Transition has influenced where I am today, and it defines the work I do. The major transitions in my life were difficult at the time, yet they fostered my success and ability to learn, to adapt, and to be resilient in any situation. And here I am today, working at DuPont to help the company make and sell next-generation high-performance materials.
I was born in San Pedro, California—a Mexican American community where everyone spoke Spanish. When I was 10 years old, my family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, because of my father’s job. I was the only kid with a Spanish name in school. I didn’t know anyone outside of my family who knew my language, culture, and traditions, or who knew how to say my name correctly. I was in culture shock.
While my experience in Indianapolis was tough, in the end, I am grateful because it made me a very resilient person. I learned how to assimilate to the non-Hispanic culture and to feel comfortable in environments where there are few people like me—like corporate America and my current job at DuPont, where there are very few underrepresented minorities.
As a young person, I didn’t intend to work in industry. I actually had my heart set on becoming a naval officer. I always enjoyed science, chemistry in particular, but that might have been because I had a couple of fantastic chemistry teachers in school. I enrolled at Purdue University, a great local school that had an excellent science and engineering reputation, as well as a very prestigious ROTC program. Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, and many others had graduated from their ROTC program. I majored in chemistry and was accepted into the ROTC program, which covered most of my tuition and living costs.
Being in the ROTC program gave me an atypical college experience. While most students have a lot of freedom and few responsibilities, the ROTC program was incredibly structured. We had weekly uniform inspections, flag raising and lowering duties, and drill practice. If your grades dropped, you were forced to endure 20 hours of supervised tutoring every week. The program gave me excellent training and discipline, and I was eagerly working toward a leadership position in the navy.
Then in my final year, I was medically discharged from the ROTC program and told that I was ineligible for the navy. I was devastated and had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I had spent all those years training to be a naval officer. I was faced with another unanticipated transition, one that would lead me to where I am today.
I had been doing undergraduate research for a professor at Purdue, and when he found out I was ineligible for the navy, he really pushed me to go to graduate school. Since I really liked research and was in the process of figuring out the type of career I wanted to pursue, I followed his advice and began applying to several chemistry PhD programs. I applied to several really good schools and got accepted, and decided to stay on at Purdue in my professor’s lab because he was so supportive and interested in seeing me succeed.
He then led me to the next major transition in my life: moving to Alberta, Canada, where it was winter 9 to 10 months out of the year. It was so cold, with temperatures dropping to negative 60 degrees or more with the windchill. I had already completed many of my graduate requirements, so I was granted my PhD from Purdue. I spent the last two and a half years with my professor at the University of Alberta. Living that far north was really tough, but it was a great experience because it made me more flexible. It made me more open-minded to trying new things and gave me a different perspective on my views of the world.
From Alberta, I went straight to DuPont Central Research and Development. I was always interested in going into industry rather than academia. As a PhD student I synthesized small molecules and studied them. In industry you focus on applying science to solve problems that ultimately improve the human condition. At DuPont we have invented and commercialized many new materials and products that make our lives safer and easier. For example, for my first four years at DuPont I worked frequently with plastics. We make these really high-performance plastics that can endure incredibly high temperatures for use in aircraft engines and power plants. And we’re always trying to push the limit. By enhancing wear and friction properties of these super plastics we will have a huge impact on energy conservation around the globe.
I also just love the big corporate culture that highly values a work / life balance. I love that I don’t have to take my work with me. Of course there are times when I put a lot of extra hours in, but this is not the norm. And DuPont is very supportive of that, so that their employees don’t burn out. I’m married with two young sons, and I get to spend time with them and pursue other interests.
Working at a big corporation has also afforded me diverse job experiences. After four years of being a principal investigator in Central Research and Development, I am now training to work on the marketing side of the business. The idea is to marry my technical background and scientific understanding with marketing to drive innovation. Now I work with business data instead of science data and focus on DuPont’s toughest marketing challenges instead of our toughest technical challenges.
Much of my success is a result of the joint influence from my mom and dad. My father is a strategist, a big-picture person, while my mom is great at the tactical day-to-day things. My dad is a phone man; he would always talk to me about being a scientist or engineer. My mom stayed home with me and my siblings and taught us how to get things done on a daily basis. That combination was very successful for me and for my brother and sister. My parents have always been the rock that supports our foundation. My brother recently defended his dissertation in history, while my sister recently began her second year of a PhD program at Notre Dame. My parents did something right!
At a very early age, my parents also taught me I could do anything I wanted, and this made a huge difference. I never questioned whether or not I could complete the PhD, become a scientist at a top-notch research facility or become a marketer. When I tell people I have a PhD in chemistry, some say, “Oh, you must be really smart!” But my success has nothing to do with that. Almost anyone has the ability to become a scientist or engineer if they’re willing to do the work and go through the training. Academia and research can be really tough, but having the ganas (Spanish for willingness, desire, determination) is what’s most important. If we could get rid of the whole attitude about how someone must be really smart to be a scientist or engineer, then we’d have a lot more scientists and engineers which we really need!