A Materials Graduate Student’s Mission to Advance Latino Recruitment and Participation in STEM

By Francesca Rameau, Written Communications Assistant

photo of photo of Luis Ortiz, MSE graduate student

Luis A. Ortiz-Flores, MSE graduate student in the HueyAFM lab

Ph.D. student Luis Ortiz’s passion for materials science was ignited during his undergraduate years at the Universidad de Puerto Rico – Humacao, where he was involved in research focused on physics applied to electronics. He revealed, “In my Applied Physics department in Puerto Rico, we have a program mainly focused on materials research. Based on my experience there, I fell in love with the material science field and decided to pursue my graduate studies in this area.”

Ortiz became exposed to the UConn MSE program through various fellowships he applied to throughout his undergraduate years. He revealed, “We didn’t have much information about UConn in Puerto Rico. As a minority student, I decided to apply for fellowship opportunities that could help me succeed in graduate school at universities in the USA. I also applied to this specific program called the Bridge to the Doctorate Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation while I was an undergraduate student. This is a two-year fellowship that helps you bridge between undergraduate and graduate school, and they supported me through the start of my Ph.D. They have a network of universities inside the program, and UConn was one of the listed colleges.”

During the two-year fellowship, Ortiz was introduced to Professor Bryan Huey, who currently heads the MSE department and serves as his advisor. Luis admits feeling supported by Professor Huey and the other department faculty members. He remarked, “Many people here are willing to mentor students and see us become better professionals. My advisor has been one of them.”  Ortiz acknowledged the support he receives from MSE faculty members to pursue his dreams and their confidence in his ability to achieve them. “I feel supported and validated in terms of how we pursue our path and work to achieve our goals,” he said.

image of a Photoconductive mechanism of an organic-inorganic solar cell system.

Photoconductive mechanism of an organic-inorganic solar cell system.

Currently, Ortiz is conducting research on material properties, primarily using the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) and its advanced extensions. In simpler terms, he explains, “I’m currently working on an alternative type of solar cells. These ‘Halide Perovskite’ systems use far less energy and raw materials to manufacture but can be just as efficient. However, the main problem that they have is stability. No one has yet figured out how to make them last longer. So, everyone is competing to understand and eventually sell the best product.”

When explaining how his research transfers and relates to the real world, Ortiz stated, “Traditional silicon solar cells have been around for years. We know how they work, and they have been in the market for decades now. However, they are still relatively expensive. With this research we are really part of a worldwide effort to develop this new kind of solar cell that should be up to five times cheaper than traditional panels. This would make alternative renewable energy systems so much more accessible in the future.”

Professor Huey notes, “Luis is studying the performance of this new solar cell technology at one of the finest levels of resolution in the world. It is groundbreaking work and required him to develop new protocols to learn the most from his incredibly challenging measurements. This is only one of Luis’ great strengths, though—he’s also a great speaker, passionate about expanding diversity in engineering, and so Luis has also become a wonderful ambassador for UConn Engineering to help us inspire and recruit future students especially from institutions back home in Puerto Rico.”

Ortiz embarked on a transformative journey within the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program for four consecutive summers. Throughout each internship, Ortiz acquired new knowledge and skills, contributing to his emergence as a scholar and problem solver. His journey began at NASA, delving into the field of heliophysics. During this time, Ortiz was able to unravel the mysteries of solar radiation and its effects on space electronics and astronauts’ health.  The following summer, Ortiz found himself at Michigan State University, where he explored the world of Nuclear Physics. He was able to probe into the fundamental forces of the universe, gaining more knowledge of the fabrics of reality and exploring alternative solutions for the newest generations of nuclear energy. Ortiz then ventured into electrical engineering studies at Princeton University, where he collaborated to develop testing mechanisms to monitor functional electronics. Finally, his journey concluded at Brigham Young University, where Ortiz explored magnetic properties in a sequence of samples that are used for data storage applications (like hard drives in computers), which is an important topic in the MSE field.

Reminiscing on these experiences, Ortiz expressed with gratitude, “They all gave me the tools I needed to understand what I wanted to do next and expand my knowledge in some other areas too. For example, we do a lot of data processing and coding in our lab. This is something I did during my first two internships as well. All of these experiences helped me forge the professional who I have become today.” In addition to these opportunities, Ortiz also had a four-month internship at Mott Corporation in 2022 as a Research and Development Intern. 

In addition to his academic pursuits, Ortiz was very involved with the Material Research Society (MRS) University Chapter at UConn and was elected President by its student members for 2021-2022. And, as his advisor noted earlier, Luis was invited by the UConn College of Engineering to join in several trips to Puerto Rico for student recruiting. He got to visit several universities throughout Puerto Rico, engaging with students and professors. They set up booths on campuses and offered interactive class participation activities to introduce the students to topics often discussed at UConn. Ortiz asserts that his main goal for participating in this program is to expose students in Puerto Rico to opportunities and resources and confirm that they can receive economic and academic support to attend graduate school.

Ortiz wants to be seen as a testament to the opportunities that arise when support is provided. He professed, “A lot of people don’t know that they can get funded while pursuing their graduate degrees. This is an important aspect to consider in order to encourage other people to pursue this path, especially those who do not have resources of their own. I also think there should be more minority participation in to show diverse representation in grad school. For many groups, including international students, people of color, and Latinos, this is the best way to let them know earning an advanced degree at UConn or elsewhere is possible, and that a support community will be available too. We are all striving for the best version of ourselves to make a change in society and contribute to a better future.” 

Ortiz has seen academic success translate into multiple accolades, including winning 1st place in the 2023 School of Engineering Poster Presentation for the MSE division and earning the UConn Material Science and Engineering Outstanding Leadership Award in 2022. Reflecting on the latter recognition, Luis affirmed, “This was a great opportunity to develop my leadership skills and be exposed to other people involved in materials research and other organizations. I wanted to get exposure with those beyond UConn, do more networking, build my confidence in talking to people, and improve many other life skills.” As a scholar, Ortiz, in collaboration with others, has published three papers and submitted two, with two more currently in the process of being submitted. 

After completing his Ph.D., Ortiz hopes to continue working in research and emerge as a leader in a technologically advanced field. He credits UConn for preparing him for his future career.  He claimed, “I want to work in an industry lab, and I also want to use my skills to lead others and have a research group in the future.”  

Ortiz emphasized one word when asked about advice he would give students aspiring to pursue MSE research. He said, “Do your research to understand exactly what you’re getting into. Something very good about materials science and engineering is that this is a very multidisciplinary field. So, just get involved in reading and understanding the path that you want to follow. Get exposed, talk to people, talk to your advisors, professors, and other grad students, and then dive in.”

Published: April 11, 2024

Categories: graduate students, news, outreach, research

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