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UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Materials science graduate student awarded top SHPE honor

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Maritza Sanchez

San Diego, CA, September 12, 2018 -- While working to earn a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering, Maritza Sanchez made time to help undergraduate students across the country understand the benefits of earning an advanced degree, and find the resources necessary to do so. As the first person in her extended family to attend college and one of the less than 5 percent of current doctoral graduates in engineering who are Hispanic, she knew the importance of advanced degrees.

In recognition of her academic excellence and outstanding contributions to the Hispanic community, Sanchez was awarded the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Graduate Student Role Model Star Award, the highest honor bestowed on a graduate student by the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).

Sanchez, a materials science and engineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego, researches ceramics for use in extreme environments. Sanchez studies in Professor Olivia Graeve’s lab at the Jacobs School of Engineering. Her goal is to find new ceramic materials that can withstand the extreme heat and radiation used in the energy sector—ceramics are used to cool gas turbines, jet engines and coat the inside of nuclear reactors. She synthesizes different ceramics with specific particle morphologies to observe how they react when stressed under extreme conditions.

As the first member of her family to attend college, Sanchez felt homesick, disconnected and lost as she started her undergraduate career. Her second year of college at University of California, Santa Barbara she decided to attend a SHPE meeting, and hasn’t looked back since.

“SHPE as an organization has a strong family essence just like any Hispanic family would,” Sanchez said. “As soon as you get there, they’re so welcoming and make you feel like you’re at home.”

Sanchez served as vice regional student representative for SHPE, then as regional student representative and finally sat on the board of directors at the national level as a national undergraduate representative during her last year of undergraduate studies.

She used those roles to create initiatives promoting graduate degrees—master’s, MBAs, Ph.D.s, graduate studies of any kind—to undergraduate students who may not be familiar with the advantages of getting an advanced degree, or know how to find funding and mentors.

“SHPE’s vision is to create leading innovators, scientists and engineers from underrepresented groups,” she said. “I thought one way to do that is to make them experts in their field, and in order to be an expert in their field you have to pursue something beyond a bachelors’ degree. That was my focus throughout my year on the national committee.”

It’s a worthwhile focus: Statistics show that the participation of U.S. Latinos in engineering fields, including materials science and engineering, is very low. The latest census data (from 2016) indicate that 17.8 percent of the total U.S. population is Hispanic or Latino, yet Hispanics represent only 4.9 percent of engineering doctoral graduates.

“Maritza’s dedication to her research and her community is to be applauded,” said Professor Olivia Graeve, Sanchez’s advisor and recipient of the 2017 SHPE Star Innovator Award. “I’m proud of her decision to pursue a doctoral degree in engineering, and proud of her efforts to help others understand the benefits of earning a Ph.D.”

As a graduate student, Sanchez is still involved on the national scale, serving on the ad hoc national graduate committee which focuses on supporting graduate students from the application process through to graduation.

“We advocate for graduate school—reaching out to undergrads, giving them the resources they need to apply to and get into grad school-- and provide options for funding and other things they shouldn’t have to worry about that we can help with in the process. We also help them secure industry jobs and offer workshops on the process to become a professor.”

She serves as a mentor that reviews students’ applications and fellowship statements, and helps organize graduate student events at SHPE conferences.

And that’s just at the national level.

At UC San Diego, she helps plan various workshops for graduate engineering students, as well as the SHPE Graduate School Road Map which was held at UC San Diego in 2018. She enjoys participating in outreach events in local middle and high schools, and serves as the graduate representative for SHPEtinas, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineer’s female-specific community.

With all the ways she’s involved with SHPE you might think this award would come as no surprise.

“I was kind of shocked,” Sanchez said. “I was surprised because I’ve seen the people who win this award every year and I’ve gotten to know them on a personal level and they’re just amazing people. I never connected to the fact that I could be that person winning that award. Because those are people I look up to. The people who have won it in the past have been my mentors and role models so I didn’t think I would be there one day.”

Sanchez said SHPE was a major reason why she was able to complete her undergraduate engineering degree and pursue a Ph.D. She said the resources the organization provided were key in helping her plan ahead for her future.

“I noticed a lot of my friends in undergrad who didn’t participate in a lot of groups were just focused on trying to get a good grade for each class, but never really thought about how they’re going to graduate at some point, and what are they going to do next,” she said. “SHPE introduced me to that early on. I was able to take advantage of the opportunities that came to me as an undergrad, and I didn’t wait until my last year, like some of the other students, to do an internship or get involved in research.

“I don’t think I would be where I am without SHPE. That’s the bottom line.”

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