Engineering by Day. Inventando by Night - Emily Anne Vargas

“This is composite wood. I want actual wood.” I followed close on my father’s heels as he blazed through the bathroom showrooms at Home Depot, scrutinizing cabinet after cabinet. I held onto his calloused hand as he explained to me the difference. The cabinets in the display were made of a composite, composed of compressed wood chips and resin, and coated with paint to look like regular wood. A handyman by trade, he explained to me that particleboard is an engineering wood product that, while cheaper, falls apart faster than solid wood. He only bought solid wood cabinets to ensure the durability and reliability of his work to the people he helped and not cause them hardships later on. My father is an immigrant. From his experiences, he knows all too well what it is like to live a low-quality life. As such, he doesn’t want his children and family to experience those same struggles. He knew he couldn’t give up, as he was the only person keeping us from being homeless. His eyes reveal a familiar and painful story, one shared by each of the families that migrated to the U.S. from Cuba with nothing but calloused hands and paint splattered cargo shorts. He continued to work harder than he had ever done to the point where he would regularly collapse from dehydration. Despite every attempt I made to assist my father in his tile or crown-molding work, he told me to: “Stay in school so you don’t have to do what I do for the rest of your life.” As upset and useless I felt back then, I promised him that I would not give up.

My dad, sister, and little me.

No one in my family has obtained higher than a high school diploma. My parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba to seek opportunity; in turn, they sacrificed their aspirations to provide my sister and I the chance to pursue the higher education they were not able to obtain. Both of my parents worked six jobs each to obtain the prepaid college plan. Their goal was for both my sister and I to attend a four-year university without having to worry about tuition expenses. This selfless act motivates me each and every day to achieve higher, but more importantly, to one day eliminate my family’s financial struggle. The more they listened to my goals, the more support I had towards applying to college. As a first generation Cuban American, raised by a hard laborer, my passion lies in making a difference for others. This exposure to materials and work ethic that my father instilled in me has developed my aspirations to obtain my PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Southern California. My goal is to become a chief composites engineer in Research and Development within the aerospace industry.

When I started my undergraduate degree at Florida State University (FSU), I had no clear vision on what I wanted to do after I graduated. This was my chance to succeed, and I could not mess this up, not after all my parents had done for me. I knew as early as high school that I was inventive and good at math, but I did not know what major would encompass these two areas. I declared myself an engineering major based on the sole fact that it was challenging. I’m not afraid at trying something challenging. With this choice, I made a list of things I needed to do to succeed by the time I graduated in the next four years.

Research Experience At FSU

As a student attending the joint FSU – Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) College of Engineering, a separate institution from the respective main campuses; there were not many ways to find out about various research experiences early on. Hence, I had to look for other opportunities through the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) on FSU’s main campus. In the spring of 2014, I met with advisors from the OUR pertaining to any research positions available and I was advised to apply online to the Undergraduate Research Program. Under this program, all that was required to apply was a minimum 3.2 FSU GPA, which I met. I ran out the office excitedly to start the application, not having realized that I left my folder inside their office. When I went back to grab it, I overheard them saying that not only did I not have a high enough GPA to do research under their program, but since I was a Hispanic I would fail to deliver results. If I have to overcome anything in life brought upon my culture, it would be the stereotypes waiting for me to prove that I am a failure. These individuals thought they could identify intellect, drive, and talent solely based on what I looked like. It appeared that I fell under the category of poorly educated Hispanic that possessed no talent. If I had listened to their words, I would be living up to that standard — expect nothing, give nothing. But I came too far; my character was such that these perceptions would not deter my efforts toward success. I worked at raising the standards for underrepresented students like myself every day. I improved my grades, knowing that this was a big part of working toward a strong academic track record, graduation, and living a successful life. In the end, I would like to say “I proved you wrong”. I proceeded to apply for the program, but still wasn’t admitted. This just meant that I would prove them wrong elsewhere.

That same week, I decided to speak to my engineering advisor about my interest in conducting research. He handed me a note recommending that I email my resume to Dr. Richard Liang, the director of the High Performance Materials Institute (HPMI) to express my interest in being a research assistant. Since there is no materials science and engineering program at my university, I was reluctant to reach out from the beginning. Still, I figured it didn’t hurt to ask. Soon after reaching out to Dr. Liang I received a reply stating: “You start Fall. See you then.” The fact that he was willing to take a chance on me made me excited to try out something new and prove that I could perform technical research. Also, I learned that when certain people obstruct opportunities, others will provide them.

