Coincidence? My Parents met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as students at Louisiana State University. My father was from Mexico and came to the United States to study Chemical Engineering, and my mother, a Cuban-American, was studying Nutrition. This duality in cultures is mirrored in my own life experiences. After my parents married and my sister was born in Baton Rouge, they moved to Mexico City, where I was born. From then on I lived half of my life in the US and the other half in Mexico. I completed high school in Mexico City and then came back to the US for college and eventually graduate school. After holding positions in Puerto Rico and Georgia, I have returned to live and work at the place where my parents met, LSU! What a coincidence.
I am currently the Chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Bingham C. Stewart Endowed Distinguished Professor of Engineering (my position is funded by a $2,000,000 endowment). My research activities are paid from the interest that the endowment earns each year. With this money I am able to support undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral students who work with me on many different research projects (computational mechanics, earthquake engineering, sustainable technologies and the use of virtual reality in engineering education).
Ever since I was a young boy, my wish was to be a civil engineer, just like my maternal grandfather. My grandpa was an unusual person. After I finished high school, I enrolled at Virginia Tech, and my grandfather enrolled there at the same time! While I earned my Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he earned two more degrees, completing them at the age of 72.
After completing my Bachelor of Science degree, I attended the University of Colorado, where I earned a Master’s degree. I worked as a consultant for four years and traveled all over the world. Nevertheless, I felt that something was missing in my life, so I went back to the University of Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1989. The work that I did for my doctoral dissertation resulted in experiments that went up on two Space Shuttle flights, STS-79 in September 1996 and STS-89 in February 1998.
My wife and I wanted to have our children experience growing up in a Latino culture, so I accepted a position at the University of Puerto Rico, where I remained for four years. In 1991, I was awarded a Presidential Faculty Fellowship, a program that was created by President Bush. This award consisted of a $500,000 research grant, given out over a five-year period.
My dedication to reach my educational goals didn’t just happen. Children are directly influenced by the family’s attitudes, by the values that are expressed in the activities that families undertake, and by the many teachers that students encounter during their studies. I already mentioned my grandfather, who provided me with a role model of an engineer. My parents were leaders in the Parent Teachers’ Association, showing me that you have to take an active role in the educational process. I remember my father telling me that the most valuable inheritance he would leave me was a very good education. I also had caring teachers and mentors. I recall very vividly Mr. Flores, one of my high school teachers in Mexico City. Towards the end of my senior year in high school I was suspended for two weeks for unruly behavior. The principal arranged for me to return on the day that the calculus final was to be given. I would not have been able to graduate had I failed this course. However, Mr. Flores called me every day at home and tutored me over the phone to make sure that I was keeping up with the material. Everyone was surprised, especially the principal, to learn that I earned a 98% on the calculus final.
A Ph.D. provides you with much more than simply a technical education. It also provides you with training on how to organize your thoughts, how to seek out information, and how to address complex problems. A Ph.D. also provides the opportunity to have a much greater impact than just in your own small circle of colleagues and students. In 1994, I was asked to help draft President Clinton’s science policy document entitled, “Science in the National Interest.” There I was able to work with prominent U.S. scientists to formulate the scientific and technological direction this country would follow for the next decade. What a pleasure and an honor it was for me to be among these people! However, the one thing that I didn’t like was the lack of people of color among this group.
The Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas had amazing scientific and engineering accomplishments. It is up to you, our future scientists and engineers, to continue in the tradition of our ancestors.