Breaking rules to create new materials
Alicia Cintora did not know she wanted to be an engineer until a particular moment during her junior year of high school. “I was waiting for my bus and it was really cold out,” says Cintora from the warmth of Duffield Atrium. “I remember my body being warm, but my face could not get warm.” Cintora grew up in Chicago, so being cold was not a new phenomenon. “I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a mask I could wear over my face that wouldn’t look scary and would also keep me warm?’ It was in that very moment that I knew what I wanted to do.”
Cintora, who is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Cornell, did not know what field she would have to study in order to create this new material that would probably be transparent and would definitely keep human skin warm without any kind of batteries or harmful chemicals. But whatever that field was, she wanted in.
Nobody in her family had gone to college. Both of Cintora’s parents had come to Chicago from Mexico when they were in their 30s, so neither knew much about the whole procedure for applying to colleges. Cintora did have a friend, Emily, who was a freshman majoring in engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She spoke with her friend, did a bit of research, and decided to major in materials engineering. She applied early action to Urbana-Champaign and did not apply anywhere else.
Cintora was accepted and dove right in. She found a spot doing undergraduate research in the materials lab of Professor Nancy Sottos and knew early on that she would go on to graduate school after earning her bachelor’s degree. “I wanted to be in an environment that challenged me scientifically,” says Cintora. “The more I did research the more I fell in love with it. I especially liked polymers because it is a growing and innovative field.”
Cintora found that part of the work she had to do as an undergrad was to help her parents understand what it was she was doing and studying. This can be true for any student who is the first in the family to go to college. The Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers (SHPE) has developed information sessions and activities that can help students like Cintora translate her experiences for her parents so they can better understand why their child would want to leave home and study engineering.
“I was really involved with SHPE as an undergrad,” says Cintora. “We hosted a Family Visit Day every year with a picnic and a student panel to help families understand what their kids were doing. We explained what an internship was, our career opportunities, and why it is so important for parents to be a part of all of this with us.” While at Cornell, Cintora has remained active with the national SHPE organization. Most recently, she was Outreach Coordinator for SHPE’s Pre-College Symposium in 2015. “The SHPE Pre-College Symposium aims to inspire underserved youth populations to attend college and introduce STEM careers through hands-on activities and workshops,” says Cintora. The symposium is held at various universities throughout the United States in conjunction with the SHPE National Conference. “My role as Outreach Coordinator included identifying and communicating with high schools in the local underserved communities in order to recruit students to attend the Pre-College Symposium. During the 2015 Pre-College Symposium, over 250 students from over 10 high schools around the country were in attendance.”
When it came time to choose a graduate school, Cintora focused on departments with a strong reputation for polymer work. Cornell was a natural choice. “I was very excited to tell my mom that I had gotten into a Ph.D. program at Cornell,” says Cintora. “Her first reaction was ‘that’s really far,’ but now they are really happy for me. It helps that I am so happy here. Everybody in Bard Hall is so amazing and so supportive. All of the faculty are open to talking about any topics I have interest in and the other Ph.D. students in my cohort are not competitive at all—we all help each other a lot.”
Cintora is part of Professor Chris Ober’s lab at Cornell. If you visit the lab’s website you see right at the top of the page what attracted Cintora to this particular lab: “Changing the world one polymer at a time.” Cintora is learning all she can about block copolymers with stable radical groups. Her hope is that one day polymers with stable radical groups will replace metal-based materials in batteries, but for that day to come much more research into stable radical polymers needs to happen. Cornell is an excellent place to do this type of research due to its long history at the leading edges of polymer research and its strong culture of collaboration. “We are working with Assistant Professor Greg Fuchs in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics to test the properties of our polymers,” says Cintora. “They can help us learn a lot more than we could on our own.”
Cintora hopes to join industry after earning her Ph.D. “I really like being in the lab and working hands on with products and devices that people will use every day,” says Cintora. Who knows, once she is out in industry, maybe Cintora will be able to turn her attention back to the face mask idea that got her started on the road to materials science research to begin with?