The Rio Grande Catholic and the Office of Education for the Diocese of El Paso want to recognize the exciting and innovative things our alumni are doing here in El Paso and around the world. RGC Sept _Page_6_Image_0002

Name: Laura O’Dell

Current Occupation/Job Title: Associate Professor

Company/Organization/School: University of Texas at El Paso

Interest, Activities, Clubs, and Professional Organizations: My interests are in neuroscience and drug abuse. For the past 20 years, I have dedicated myself to trying to understand the underlying biological factors in the brain that motivate drug abuse.  I am a member of several professional organizations, such as the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse. This organization is focused on promoting Hispanic researchers focused on the problem of drug addiction.  In my spare time, I enjoy playing tennis and coaching my daughter’s soccer team.  Both of my daughter’s attend Loretto Academy, so we enjoy many of the school-related activities that we can enjoy with our children.

Greatest Professional Accomplishment: In 2008, I was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), given by the National Science and Technology Council. The PECASE award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. The PECASE award is intended to recognize scientists and engineers who show exceptional potential for leadership and service at the frontiers of scientific knowledge. The awards are conferred by annually at the White House by the president following recommendations from participating agencies. In 2008, 12 people were selected for the PECASE award from the NIH. This award also provided a $1 million supplement award to my studies focused on tobacco abuse in women.

What Catholic school(s) did you attend? I attended Loretto Academy middle and high school.  I graduated in 1987.

What was the most valuable lesson – inside or outside the classroom – you learned while attending Catholic school(s)? I learned the importance of education and integrating strong values into my career path. Loretto gave me an opportunity to focus on my education while instilling a sense of confidence that I could do anything I wanted to do in college and beyond.  I also learned the importance and value of strong friendships —which have also been so important to me after high school.  There is a confidence and camaraderie that Loretto instills in its students.

What teacher/staff member/classmate most influence you?  Mrs. Kuzirian (RIP) was my high school chemistry teacher.  She took me to a science fair in NM, and helped me fall in love with chemistry.  Her energy and enthusiasm in the classroom was infectious and I think of her often when people ask me who sparked my interest in science.

How did your Catholic School Education prepare you for what you are doing today?
I am a research professor at UTEP.  Loretto gave me basic skills that provided a strong foundation for college.  I took AP courses in Physics and Chemistry and this put me ahead when I started college.

Why do you think Catholic Education is so important? My girls attend Loretto, so I am dedicated to Catholic education.  I feel it is important in life to align your goals both spiritually and professionally.  I learned from an early age that this is possible.  My education at Loretto was both spiritual and didactic.  My girls are being exposed to important values and the focus on women is very important.  I am in a male dominated field, and Loretto’s focus on women was important to my educational and personal development.  This is what I want for my young daughters.

How are Catholic Schools shaping the future?  More and more we learn about implicit bias and discrimination in the work place. Women experience special challenges as our careers unfold. Being in an all-girl school is important for development and focus on the individual.  There is recent data showing that implicit biases begin early in classroom settings, these factors that can limit female development are not there in a room filled with young girls.  The empowerment of women, the camaraderie among females thrives when we can focus on each other and our professional goals.

What advice do you have for current students? Take advantage of all opportunities.  Get to know your teachers and as many young persons as possible.  Focus on long-term plans and learning what inspires you.

What was your favorite Catholic School experience/moment?  There are too many to mention here.  Perhaps I am most grateful for my beautiful friends and the Friday night Loretto dances.  We got to plan them and we enjoyed dancing and mixing with our friends.  I also organized the first Loretto soccer team.  I remember our practices and games—and my dad was our coach.  Just this week, I was blessed with the opportunity to watch my daughter Mia play her first game at Loretto.  My dad went with me and we were amazed at how life comes full circle—–What a gift!

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