Dr. Irene Chapa and students who have benefited from programs at Office of Recruitment and Science Outreach.

Teaching youngsters to dream big

Monday, September 8, 2014by Jacquelyn Pfeiffer

Irene Chapa, Ph.D., dedicates her life to increasing awareness of opportunities in the health professions and to leading South Texas youth to successful careers in health care or science.

When Laredo-native Irene Chapa, Ph.D., was a child, she recalls driving past the UT Health Science Center San Antonio and saying, “I want to go there someday.” Her dream, after all, wasn’t too far-fetched: she had two supportive parents who encouraged education, a love for school, and a determination of epic proportions.

“My parents taught me to dream big,” Dr. Chapa said. “They taught me that circumstances could be overcome with hard work and dedication, and they always told me that I could be whoever I wanted to be.”

Dr. Chapa never lost sight of that. At the age of 15, her father passed away suddenly. Although her mother worked, the income was not enough to support the family.

“I didn’t want our family to be in financial trouble, so I got a job to help,” Dr. Chapa said. “I knew we needed money to pay the mortgage, and, eventually, we needed money for higher education.”

Dr. Chapa always loved school. An avid learner, she knew an education was the key to her future. During her final year of high school, she was offered an academic scholarship to college. Although it helped, it was not enough to cover her college tuition.

“I was devastated that I might not have the money to go to college,” Dr. Chapa said. “So I started knocking on doors. I asked friends and family for financial support until I had enough money to pay for school.”

While Dr. Chapa pursued a bachelor’s degree in biology, she gave birth to her daughter, Krysten.

“The timing wasn’t perfect, but my daughter has always been a blessing and an inspiration to me,” Dr. Chapa said. “I was a single parent, and Krysten made me want to work even harder to provide a promising future for her.”

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After graduation, Dr. Chapa earned an alternative certification and began teaching high school science. Her career took a turn when she joined the American Physiological Society and participated in a mentorship program, which involved researching rare plants in the San Marcos River.

“It was so fascinating to me,” Dr. Chapa said. “I had never before thought of earning a Ph.D. degree until I worked on that project. I realized I loved research; I applied to the Health Science Center and was accepted to the pharmacology program.”

Dr. Chapa focused on cardiovascular physiology while pursuing her graduate degree at the Health Science Center, but she was never able to completely suppress her love for teaching. She began finding opportunities to mentor students, and then she and a colleague began running a math and science hotline for students across the state.

“From my experience in the classroom setting, I knew that mentorship was important, especially in the middle- and high-school years,” Dr. Chapa said. “Another graduate student and I were successful in obtaining a grant to fund a program called the Texas Math and Science Hotline. It allowed us to run the hotline in the afternoon and evening hours.”

After the hotline took off, Dr. Chapa found more opportunities to speak to school-aged children regarding science careers.

“When my postdoctoral fellowship came to an end, I was at a crossroads in my life,” Dr. Chapa said. “I loved science, but I also had a strong desire to mentor students. Pursuing my dream job would involve taking a nontraditional route and being courageous.”

But, obstacles never stopped her before. With the support of her mentors, Dr. Chapa founded the Office of Recruitment and Science Outreach at the Health Science Center. Its mission is to increase awareness of health profession opportunities at the university and to educate South Texas youth about pathways that lead to successful health care careers.

“All our students have that spark of curiosity,” Dr. Chapa said. “I try to fan that flame, and the rest is easy.”

Easy, indeed. The Office of Recruitment and Science Outreach now assists more than 14,000 students each year and oversees more than two dozen on-campus and community programs for South Texas middle- and high-school students. In addition to providing health-profession education information, Dr. Chapa hopes the Office of Recruitment and Science Outreach serves as a resource for motivation, encouragement and empowerment to help students achieve their educational goals.

“Sometimes I feel undeserving to be working with such incredible people and guiding such impressionable students,” Dr. Chapa said. “This is a vocation to me; it’s something I don’t turn off. It’s who I am.”

Dr. Chapa’s daughter, Krysten, is currently studying for the MCAT to pursue her dream to attend medical school. Dr. Chapa and husband John have a son, Ethan, 8.

“I am proud that I have accomplished my childhood dream, despite my circumstances,” Dr. Chapa said. “If I can do it, anyone can. I am most proud of my family and who they helped me to become.”