A Lifelong Passion for Science
On his 10th birthday, Christopher Reyes received a gift that has had an everlasting impact on his life. It was a copy of National Geographic’s Picture Atlas of Our Universe. It ignited his curiosity for the unknown and made him realize that he wanted to be involved in the creation of new technologies to help mankind reach its fullest potential. At that time he didn’t know how or where to start.
Fast forward to 2014. Two events occurred that have helped Reyes turn his passion for science into a clear path to success. He was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Program Fellowship. He was selected for the NSF fellowship based on his outstanding abilities and accomplishments as well as his potential to contribute to strengthening the vitality of U.S. science and engineering. This fellowship provides up to three years of stipend and support to pursue graduate studies at the university of his choice. Christopher plans to attend Duke University as a doctoral student in chemistry in fall 2014.
"It has been a long journey to reach this transformational point in my life, "says Reyes. "I would not be where I am without the mentors in the chemistry and mathematics departments who guided me along the way and the tremendous support of my loving wife."
Overcoming Obstacles and Challenges
"I was raised by a single mother who did her best to make my education a priority, says Christopher. "I come from a lower socioeconomic community in south Texas, where blue-collar careers are the norm and a college education is reserved for the elite. In an effort to keep me from becoming a statistic, I was sent to live with my older sister in Austin. Being in her home provided me the opportunity to attend a high school where I got exposure to subjects that were not available at my previous high school, especially science classes like AP chemistry."
When Reyes graduated from high school, he chose to study electrical engineering because a role model in his life was an electrical engineer. He soon discovered that he was not satisfied with engineering because it did not fulfill all of his scientific curiosities. He decided to enter the work force full time while taking science courses at a community college. Shortly after he started attending college full time, Reyes qualified for the Houston Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (H-LSAMP) program, a merit based program that includes financial support for underrepresented minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). H-LSAMP changed everything by giving him the financial and morale boosts that he needed. It opened new doors to him.
Getting Hands-on Experience
Reyes learned about an NSF funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program from his H-SLAMP mentor, and saw this as an excellent stepping stone toward graduate education. His first REU was at Rice University where he worked in the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department conducting research on carbon nanotube nanocomposites for aerospace applications.
Aside from the wealth of knowledge he gained, Reyes was inspired by one of his professor’s involvement in the community, especially his engagement with Hispanic-serving science organizations. "Not only did this REU experience solidify my plans to get a PhD,"Christopher describes, "but it also motivated me to get more involved in helping the Hispanic community recognize opportunities in STEM education."
The semester following his internship at Rice, Christopher transferred to Texas State University to start his sophomore year with the support of the H-SLAMP scholarship program. He secured a research assistant position with Dr. Luyi Sun whose lab was experimenting with halloysite nanocomposites. These stand to be an environmentally friendly and low-cost alternative to carbon nanotubes for composite reinforcement. Due to his outstanding work, Dr. Sun encouraged Christopher to apply for an REU that was part of an NSF Partnership for Research in Education and Materials Program, in which Texas State is a partner.
Changing the World in the Lab
Reyes was awarded the REU internship, which allowed him a summer in the lab of Dr. Benjamin Wiley at Duke University who was conducting copper nanowire research. "I was amazed with the idea of using nanomaterials that are cheaper and more flexible than industry standard materials, "explains Reyes. "This has the potential of driving down the cost of several technologies, such as solar cells and touch screen devices, and place them in the hands of the economically disadvantaged. For research to benefit mankind as a whole, I firmly believe that the science and technologies produced must reach the entire socioeconomic spread."
Due to his summer immersion in copper nanowire research, Reyes decided he wants to go further with it for his doctoral work. When he starts his graduate program at Duke, Reyes will be based in Dr. Wiley’s lab. He is convinced that the NSF fellowship combined with the resources available through Dr. Wiley’s program will maximize the impact his research can have on society.
For now, Reyes is focused on completing his undergraduate course work while working in the lab of Dr. William Brittain, the Texas State Chemistry Department chair, performing convective assembly experiments on spiropyran coated nanoparticles. His educational experience as a mathematics major will be beneficial because it will allow him to model and simulate the majority of his future experiments.
Giving Back and Inspiring Others
Reyes sees a great need to give back to his community by means of mentoring, tutoring and service. "I have consistently noticed the lack of minorities participating in STEM and that those who have been involved are at a financial and educational disadvantage,"explains Reyes. "There is an invisible barrier dividing the STEM world that must be broken. I believe that a large part of this discrepancy is the lack of role models to whom students can directly relate. Obtaining a PhD will allow me to be a role model and show students in minority communities that a person of similar circumstances can succeed in STEM."
After completing his research, Reyes plans on visiting schools in lower income areas and giving presentations on STEM. He has already made arrangements to speak at his former high school after he completes his undergraduate degree this year. He will talk about the importance of a higher education and how STEM degrees can be attained by anyone, regardless of their background or situation. He also plans on developing research projects for K-12 students that can be performed at a very low cost in an effort to give the underprivileged an opportunity to experience research science.
When Reyes receives his bachelor’s degree this summer, he will be the first male in his family to graduate from college. He is excited by what the future holds. "My life and educational experiences give me confidence in my ability to successfully complete graduate work. What motivates me each day is my ultimate goal to get into a position where I can create new technology to benefit society while helping my community reach its fullest potential."