After a successful first year of college, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga freshman Sebastian Jimenez didn’t want to waste this summer sitting around the house being bored.
A Brock Scholar in the Honors College majoring in biology and chemistry, Jimenez considered looking for typical summer employment opportunities to occupy his time. He also thought, “I could work a job that’s going to give me really useful experience, can help me for grad school, be good for me and help me just figure out what I want to do.”
After learning about National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer research programs from the UTC Office for Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavor, Jimenez decided to apply.
“I crossed my fingers and hoped there’s a chance,” he recalled.
There’s a chance, indeed. The 19-year-old will spend this summer at the esteemed University of Chicago after being awarded a molecular genetics and cell biology REU spot.
Usually awarded to upper-division students, REUs are highly competitive programs that allow undergraduate students to participate in research projects in various fields of study.
Landing an REU can be challenging for a freshman since first-year students typically have limited experience.
“As a freshman, I knew there was a very low chance that I was going to get in. It was not only surprising that I got into one—and that was very exciting—but then I saw that it was the one I applied to at the University of Chicago, which was extremely honoring. I certainly didn’t have hopes high for getting into that one,” he said.
“My GPA is good, but it’s only one semester; I didn’t think I had too many other things going for me that would make me stand out among sophomores and juniors who would already have more experience. So they saw something in me that said, ‘Hey, let’s try him.’ I’m very humbled and I want to definitely do my best and make the most of that.”
While Jimenez is still weighing his long-term academic focus—while majoring in both subjects, he’s contemplating a biology major/chemistry minor combination—Dr. Gretchen Potts, department Head for Biology, Geology and Environmental Science and UC Foundation Professor of Chemistry, understands the rigors of both disciplines.
She said the biology pre-professional track is an excellent choice for a chemistry minor since it requires only one additional upper-division course in chemistry beyond what is required for the major.
Potts lauded Jimenez’s landing of the summer research opportunity.
“Congratulations to Sebastian,” she said. “This is an exciting opportunity to begin a research lab experience so early in his education. The REU selection process is highly competitive and he would have been selected against rising sophomores, juniors and seniors from across the country.”
One year ago, Jimenez was valedictorian at Ridgeland High School in nearby Rossville, Georgia. Dr. Ryan Bandy, Ridgeland High’s assistant principal and a two-time graduate of UTC (2002, master’s in secondary education; 2014, doctorate in learning and leadership), called Jimenez “easily one of the best students I have had the privilege to teach during my 20-year career.”
Jimenez was a student in Bandy’s advanced placement courses in the ninth and 10th grades.
“There are people who work hard,” Bandy said, “and then there’s Sebastian. It is difficult to think of a student who is as exacting and as much of a perfectionist as he is. He would go over anything he missed on a test, did his homework to the ‘nth’ degree, and was—plain and simple—a workhorse.
“He is very intelligent, but that only gets you so far in life. Sebastian would just grind like almost no one I’ve ever met. I can only think of a handful of students who could just put their nose to the grindstone and push through any obstacle, no matter what it was, the way he does.”
Bandy laughed when asked how he spent the summer after his first year of college.
“My dad worked at Arnold Air Force Base (in Tullahoma, Tennessee), so I had a summer job doing environmental cleanup,” he said. “I definitely was not at the University of Chicago.”
Jimenez now readies himself for the 10-week summer research opportunity at one of the world’s most prestigious universities—one of only 146 colleges nationwide classified as an “R1 Doctoral University” by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
“I want to see if doing biological research is right for me,” he said, “because if I do it and I absolutely love it, then I know I should continue with it. This opportunity will help me get a lot of good experience in the lab presenting. There are going to be conferences biweekly and I’ll get to meet a lot of new people.
“I will also see this through a new lens because Chattanooga is the only city I’ve spent a lot of time in. Going to Chicago and seeing the area will be really exciting.”