Every November, about 1,500 high school and college students from San Antonio and South Texas arrive on UT Health San Antonio’s campus for the annual Science Expo. This day-long event provides interactive, hands-on activities and presentations that lend unique insight to medical careers for aspiring scientists, doctors, dentists and nurses.
Irene Chapa, Ph.D., director of recruitment and science outreach, oversees the Science Expo each year. She has served the institution for the last 30 years and has become an expert who high school students can count on to lead them down the right academic path.
“The Science Expo is a unique and one-of-a-kind program in the nation,” Dr. Chapa said. “UT Health San Antonio provides a chance for the attending students to explore possibilities in medicine and learn about the opportunities in the health care field.”
Each year, Dr. Chapa recruits faculty and students from the Long School of Medicine, School of Dentistry, School of Health Professions, School of Nursing and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to volunteer at the Science Expo. The volunteers lead discussions, demonstrations and laboratory experiments.
Dr. Chapa leads mentorship programs at the Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy. The academy recruits high school juniors to partner with biomedical scientists from UT Health San Antonio to promote excellence in scholarship and research training that spans two academic years. These mentorships involve hands-on research-oriented activities.
“We notice every year that more girls attend the Voelcker Academy,” she said. “I’m very impressed by the increasing number of young women who are becoming interested in science.,” she said proudly.
Born and raised in Laredo, Texas, Dr. Chapa’s interest in science started during childhood.
“Growing up, I was that quirky little girl who wanted to learn more about lizards than play with the dolls,” she said.
It was her fascination with the human body that eventually led Dr. Chapa to pursue her future in medicine. She still remembers the first time she drove by the UT Health San Antonio campus as a young girl.
“I vividly remember seeing all these young men and women in their white lab coats on the campus and I wanted to be just like them,” she said.
Dr. Chapa graduated from St. Mary’s University with a bachelor’s degree in biology. After earning a teaching certificate, she began teaching science at Sam Houston High School. She excelled at mentoring curious young minds and enjoyed her interaction with students. After teaching for a few years, she decided to pursue a doctoral degree when she joined the American Physiological Society and participated in a mentorship program.
“I fell in love with research, so I applied to UT Health San Antonio and was accepted to the pharmacology program,” she recalled.
At UT Health San Antonio, she focused on cardiovascular physiology while pursuing her graduate degree. She earned her doctorate, then joined the university’s research department.
Even after a successful research career, she yearned to get back into the classroom. She decided to help establish a science outreach program at UT Health San Antonio. When she was offered the position as the director of recruitment and science outreach, she knew that her dream of helping others reach their academic goals had finally come true.
Since then, the Office of Recruitment and Science Outreach has grown to help more than 14,000 students each year. In addition to providing medical education information, Dr. Chapa hopes her department will become a resource for motivation and encouragement in helping future scientists and doctors achieve their best.
“My father always told me to dream big,” she said with a smile.
Following her father’s wishes, she accomplished her lifelong dream and dedicated her career to helping others do the same.
“All students have that spark of curiosity. I try to fan that flame and the rest is easy,” she added.