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Alfonso Ortega, PhD

I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. My parents migrated to the United States for better job opportunities so as to provide for their eleven children. My parents are from ranchitos (small ranches) outside of Durango, Mexico. My father was a teacher in Mexico; but when he migrated to the U.S. he became a bricklayer, a trade he soon mastered. He loved his job and felt passionate about being a master bricklayer. My brother and I would often work for him. I owe a great deal of my love for building things to my father. He helped me understand and appreciate the value of a good structure, as well as the beauty contained within it.I went to Bel Air High School in El Paso. During high school I worked hard, and eventually I won a scholarship to Rice University, a university of high reputation. However, when I told my parents about my opportunity, they weren’t very enthusiastic about it. Though they didn’t stop me from attending Rice, they never gave me the approval I felt was necessary. I decided instead to go to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I have never regretted this decision, for I believe I received an excellent education. At that time the school catered to undergraduates, and I learned the essentials I would need to become a successful engineer. One professor I had at UTEP, Professor Jack Dowdy, introduced me to the engineering problems surrounding heat exchange, and set me on a course that continues to this very day. It is amazing the impact that a few small comments can have on a student. I received my B.S. degree with honors in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 1976.
In January 1977, I started work at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, participating in the One Year On Campus (OYOC) program, which is meant to help minorities and women get higher degrees. I consider myself to be a case study in how the system works for getting minorities and women into advanced degrees through national laboratories. I saw people with advanced degrees doing the things I wanted to do, and that having a graduate degree in engineering was the key to success.
In August 1977, I left Sandia and headed to Stanford University. I was enrolled in an intensive one-year master’s degree program. That first quarter at Stanford was the toughest that I had ever experienced. At UTEP I was used to being the top student, and things just seemed to come to me naturally. However, the higher the educational level, the more dedicated the students are. For the first time in my career I was not easily the top student in my classes. I earned my master’s degree and then returned to Sandia where I continued to work. Seeing the need for even higher education, after two and a half years I returned to Stanford to pursue my Ph.D. under the Sandia Laboratories advanced degree program. At Stanford I worked as a research assistant with Professor Bob Moffat on heat exchange problems in engineering. After five years I obtained my Ph.D., and then returned again to Sandia. On the side I worked as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I learned that I enjoyed university teaching. I wasn’t looking for a position when I received a request from the University of Arizona (UA) to interview for a tenure track professorship. I had been recommended by my advisor at Stanford as a possible candidate for the position. I decided to interview, and I was offered and accepted the position in 1988. I am currently an Associate Professor, and the Director of the Experimental and Computational Heat Transfer Group, at UA.
In my laboratory we study heat transfer. A project we are working on in my laboratory is cooling down computers as they work harder to keep up with the ever increasing speed of operations. We use the human brain as a model. The brain is cooled by bringing liquids (blood) into contact with it. We are trying to use this idea by bringing cool liquid, air and water, into close contact with the processor, which heats up as it does more work. The heat is transferred to the liquid, which is then carried off and cooled by circulation. The process repeats, keeping the computer’s processor cool enough to function properly, much like the human brain.
I love my job. I work on problems in engineering that are important and interesting. With the knowledge that I gain from studying these problems, I get to teach and inspire students at all levels, from high school, to my university classes, to professional engineers in industry. I feel privileged being an academic at the University of Arizona.