As I walked into HPMI for the first time, I considered how little I knew about composite materials, let alone buckypaper (BP), the main material used in the lab. Although I understood what was known about its purpose and application, I knew little about the fabrication and the features associated with the variety of materials available. Fortunately, I began working with people like Dr. Liang that mentored and guided me in ways that my parents couldn’t. With hard work and dedication, I became the only undergraduate researcher among a group of material scientists, post-doctorates, and graduate students who worked on the continuous manufacturing of carbon-nanotube (CNT) BP. We studied the various parameters of graphene to manufacture a material with superior strength, high electrical conductivity and heat resistance, and good dispersion throughout the sample on the macro-scale. More specifically, I focused on the methods of dispersion for carbon nanotubes, to which I successfully defended my thesis as a sophomore, entitled “Study of Sonication Dispersion Parameters for Carbon Nanotube Buckypaper.”

That opportunity and experience in the lab opened many doors, allowing me to motivate others from the engineering school to pursue internship, research, and graduate study opportunities. Since then, I have been able to apply what I learned in the classroom and research lab to find solutions in industry, government, and academia. The skills acquired allowed me to obtain a Bachelor of Science from FSU. Along the way, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) has served as an extreme catalyst in my effort to become the first person in my family to graduate with an undergraduate engineering degree.

At SHPE Conference

SHPE is a national organization whose mission is to change lives by empowering the Hispanic community in STEM related areas. SHPE has not only aided me in the development of my professional skills, but has also showed me the true definition of a leader. I worked my way up to become vice president of the FSU-SHPE chapter my first and second year in college. I knew that a leadership role would allow me to create the most impact for the Hispanic community in Tallahassee, Florida. For example, I led efforts to host the first Noche de Ciencias event in the area, which continues to be hosted on a yearly basis. Noche de Ciencias (Night of the Sciences) is a national initiative with the purpose of engaging Hispanic youth and their parents in STEM related workshops to show how fun science is and promote college and engineering awareness in a bilingual setting. During my junior year, I served as the Region 7 Student Representative (RSR) who represented undergraduate chapters at nineteen colleges/universities in four of the Southeast states at the national level. As RSR, I helped synchronize the undergraduate chapters to the national organization’s main mission. Also, I aided six institutions to establish/reinstate SHPE chapters in the region. During my senior year, I served on the Board of Directors as the National Undergraduate Representative (NUR), where I worked to align with the strategic plan of the organization and to be the voice of the undergraduate community. Alongside the National Affairs Committee (NAC) and the National Graduate Committee (NGC), my strategic plan was to increase the number of Hispanic students entering and graduating from STEM graduate programs by 2025. As a graduate student, I will continue my involvement with SHPE by contributing with the NGC in pushing this initiative.

FSU Graduation

Through SHPE, I found an inspiring mentor who has served as the main reason I learned about a fellowship that has become important to my academic career. His sole purpose in life is to make sure that no one else has to endure the same hardships that he underwent while living in one of the most crime ridden areas in Chicago. Mauro Rodriguez is a mechanical engineering PhD candidate at the University of Michigan who underwent adversities like mine growing up. Mauro’s passion is to mentor students such as myself. Much of what he’s taught me is to never allow anyone to stop me from reaching my goals. He has also showed me how important it is to share my story and to aim at revolutionizing science, as we know it. He is especially passionate at empowering the Hispanic community. In doing so, we have become mentors to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that may not have had someone to look up to at home.

Mentoring The Next Generation of Engineers

My ideas about composites and materials began while taking simple walks with my dad at Home Depot showrooms, but such ideas have evolved into empowering myself through education. His calloused hands were a reminder of what hard work looks like. I chose to work hard in the classroom and in the lab. I hope that my humble beginnings are proof of what is possible. By pursuing a PhD, I will set an example to all Hispanics that are contemplating the idea of becoming engineers. I would like to say to all Hispanic aspiring engineers to go for it. It will take hard work, but there is support out there that will uplift you along the way. Find them. They’re out there looking to guide your path. As a future chief engineer, I will dedicate time and energy to expand the working force with individuals of similar backgrounds to mine. I will understand their drive and lead them to their highest aspirations. My mantra that I choose to live by as I continue the journey called life is: “Always live at the bottom, even when you are at the top.” Never forget why you started and never forget who was there for you along the way.