UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Building binational bridges through STEM

San Diego, Calif., October 10, 2019 -- For seven weeks this summer, 120 high school and college students called UC San Diego’s campus home as they conducted groundbreaking research on how the human brain works, how to design materials to withstand earthquakes, how to build safer batteries, and 57 equally challenging topics.

But that wasn’t the hard part—or even the main goal.

These students hailed from both the United States and Mexico, and were here to use science as a means of developing friendships that will last a lifetime, and maybe even trickle down to more positive binational relations.

“The focus of the program is actually to join students from both sides of the border in research experiences here on our campus,” said Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Olivia Graeve, a Tijuana native and UC San Diego alumna who started the Enlace Binational Summer Research Program in 2013.

“My goal with this program is to teach the students how to connect with each other through the lens of science. And eventually, entice them to consider graduate degrees that can then influence the way that science is done across borders and have them become uniters of our two countries.”

For Milan Sandhu, a high school senior at La Jolla Country Day School, and Daniela Sánchez Arroyo, a senior at Instituto Mexico high school in Tijuana, this meant spending their days in Professor Cory Root’s biology lab, studying the flow of neurons in mice brains with the goal of one day understanding how human brain circuits work and how sensory information is represented in the brain.

“It’s my first time doing this and I really enjoyed it, more than I thought I would,” Sánchez Arroyo said. “It’s amazing. I never thought I would be doing this. It’s a really good experience.”

In addition to learning how to dissect a mouse and study its brain to identify neuron pathways, Sánchez Arroyo has also learned how the U.S. school system works through weekly Enlace college prep sessions, as well as conversations with her lab partner.

“We’ve gotten along so well,” she said. “I could say he’s probably one of my best friends now. Honestly, it’s been really interesting learning about his school—the school has a lot of programs I would love to implement in my school, like Model UN.”

For his part, Sandhu also valued the hands-on research experience the Enlace program provided, which affirmed his decision to study microbiology in college. The deeper purpose of building binational friendships wasn’t lost on him, though.

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Enlace participant Benjamin Velasquez, a student at University City High School, is studying ways to make batteries safer in NanoEngineering Professor Zheng Chen’s lab.

“Every other day, I’ve been getting up at 5:15 a.m. and going to the beach on a hike with my friends,” he said. It’s a group which includes students from the United States, and students from across the border. “It’s so much fun. We come back, get breakfast and we’re off to the lab.”

Frida Garcia Trillo, a high school senior at Centro de Ensenanza Tecnica y Superior (CETYS) in Tijuana, is part of this early morning crew. After the morning excursion, she heads to Structural Engineering Professor Veronica Eliasson’s lab with her research partner, Mariah Perez. Perez is a high school senior at San Marcos High School. Their friendship is based on blowing things up.

This summer, they used a shock tube to generate powerful explosions, monitoring what happened to different materials through an ultra-high-speed camera. This research will be used to design materials better able to withstand these types of shocks from earthquakes or explosions.

Conducting research was a new experience for both Garcia Trillo, who is interested in being an architect, and Perez, who hopes to become a Disney Imagineer. Neither knew exactly what to expect, but said the experience has encouraged them to pursue a STEM degree and perhaps continue doing research as college students.

“No one else in my family has gone to college,” Perez said. “I definitely want to be the first, to set an example for my family. I have two little cousins and I want to show them that college is a good opportunity available to anyone.”

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Daniela Sánchez Arroyo and Milan Sandhu spent the summer in Biology Professor Cory Root’s lab studying the flow of neurons in mice brains.

Inspiring these students and all the people that they’ll interact with through scientific research is a key part of the Enlace program. But even more important, said Graeve, are the friendships they’ve made over the course of the summer.

When Sandhu says he hasn’t yet been to Mexico, lab partner Sánchez Arroyo immediately says that she’s already told him she’s taking him for a visit. When Garcia Trillo said she hadn’t practiced her English for a while before the program, she notes how much fun it’s been to practice both languages with Perez.

“The impact of having these students—future leaders, future diplomats, future scientists—know each other since they were 17 years old, is gigantic,” said Graeve. “Bringing these young people together for seven weeks and having them develop these true, honest and pure friendships is a gigantic goal that will eventually, in my view, change U.S.-Mexico relations.”

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