On the Frontier of Science & Design
SFCC's STEM students engage in cutting-edge laboratory interships

While their peers are enjoying a summer break, Adriel Martinez Alvarez, Victoria Hypes and Willie Lopez are working as paid interns at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL). It’s an experience they’ll never forget.

“I am working in a lab conducting research on developing gelderived microbeads in microfluidics systems,” Martinez Alvarez, 19, said. “I like that I can get the true working experience. I am treated like a contributing member of my team. The mentors are very helpful. If I run into a problem, I come to them and they are sure to help me. We all know we are here to work together to reach a single goal. So it is imperative that we work as a team.”

Hypes, 19, said her internship is gratifying and interesting. “My work involves developing miniaturized human organs to understand human disease conditions. I’m working toward finding the best materials for the membrane contained in the tissue-engineered lung chip. I’ll be performing experiments to determine which materials are most compatible with biological substrates. The best thing about my internship is the opportunity to work on such a unique project.”

Lopez, 27, also appreciates gaining new knowledge. “The technologies I’m learning are how to go about designing pumps for microfluidics and what they are needed for. Also, there is a ton of biological applications from microfluidics that I’m learning about.”

The interns’ primary mentor, Pulak Nath, Ph.D., said, “Not only is this program giving the students the opportunity to work in our laboratories, but it is also giving us the opportunity to work with them. Working with students is always refreshing! I am already impressed with their academic training, enthusiasm to learn and the ability to contribute.” Nath leads the Magnetics, Microfluidics and Miniaturization Lab in the Applied Modern Physics Group at LANL. The focus of his research is to develop and utilize magnetics, microfluidics and miniaturization tools for a range of applications that support LANL’s mission in public health and global security.

HALF OF ALL STEM JOBS DON’T REQUIRE A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE AND PAY AN AVERAGE OF $53,000. STUDENTS WHO EARN A BACHELOR’S DEGREE CAN EARN $70,000 TO $90,000.

The internships were made possible by a National Science Foundation grant held by New Mexico Tech with the purpose of bringing more community college students into STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

Willie Lopez graduated from SFCC with Associate of Science degrees in General Engineering and Physical Science and will major in electrical engineering at New Mexico Tech this fall. Hypes earned her A.S. in Biological Science, General Engineering and Physical Science and will continue at NM Tech with further studies in biology and biochemistry. Martinez Alvarez already has an A.S. in Biological Sciences, but will return to SFCC this fall to complete his associate in computer science.

The LANL-based program is just one of several initiatives that placed students with mentors this summer. A steadily growing number of SFCC students are exploring potential careers in STEM-related fields. Getting hands-on STEM experience is what both SFCC’s Director of STEM Phyllis Baca and Chair of Sustainable Trades and Technologies Stephen Gómez, Ph.D., advocate for engaging students in STEM. Baca says she never asks students, ‘Do you like math?’ Instead she asks, ‘Do you like to solve problems?’ And if the answer is yes, she tells them they would make a good engineer.

In Baca’s engineering classes, students get hands-on experience on engineering design projects right away. “I find that students embrace the problems and enjoy working on a solution. We use a 3-D printer to produce our design solutions so the students see results.”

Gómez said it’s the lab work that draws students into what he calls Stealth-STEM. “Most students re-entering the community college do not want an ‘education.’ What they want is a goodpaying stable job,” he says. “A first semester biofuels student might say, ‘I don’t need biology to learn how to make biofuel’ or a hydroponics student might ask, ‘Why do I need chemistry? I just want to grow plants.’ But once they start working in the lab, they see what’s needed and ask about math and science classes.”

STEM jobs are good-paying jobs. According to the national STEM Education Coalition, half of all STEM jobs don’t require a four-year degree and pay an average of $53,000. Students who earn a bachelor’s degree can earn $70,000 to $90,000. No wonder more SFCC students look toward STEM as the right path for a rewarding and productive career.