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Research Opens Minds, Doors for Graduates

Among those graduating in the Class of 2011, are students who've led innovative and impactful research, volunteered in developing countries, become leaders in campus life and overcome challenges to reach personal goals.

Now, as the May 20 commencement approaches, the Cockrell School sits down with four graduating seniors who have made a difference on campus.

Their stories are each unique, and add to the rich and growing story of what it means to be a Cockrell student.

Fulfilling dreams of her parents, and now herself

Emily Chen.

Emily Chen. Click image to enlarge.

More than 25 years ago, Emily Chen's parents made a hard choice so their daughters would face easier ones.

Chen's parents left their friends and family behind in Taiwan and moved 8,000 miles away to the Houston area, where they knew only two other people.

Despite their sacrifices, the couple believed that one day, when they had children, they would have unlimited opportunities they may not have experienced otherwise.

Chen, now a senior in the Cockrell School of Engineering, credits their ambition for the determination she brings to her academic and professional goals.

"Many first-generation children are expected to fulfill the dreams or expectations of their parents," said Chen, a biomedical engineering and Plan II Liberal Arts Honors double-major who graduates in May. "For me, that pressure encouraged me to do a lot of things, and I blossomed under it."

That's not to say Chen is fulfilling anyone else's dreams but her own. In August, she will begin law school at the University of California – Berkeley, where she plans to study patent law. It may seem like a change in direction for a biomedical engineering grad, but Chen aims to use what she's learned at the Cockrell School – and as a student researcher – to eventually try to improve the patent process so it's easier to push out life-saving drugs or innovative technologies, like those she has researched while at The University of Texas at Austin.

In her fourth year, Chen created a robotic glove made of conductive thread and piezoresistive material that senses and measures how much pressure is applied when touched. The technology works like artificial skin, or e-skin, and the long-term goal of such research is to restore the sense of touch for burn victims or patients with prosthetic limbs, Chen said.

Aside from research, Chen has honed her leadership skills through a number of activities on campus. She spent a summer working for the university's Office of Technology Commercialization – a job that helped inspire her to pursue patent law. She was president of the Student Engineering Council and represented engineering students on the university's Senate of College Councils.

Despite her successes, there have been challenges along the way, such as juggling work and research in her pursuit of two rigorous degrees.

"There were definitely semesters where I really struggled, and semesters where I stayed up all night. I had to learn the importance of sleep," Chen said.

She attributes her work ethic to the example set by her parents growing up.

"I want to make them proud. I know they sacrificed a lot coming to a new country, and they did a lot to help me explore what my interests were at a young age," she said. "I'd like to say that I inspired more than one person and that they will inspire others to be passionate and lead by example. Others did that to me and I'm grateful because it's allowed me to be who I am."

An unconventional path leads to a good destination

Vincent Davis.

Vincent Davis. Click image to enlarge.

If there's one message Vincent Davis wants other people to know about him, it's this: If he can do it, anyone can.

The "it" he refers to when saying this is earning a college degree. The electrical and computer engineering senior was raised by his single mother in San Antonio. Money in their home was tight, and there weren’t many role models for him and his older brother.

"As a kid, I dreamed about having a degree on paper that I could hang up. I didn't care where the degree was from, I just knew that I needed it and that has always been a goal of mine," Davis said.

Now, the 30-year-old first-generation student is about to fulfill his dream as a Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering graduate. While at the Cockrell School, he's assisted in advanced research and developed a core group of friends.

Davis's route to the Cockrell School wasn't the most conventional, but it enabled him to overcome personal challenges and reach his goal.

After his high school graduation in 1998, he took classes at a community college before enlisting in the U.S. Army, where he served as an information systems analyst for eight years. His service – inspired by a former professor who nudged him towards a military path and the fact that his parents both had stints in the Army – took him to Maryland and eventually Belgium.

In both places, he was responsible for all IT-related jobs, and he enjoyed the ability to problem solve, but was still set on his goal since childhood to earn a degree and apply what he was learning to the academic setting.

After leaving the military he applied to The University of Texas at Austin. His grades at the time were not good enough to get him accepted, so he enrolled at a community college and worked on improving them. After two years, he applied again and was accepted to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"It was a little rough at first because I was in classes with people much younger and they had different focuses in life than me," Davis said. "But in my mind, I only had one chance at this and this was my shot. It's not been easy, but I've given it my all."

As a student Davis was involved in the Equal Opportunity in Engineering Program's Texas Research Experience. His assisted in research to help determine the effectiveness of a computer processor design prior to its manufacturing. To do so, he ran processor simulations, which give computer designers a method of changing processor characteristics in order to find ones that are most optimal – thus saving money and time.

Along the way, he's had the support of his wife, a mechanical engineering doctoral student at The University of Texas at San Antonio, who he met in Europe while working for NATO.

Leading up to graduation, Davis has interviewed with top computer, software and electronics companies and is hoping to receive an offer in the coming months.

