By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant
Looking back, Materials Science and Engineering alumnus Manuel Rivas has one major piece of advice for MSE students and graduates: go to as many conferences as possible. It was at conferences that Rivas was recruited to pursue his PhD at UConn, and years later to begin his dream job.
As an undergraduate studying physics at the University of Texas Pan-American, Rivas had the opportunity to be one of three undergraduates to present research at the Electronics Materials and Applications conference in Florida. This is where he met MSE Department Head and Professor Bryan Huey.
Rivas recalls meeting Huey during the conference social when Huey was talking to another professor about atomic force microscopy, a technique he hadn’t heard of before.
“Not being shy, I asked him to explain what AFM was since I wanted to be able to follow the conversation. Afterwards I bombarded him with questions,” Rivas admits.
Professor Huey remembers that conversation well. “Manny impressed me from the start with his ability to think on his feet, the types of questions he asked, and his drive to succeed. It helped that his then-professors also remarked about how much he had learned in their labs as an undergraduate, and how they came to rely on him even for training others. While a student Manny always made the most of every opportunity, whether it was undergraduate research, seeking chances to further develop his leadership skills, outreach events, even helping to launch a company.
Now, Rivas can say he doesn’t regret that move across the country, telling other students to socialize as much as possible at conferences. Shortly after the conference, he got a Skype call from Professor Huey and discussed the opportunity to join his team at UConn while pursuing his PhD.
“I still wasn’t sure of what I wanted with my future at the time, but I knew that this was an opportunity of a lifetime that I did not want to pass up,” Rivas says.
In 2012, Rivas joined the MSE graduate program as a PhD candidate and a member of Huey’s research group. He can say now that going up to Huey that day and eventually moving all the way to Storrs, Connecticut, were not decisions he regrets.
“Joining Huey’s research group was life changing. The group was extremely diverse, always ready to help one another, and pushing each other,” he says. “With their mentoring and comradery, it made being more than 2,000 miles from home not feel so bad.”
Professor Huey was the bridge to many more opportunities to come for Rivas. According to Rivas, he pushed him to apply to the NSF Bridge to Doctorate program (BTD) promoting participants of underrepresented groups in the STEM disciplines. This led to his master’s project, which led to a summer internship at the Army Research Lab near Washington D.C., and eventually a full- time job for three years with the ARL while he completed his PhD.
Though he was balancing a lot as he earned his degree, Rivas says he had a strong support system from friends, family, and the Huey research group. According to Rivas, that support along with having a good line of communication with MSE advisors and mentors, setting deadlines, being upfront when falling behind, and constantly planning how to best execute research were all crucial ingredients to pulling off the balancing act that is any PhD research.
During his time at the US Army Research Lab, Manny was developing a new top electrode for MEMS devices (microscopic devices, particularly those with miniature moving parts). An opportunity arose sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to conduct research of the MEMS devices in radiation rich environments. Rivas jumped at the chance, eventually presenting some of this research at the IEEE Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference (NSREC). A year after that presentation, and just a week after he defended his PhD, Rivas received a message from a technical recruiter from Blue Origin asking if he was interested in becoming their Radiation Effects Engineer. When Rivas asked the recruiter how they found him, he was told he had spoken with someone from Blue Origin at the NSREC conference who had written his name down in a list of people to watch.
Rivas joined the Blue Origin team at their headquarters in Kent, Washington in 2018 and has worked there ever since as a Radiation (“Rad” as Rivas calls it) Effects Engineer. He is now the Technical Program Manager. As a radiation effects engineer, he helped ensure the mission success of the space rockets and stations; radiation is the highest risk in a lot of these programs. As Program Manager he helps ensure radiation effects are well understood, and mitigated in a timely manner. Ultimately, “rad” is a fitting name for how Rivas describes his job.
“I work with an incredible group of individuals that push me to be the best version of myself. I’m constantly learning, through reading, online courses, conferences. And I get to leave my fingerprint in many things that will not just fly to space but really have the chance to impact the future of humanity,” he says.
The most difficult part of his job, Rivas admits, occurred when he first joined Blue Origin and was pulled into a multitude of meetings involving circuit design review. “At the time, I was a little lost since my background was physics and materials science and engineering, but not electrical engineering. With mentoring and online courses, I’ve managed.”
Within three years of Rivas having entered the field, the technical chair for the 2021 RADECS (the European version of NSREC) and largest Radiation Effects Conference in Europe asked Rivas to be the Session Chair for the conference. “I was honored since I would get to work with members of the Radiation Community from NASA, the European Space Agency, Airbus, and many more.” The community has done things the same way for a long time, but Rivas led a session on ways the community could obtain accurate results in a faster, cheaper, and therefore more effective way.
“The high level of engagement from the community with my session, as well as the congratulations of a job well done from my colleagues who’ve been doing this for 15+ years, was a sign that not only did I do well, but also that this topic will continue to be explored at future Rad Effects conferences worldwide,” Rivas says.
In addition to going to as many conferences as possible, Rivas’ advice for current MSE students is to never stop learning. Every year he selects several papers written in his field to read and analyze, and he is currently enrolled in more than ten online courses. These courses range from project management, to aerospace engineering, to 3D printing.
Professor Huey notes, “Like so many of our graduates, Manny has become an inspiration to our current students. He’s giving back by helping them build out their own professional network. And his work is just fascinating. It’s always a pleasure to hear from him, and so many other MSE alums, when we get to reconnect.” In fact, Manny is giving our department seminar on March 3, and he will also meet with UConn’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).
When asked if he had any final comments, Rivas said the following: “Give back to the community, help inspire the future generation of scientists and engineers.” Throughout the year Rivas often enjoys giving talks at local schools and libraries about Engineering for Space to K-12 kids.
“If you can inspire one kid, that kid can go on and make the next scientific breakthrough, which in turn makes you a catalyst for the advancement of humanity.”