into the University of Washington,” explained my high school counselor when I asked her about applying.  My family and I are from Brazil, and moved to Spain when I was little. I started my freshman year of high school in Washington state after moving from Madrid, Spain. Not only had I just moved across the globe to a new country with a new system, a new culture, new food and even new weather, I also did not speak English. That was incredibly lonely since I couldn’t communicate with others to make friends. Also, I couldn’t do what I enjoyed most: learn. Doing my homework took much longer than my classmates, since to complete my work, I had to understand what it said first. This taught me an incredibly hard-working mindset. I graduated high school at the top of my class, and despite those that believed I couldn’t make it, I started college at the University of Washington.

Thrilled for this opportunity, I was really excited to find my community and learn how I could help those that had helped me so much in the past. However, along with starting college as an immigrant, came additional hurdles, like proving residency, receiving financial aid and qualifying for federal programs.

Researching at the intersection of engineering and medicine

In the beginning of my sophomore year, I stumbled upon an opportunity to work with Dr. Lilo Pozzo, who has become an important mentor to me and helped me navigate many hurdles. She started a research project in Puerto Rico investigating how Hurricane Maria affected patients who depended on power for their medical needs, such as diabetic patients who needed to refrigerate insulin or those with who needed a CPAP machine to treat sleep apnea. As part of my research, I traveled to the island. There, I interviewed people to better understand their situation and needs. I also helped install solar panels, which provided enough electricity to power a small refrigerator for insulin storage or a sleep apnea machine. This was my first introduction to research right at the intersection of medicine and engineering. I couldn’t wait to do more.


Hugo traveled to Puerto Rico as part of a research project. He conducted interviews to understand the medical impact and needs of those impacted by Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of University of Washington.

The summer after freshman year, I volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Collective in the Berkeley Free Clinic in California. I was able to connect with my community by volunteering with others that had similar goals and experiences. The clinic focused on giving healthcare to anyone regardless of socioeconomic standing or ability to pay. This clinical experience showed me a side of health care that focused on people instead of profit. These two experiences led me to a path that combined clinical work with engineering in a way that was fulfilling and impactful.

Eager to learn more about combining a degree in chemical engineering with a clinical career, I met with Dr. Elizabeth Nance, a chemical engineering assistant professor in nanomedicine. She told me about an available spot in her lab. Without hesitation, I joined the Nance Lab, where we study nanoparticles for drug delivery to the pediatric brain. My project looks at how nanoparticles move in the diseased brain to reach their desired target.

After nearly a year working in the lab, I applied for and received the Washington Research Foundation (WRF) fellowship through the Undergraduate Research Program, which paid my educational expenses and allowed me to spend more time in the lab. Receiving this fellowship reassured me that research is the right path for me, and that my work is worth the time of those around me.

The WRF fellowship also provided funding to attend a scientific conference, so I submitted an abstract to the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in Baltimore at the same time that I submitted my application to present at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C. Next thing I know, I heard that I was accepted to present at both events and they lined up to be in the same weekend. I was ready for a busy weekend that started with an early flight.

Conference hopping in Baltimore and D.C.

On Friday, April 26, 2019, Dr. Nance, Kate (a research technician in our lab), and I traveled to Baltimore. Dr. Nance completed her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, so we were coming to her old stomping grounds. She showed us around town, we went out for burgers and ice cream and had amazing conversations that left me inspired to continue the pursuit of scientific discovery.

Hugo with Congresswoman Kim Schrier.

As part of the Posters on the Hill conference, Hugo met with Congresswoman Kim Schrier to share his story and discuss the importance of funding undergraduate research for all students — regardless of background.

As the conference started on Saturday, I sat in on engaging talks ranging from the clinical perspective on the opioid crisis to the clinical trials on treatment for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, a type of brain damage that occurs when a baby does not receive enough oxygen. It was a fantastic conference to see collaboration from pediatricians and scientists, as well as to get a clinical perspective that is often overlooked in the engineering field. I presented my research poster on Tuesday morning and shared the work that could one day turn out to be a clinical trial presentation in that same conference. As it turned out, my presentation at Posters on the Hill was not only in the same week, it was on the same day. Luckily, D.C. is just a short train ride from Baltimore.

I arrived in D.C. with my poster tube in one hand, my suitcase in the other, and just enough time to drop my bag at the hotel and hurry to the Hart Senate Building, where I had the first of two meetings with my representatives. I was scheduled for two meetings, one with the staff of Senator Maria Cantwell and the other one with the staff of Congresswoman Kim Schrier. My goal in these meetings was to show how current policies are not inclusive of all people when it comes to research funding for undergraduate students by sharing my story.

Hugo sits in the trolley.

A highlight of his time in D.C., Hugo rides the trolley that runs under the Capitol Building to the Longworth House Office Building.

I explained that I could only apply for funding and job opportunities that did not have a citizenship requirement. As an immigrant, this greatly limited my options. I’m supporting myself through college, so the scholarships and fellowships I received were not only important for my growth as a researcher, but also a way that I could pay rent every month. After taking a picture with Congresswoman Schrier, who appeared at our meeting, I rode the trolley that runs under the Capitol Building to Longworth House Office Building. I admit, this ride was a highlight of the trip.

After a little break to visit the botanical garden and scoot around the National Mall, I headed to the Rayburn House Office Building for the poster session. I was lucky to meet so many amazing researchers from every state in the country. Rachel from Wyoming helped me put my poster up, and Caroline and Jessi from West Virginia went to get some food with me before the event started. As you might have noticed, we were organized in alphabetical order by state. Once the event started, I had the pleasure to share my research with members of Congress, staffers, professors from around the country and directors of national organizations. It was an amazing mix that ranged from neurobiologists to English professors to institute directors. Having one-on-one conversations with multiple professionals in academia and governmental organizations was motivating. It helped me envision where my career could one day take me and the impact that I could have with research. Finally, after a long day involving two presentations, meetings at Congress, a train ride and meeting so many inspirational people, I was ready to fall asleep right there and then.

Engineering his own future


Working in the lab with Dr. Nance.

The next morning, I took the metro to the airport for an early flight, ready to go back to school and keep working hard. While I had to spend the majority of the plane ride studying for a midterm I had to take two hours after landing back in Seattle, I found some time to reflect on the trip. I started high school without being able to communicate with my classmates, and now, seven years later, I presented at the steps of the Congress of the United States. I feel very proud of being able to get here after much hard work, but also very thankful for those that helped me get here. My family has always supported me, and it is along with them that I learned what it means to be a Brazilian immigrant. Dr. Pozzo and Dr. Nance have played such a crucial role in my development as a researcher, as a student and most importantly, as a compassionate human. For that, I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

I still have one more year at UW. This summer I will be completing a summer research program at the University of California, San Francisco, where I will be studying neuroinflammation in the human brain in a neurology lab. After graduation, I hope to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. to become a physician researcher in the nanomedicine field. I’d also like to have the chance to inspire students about what you can do with research in the way my mentors have inspired me.

Get connected to research and scholarships

Undergraduate research and scholarship support made a big difference for Hugo. Other students wanting to get involved in research and learn what scholarships they’re eligible for should check out the Undergraduate Research Program, the Mary Gates Endowment for Students and Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards. These UAA programs are but three that create and support academic opportunities that have a lasting impact in undergraduates’ lives.

In addition, check out these scholarships that Hugo received:

Make a difference in the undergraduate experience:

To support the aspirations and futures of undergraduates like Hugo, consider making a gift that helps students get involved in research.