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Student Spotlight

Nereyda Ochoa, Department of Health and Human Performance

With a father who has battled cancer and a younger brother with a spinal cord injury, it is not a surprise that Nereyda Ochoa is interested in medical research. The University of Houston senior is working to complete her Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology – Exercise Science. However, before she graduates, Ochoa will have initiated a medical research project - despite unforeseen obstacles – that may help her with her ultimate goal of becoming a medical doctor.

When her father was undergoing chemotherapy, Ochoa noticed that the treatments were affecting his hand function. That fact, combined with her brother’s spinal cord injury, piqued her interest regarding how certain diseases or conditions affect a person’s ability to fully use their hands.

“I was always interested in research, but didn’t really know how to begin or how the process worked,” said Ochoa. “I wound up speaking with Dr. Stacey Gorniak and we came up with a research project for me.”

Ochoa, under the guidance of Dr. Gorniak, Assistant Professor of Health and Human Performance, decided to investigate the effect of neuropathy on manual dexterity in patients with Type 2 diabetes.

“I chose to study Type 2 diabetes because it is a condition/ disease that can be prevented by adopting a healthier lifestyle,” said Ochoa. “Despite this fact, however, the number of newly diagnosed patients continues to increase among the population. Diabetes can also lead to multiple other conditions including but not limited to heart disease, hypertension, strokes, eye problems, nervous system disease, and kidney disease, so it truly is a systemic disease.”

However, one of the first lessons she learned is that sometimes there are unanticipated challenges when conducting a research project. Ochoa began her research by working with a physician in the Texas Medical Center to recruit research subjects, but that support did not last long. The physician began to travel. So she took matters into her own hands and told friends, coworkers and family members to spread the word that she was looking for people with Type 2 diabetes – an no other health issues - that she could test for her research.

“I spent the summer recruiting and I got seven good test subjects,” said Ochoa. “I still need more.”

Her research is continuing and she is currently analyzing her data as she begins to formulate some conclusions.

“So far, I know that there is a significant relationship between these factors,” said Ochoa. “The right hand seems to be affected more and we are trying to determine if that is because it is the dominant hand in most people.”

Dr. Gorniak says that Ochoa has an excellent work ethic and is quite enthusiastic in learning more through the research process.

“Nereyda’s dedication to the project was demonstrated by her willingness to reach out and involve community members in this project,” said Dr. Gorniak. “My goals are to help her explore more about translational research and what the scientific process is truly like.”

Ochoa has recently applied to graduate school at UH with Dr. Gorniak’s encouragement. Once she completes her Master’s degree in Kinesiology – Exercise Science she plans to attend medical school and ultimately become a doctor.

“This research experience has been a journey of self-discovery,” said Ochoa. “It has helped me grow intellectually and made me push the limits of what I thought was possible.”