By Helen Widman
It’s your first summer as an undergraduate student in Mexico. Wanting to expand your knowledge over break, you decide to apply for research opportunities in the United States; but you can’t find any that will accept you as an international student. Enter: the ENLACE program.
The ENLACE summer research program is a bi-national organization that connects high school and undergraduate students from Mexico and the U.S. through the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Olivia Graeve, Ph.D., founded ENLACE in 2013, and in 2018, the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation (CGIF) helped fund the growing program with a $10,000 grant.
“I am a citizen of both countries and I am interested in giving opportunities to students from both countries, and (I want) to establish great relationships between students from both countries,” Graeve says.
Graeve earned her bachelor’s degree in structural engineering from UCSD in 1995 and her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from UC Davis in 2001. Part of her motivation to start ENLACE, which is also the Spanish word for “link,” was how her own undergraduate research paved her path to pursue graduate school.
“I had that opportunity and I found it amazing for me,” Graeve says. “It defined my desire to eventually go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. I would like to see that other students have that same opportunity.”
ENLACE participants get placed in lab settings at UCSD based on their interests and then work on projects in that lab throughout the summer. They also go on field trips, view webinars, hear guest speakers, and utilize workshops designed for first generation students.
In addition to a minimum $1,000 scholarship awarded to each participant, ENLACE also receives industry aid to cover up to the full cost of program tuition for students. However, Graeve says that students must be able to speak English to attend ENLACE because it takes place in the U.S.
This is why many of the students from Mexico happen to be in the middle to upper middle class—as they know English—while the students from the U.S. tend to hail from lower income households.
“A lot of people are surprised by this,” Graeve says. “They think the U.S. would be students that are more with economic capacity versus the Mexico students and that is not the case.”
Lidia F. Vazquez, a first generation student studying bioengineering at UCSD, is originally from Mexico and attended ENLACE last summer. She also chaperoned a group of high school girls throughout. Vazquez loved seeing the students’ enthusiasm as she watched them find new passions during the program and present their projects at the final symposium.
“It was great to see them getting out of their shell and being able to explain really hard science concepts, and in the language that’s not their primary language,” she says.
Vazquez works in Graeve’s lab at UCSD where she specifically researches bone regeneration, but she also appreciates the comprehensiveness of ENLACE.
One of Vazquez’s favorite parts about ENLACE is a webinar called the Glass Science + Art Webinar Series by the UCSD CaliBaja Center for Resilient Materials and Systems. The series combines science and art but in both English and Spanish. Graeve also serves as the director.
“We had different artists doing ceramics and glass sculpting … then after we would have a scientist talking about certain glass and materials but in a very sciency way, which was incredible because you got to see the two versions,” Vazquez says. “I loved that she created that platform for us to connect those two together.”
Alan Hirales-Ahuatzin is a Ph.D. student in NanoEngineering at UCSD who found ENLACE while looking for summer research opportunities. He first participated in ENLACE as an undergraduate student from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City.
“Unfortunately, many research opportunities here in the U.S. are directed towards national citizens, or people who have residency at least,” he says. “ENLACE opens those kinds of opportunities for not only international students, but also for national students as well.”
Hirales-Ahuatzin participated in ENLACE in summer 2017, working on a biological research project, and then again in 2018 where he worked on computational chemistry. His 2018 experience extended into a remote project that he worked on when he wasn’t at UCSD, and by the summer 2019, he was able to do independent research with the same laboratory at UCSD, although not affiliated with ENLACE.
For Hirales-Ahuatzin, this unique opportunity allowed him to grow beyond any limits he’d set for himself and expand his knowledge in different fields. He also credits ENLACE for being the reason why he attends graduate school at UCSD today.
“The more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know anything, right?” he says. “So it’s always a magnificent opportunity to discover new things not only about research, but also about yourself.”
Graeve once overheard two girls at the program, each one from Mexico or the U.S., talking during ENLACE and realized the program also helps students discover new perspectives by working with people of all different backgrounds.
“They are living an experience that is unique and different and that neither of them has ever had, and it doesn’t matter what is outside of that UCSD experience, it equalizes people and I think that is very powerful,” Graeve says. “It equalizes them because it gives them this opportunity to be just them in this environment that is equally new and equally different for both of them. It brings a tear to your eyes; it was beautiful.”
In terms of growth, Graeve wants to ensure that ENLACE is still able to meet the needs of every student by limiting its expansion. But she plans to include masters students next summer, and hopes to grow the materials science and engineering department at UCSD through ENLACE and other diversity efforts. She believes that scientists and engineers are a crucial facet to society.
“Who is going to develop the technologies that can save our planet and at the same time provide what is necessary for the human population on this planet?” she says. “Scientists and engineers. And so I believe strongly that we need to educate people to be able to take on these roles as scientists and engineers to provide for humanity to provide for our planet to save it.”
Vazquez notes that a human element shines through with ENLACE, as Graeve even held a workshop on empathy and microaggressions in STEM during last summer’s program.
“We have a holistic understanding of all the aspects that it takes to be a scientist, but also understand an engineer and how it contributes to everyone,” Vazquez says.
While ENLACE might be one of the largest undergraduate summer research programs in the country, Graeve is grateful to the people and industry professionals like the CGIF who have aided in the program’s success.
“You have made a difference in supporting my program and allowing me to grow it,” Graeve says. “It is educating students to become the future, in this case, ceramic engineers, and I think that’s great. And my level of gratitude is infinite for what you have done as a foundation. So thank you very much.”
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