Chemistry student builds microscope for optical, imaging experiments
Outside the Box > > Theodore P. Ortiz
By Laurie Mellas Ramirez
Ortiz built the microscope he uses in a UNM chemistry lab.
Opportunities for undergraduates to conduct hands-on research in a working lab are still rare in the United States. UNM is a leader in the effort to boost those numbers. At least one professor went a step further inviting chemistry major Ted Ortiz to help build a lab and create a dazzling microscope for use in state-of-the art optical and imaging experiments.
Ortiz, now a doctoral student, met Associate Professor of Chemistry James Brozik, Ph.D., while attending UNM-Los Alamos and working at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) fulltime. Brozik was a post doc fellow at LANL before obtaining a faculty position on main campus in 1998. Ortiz transferred to main campus to work closely with Brozik to complete his B.S. in chemistry and graduated in 2000.
“No one in the field can compare to my advisor’s interest and dynamic,” Ortiz said. “I was able to help build the lab into what it is today. It was a great experience.”
Brozik is a founder of UNM IGERT-CORE Fellowship program, a National Science Foundation graduate education program designed to train professional chemists, biologists, physicists and engineers in the cross-disciplinary field of optical research. The program has recruited 14 student researchers who, like Ortiz, are in graduate school.
Ortiz is a CORE fellow working in Brozik’s lab. Students who earn a bachelor’s in chemistry at UNM can go directly to work on a Ph.D. They complete a research proposal, take classes to acquire knowledge in organic, inorganic, analytical and physical chemistry and pass five cumulative exams.
“We have 16 tries to pass the exams. They are tough. If the cumulative exam is about thermodynamics, or quantum mechanics, you need to be familiar with those entire areas of study,” Ortiz said.
As a CORE fellow, Ortiz took classes in physics, biology, engineering and chemistry. “It’s a great way to get the sciences to communicate better. It seems like we are all on the same team but we use a different language,” he said.
Ortiz was required to complete two internships, which he did at the Fachhochschule Jena, Germany (In English, Fachhochschule is the University of Applied Sciences), and at Washington State University, Pullman, where he studied “Physical Chemistry on the Nanometer Scale.”
At UNM, most of his research addresses the mechanics and mechanisms of HIV Reverse Transcriptase (HIV-RT), which play a crucial role in the HIV replication process. Ortiz prepares biological samples and performs single molecule fluorescence experiments using the microscope he built. An intensified CCD camera, which images samples and takes movies, collects replication data. Also incorporated into the microscope are two avalanche photodiode detectors (APD) which allow data to be collected on a fast time scale and allow Ortiz to carry out two-color experiments.
"No one in the field can compare to my advisor's interest and dynamic. I was able to help build the lab into what it is today. It was a great experience."
Ted Ortiz, doctoral student
“There has been a lot of work done on HIV-RT, but not at the single molecule level,” Ortiz said. “Knowing how HIV-RT works is important to understanding HIV and in designing new, anti-AIDS/RT inhibitor drugs. This is a great way to test new drugs because in preliminary experiments one can see if the new drugs inhibit or stop the replication.”
Interested in science and “how things work” since elementary school, Ortiz was born and raised in Española, graduating in 1993 from St. Catherine Indian School as class valedictorian. Devoted to community as well as chemistry, Catholicism also calls. He is a minister of consolation and a Eucharistic minister for his parish in Albuquerque, and an acolyte who makes preparations for mass back home. For the past 12 years during the nine days preceding Christmas, he and sister, Sylvia Montoya, take on the roles of Joseph and Mary in Santa Fe’s Las Posadas.
“It is a great honor for us to carry on the history and tradition of our faith,” said Ortiz who recently joined Albuquerque Interfaith and The Archdiocese of Santa Fe Young Adult ministry which aims to help young adults with their faith.
Science and spiritually do not conflict in his eyes. “What brought me to both the church and science is my interest in how complex these mechanisms are. There has to be a higher being that put these into motion,” he said.
Plans for the future include post doctorial study at a national lab or in Germany. “I’m keeping my options open,” Ortiz said. “I believe that with the training and education I’ve received at UNM, I can tackle anything in the physical chemistry world.”