Over the years, I’ve learned that the journey towards and through a Science and Engineering Career can have many twists and turns, and is typically not the simple path that you envisioned when you were younger. However, it can be far richer and more fulfilling than you ever imagined if: (1) you work hard; (2) are persistent; (3) courageously and judiciously explore seemingly risky opportunities; (4) make enabling sacrifices; (5) accept that many of your decisions will be imperfect and possibly even wrong; and (6) learn from and move on from your failures and disappointments. In retrospect, I realize that my professional success has been enabled by many other supporting influences around me, starting with my parents. We also have an obligation to pay it forward to others when we have the opportunity.
My maternal grandmother never had the opportunity to pursue a primary or secondary education because of the turmoil of the 1910 Mexican Revolution which forced her immigration to the USA. Nonetheless, she valued the importance of education and often reminded me of our family’s Aztec heritage. Her stories about her Nahuatl-speaking grandmother and how Astronomy influenced the Aztec world view combined with more modern American science fiction influences, and were influential in my early interest in a STEM career. My parents were not college graduates, and neither were engaged in STEM Careers. Although they did not understand what a STEM Career could provide compared to other more familiar careers (i.e., business, law or medicine), they could offer love and support my decision to pursue my STEM career interest.
I originally wanted to be an astrophysicist and a professor, and that led my early education choices. In High School, I had to find courage to ignore other uninformed voices around me that tried to dissuade me from a Physics career as being “too hard”, or unmarketable. With my family’s support, I earned my Physics bachelor’s degree from the University of Dallas. Afterwards, my parents did not pressure me to get a “real job” rather than pursue a graduate education. This faith and encouragement helped me pursue the lengthy and arduous path through graduate school. Since I grew up in San Antonio, I focused my graduate school search within Texas. Unfortunately, after various visits, none of the programs seemed like a good fit for me, and it was too late to apply elsewhere. Uncertain about where to go to graduate school, I was fortunate to find a civil service physicist job at Kelly AFB in San Antonio to buy me more time to investigate graduate school options. My KAFB co-workers were friendly and I quickly learned how to do my job evaluating jet engines. Within a few months, I became bored with the position, and learned that the more interesting Physics jobs were elsewhere, and required much more education. Thus, I continued my search for a Physics Graduate School outside of Texas that seemed like a better fit.
I learned about the recent decision to place the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and that looked like an incredible opportunity worth pursuing despite the distance from my family and culture. With my parents’ nervous blessing, I took a risk and went to Physics and Astronomy graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, far my family and cultural surroundings. My KAFB co-workers were supportive of my decision, but also thought I was crazy to resign from a secure career civil service job with steady promotion opportunities. In hind sight, it turned out that the position was not secure – KAFB closed due to a BRAC Commission decision within 10 years (now Port San Antonio).
The change of surroundings during my first year was much more difficult than I expected, and I was surprised how quickly “out of shape” I became from university study habits in my “gap year” between undergraduate and graduate school. I also did not save as much money as I thought I would despite staying at home for that gap year. There is a risk in taking a gap year between undergraduate and graduate school, and I was almost a victim. I seriously thought about quitting graduate school that first year, but I somehow worked hard and persisted. The memory of the lack of career challenge from my previous KAFB job was a key motivator. Fortunately, after that first tough year at Hopkins, things became more comfortable and exciting. Despite an interesting STSI summer intern experience after my first year at Hopkins, I realized that I was more interested in the state-of-the-art instrumentation contained in the Hubble Space Telescope. I learned that Condensed Matter and Materials Physics were an even greater passion, so I took a risk and shifted gears away from Astrophysics.
My Hopkins dissertation project focused on fundamental issues related to surface and interface magnetism, partially motivated by the chance to be advised by a very bright, dynamic and supportive Physics Professor: Cal Walker. After Hopkins, I still wanted to be a Professor, and I was advised that a challenging postdoctoral research experience was crucial. With Cal’s help, I was fortunate to successfully apply for an National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Associateship at the Naval Research Lab in nearby Washington DC. My choice was motivated by the chance to work with another dynamic researcher (and Hopkins alumnus), Gary Prinz. Coincidentally, Gary Prinz would later found NRL’s Nanoscience Institute. Besides my engagement in exciting research at the dawn of the age of spintronics, I also had the chance to learn how Gary motivated a team of researchers towards a coordinated goal, and the importance of research in support of US National Security.
Determined to be a Professor at a place where I could make a difference and move closer to family, I next accepted a position at Texas State University. Like graduate school, the first year was the hardest. I wondered if I made the right decision. After working hard and surviving the first year, it was exhilarating working towards building a new Materials Physics research and curriculum program that impacted the careers of many future students. I began offering mentoring that began to pay forward the help that I received. I had great satisfaction helping a group of ambitious Texas State students initiate a new “Science Extravaganza” outreach program that was eventually recognized and expanded throughout the National Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists organization. I was pleased that I significantly contributed towards Texas State University becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution, and lead the way to a new interdisciplinary Materials Science Doctoral program.
After 13 years at Texas State University, another opportunity for change and growth appeared – I was offered a chance to lead an R&D Department with outstanding nanomaterials science/engineering experts at Sandia National Laboratories (NM). This opportunity was the result of my expanding research collaborations putting me on the radar of Sandia National Labs. Many of my Texas State University colleagues saw great risk in the opportunity, especially since I would be leaving a tenured Professor position. Additionally, many of them thought that since the Sandia position was not a Professorship, it was not a “real” science position. I disagreed. Sandia’s offer was a risky opportunity, taking me out of Texas again and landing me in a new environment and culture. Again, the first year was the hardest and I wondered if I made the right decision to come to Sandia. Again, persistence, adaptability and networking helped me make the transition. It has been a tremendous and satisfying learning experience at Sandia, leading to recognition by HENAAC and Fellowship in the American Physical Society. In my present role, I continue to look for ways to keep paying it forward. I don’t know what opportunity lays in waiting in the future, but I hope that I will recognize it and have the courage to pursue it. I hope that my example helps you recognize and courageously pursue your path.
Updated April 3,2018