He eventually wants to enroll in a master's program, but thinks working in industry for a few years will help his chances of getting into his top university choices.

Once he does, it will be another degree he can add to his wall. And if anyone can do it, he can.

Volunteer experience is catalyst for student's academic path

Ibrahim Mohedas.

Ibrahim Mohedas. Click image to enlarge.

What do a trip across the U.S. in a 1930 Model A Ford and volunteer opportunities in Africa and Mexico have to do with why a student would choose engineering as a field of study?

For mechanical engineering senior, Ibrahim Mohedas, the answer is everything.

Mohedas was inspired to pursue engineering in high school after he was exposed to restoring antique cars for the Great American Race, an annual rally during which vintage car enthusiasts drive cross-country.

He worked on the project for three years before leaving Oklahoma in 2007 to study mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

Since then, he's helped lead research, studied abroad in Turkey and volunteered in developing countries, like Mexico and Cameroon.

Mohedas went to both places as a volunteer with Engineers without Borders. Among his assignments, was to bring internet and computer access to a primary school in northern Mexico using satellite internet and solar panels.

"Engineers without Borders and the research I'm doing now both helped to redirect my whole life trajectory. It definitely changes you when you go to a new country and it's not your typical standard of living that we're used to back home," Mohedas said.

Mohedas wants to help improve the quality of life for people in developing nations by creating appropriate technologies that are feasible and conducive to already existing ways of life.

Under the direction of ME Professor Janet Ellzey, Mohedas performed research to convert sawdust into fuel so that it can be used in cook stoves in rural areas – thus helping to improve environmental conservation.

The biomass briquettes research won third place out of 35-40 posters at the Spring 2011 Undergraduate Research Poster Competition. The briquettes will be tested this summer on cook stoves in Ghana, where Ellzey and students with Projects for Under-served Communities will complete community research projects.

"This could be a really good way to take a waste product that's doing more harm and turn it into something that results in a good solution," Mohedas said.

This summer, Mohedas will begin graduate school in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, where he hopes to continue research in appropriate technologies.

Mohedas said he will miss the culture and community at UT.

"I didn't have any huge challenges during college because there were always opportunities available if I needed them. When I decided I wanted to do research, there were a lot of professors who were willing to take on an undergraduate and the school provided me funds to do my projects," he said. "Any challenges that I had here were always accompanied by ways of overcoming them so it didn't feel like I was taking them on alone."

Overcoming the most difficult of challenges

Christine Fuentes.

Christine Fuentes. Click image to enlarge.

Christine Fuentes has trouble recalling when certain events occurred over the past five years, like when she was awarded for her leadership in the Sigma Lambda Gamma national sorority or the year she was inducted into the Equal Opportunity in Engineering Program's Academic Leaders Hall of Fame.

But the civil engineering senior can recall with vivid detail the moment when her life, for a moment, was upended.

It was the weekend of 4th of July in 2009, and Fuentes was driving from Plano to Oklahoma where she had a summer job with the oilfield services company, Schlumberger.

It was a cloudy day. Traffic ahead of Fuentes slowed to a stop because of construction ahead on the highway, so she followed suit. Then out of nowhere, her vehicle was hit from behind and slung 180 degrees.

A truck driver had fallen asleep and slammed into the back of the stopped traffic, causing a nine-car accident and Fuentes was in the middle of it.

"There were two deaths that resulted," she said, "so I realized I was really lucky."

She had severe whiplash and had to attend physical therapy for three hours a week throughout the following semester.

"I kind of felt like a zombie who was just existing. The semester was spent in a daze going to class, study sessions, officer meetings and doctor appointments, all while I was trying to cope and understand that, yes, I'm still here, and I'm ok," Fuentes said.

It was a challenging time for a student who had kept herself busy since coming to the Cockrell School in 2006 by holding leadership roles in national and campus student organizations like Pi Sigma Pi, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Sigma Lambda Gamma sorority.

Fuentes struggled with her first semester after the wreck, but was able to recover thanks to the support of family and friends and her involvement in new opportunities, such as being selected for the Engineering Leadership Team. Fuentes also worked as a student caller for Friends of Alec during her last semester of college. She said she's learned skills from each of her leadership and volunteer activities that will serve her well in her career.

One thing that has remained constant for Fuentes is her love of civil engineering.

Through experiences with Schlumberger and Turner Construction Company, she's worked with field operators to help search for hydrocarbon in deep wells, she's shadowed architects and engineers on the job and, most recently, managed a $500,000 project renovating heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems at Becker Elementary School in the Austin school district.

After successfully leading the HVAC project, Fuentes was offered a job with Turner Construction, where she'll start in July.

"I'm excited. I know I'm going where I want to go and I'm going to enjoy it," she said.



Emily Chen received the Friends of Alec Women in Engineering Fund.

Ibrahim Mohedas received the Uniden Corporation of America Endowed Scholarships in Engineering.