Pandemic impacts ME student’s graduate school selection process

Antonio Alvarez-Valdivia

It took a pandemic and the inability to do on-campus visits that led one mechanical engineering student to decide he wanted to stay a little closer to home for graduate school.

Antonio Alvarez-Valdivia originally wanted to leave the Midwest for graduate school when he completed his B.S. in mechanical engineering (ME) later this spring. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic many of his campus visits were conducted virtually and this caused him to rethink his priorities for what he wanted in a graduate school program.

“I was excited about moving to a big city on the East or West coasts,” said Alvarez-Valdivia. “However, these hard times made me realize it was important for me to stay somewhat close to home, so choosing a program around the Midwest became an essential factor in my decision-making.”

Alvarez-Valdivia, who has yet to make his decision, added that finding a program that aligns with his research interest of soft/flexible robotics and electronics for biomedical applications and wearable devices is the most important factor he is considering when selecting a grad program. Even though the pandemic has made it harder to visit different campuses, he said it has been easier communicating with faculty at his prospective schools via video conferencing and phone calls.

Alvarez-Valdivia is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. His teachers in middle school encouraged him to pursue studies in STEM and he had the opportunity to attend a vocational high school program that specialized in automation and instrumentation. For college, he chose to attend Iowa State University because of its strong reputation for engineering and picked ME as his major because of its versatility.

“From thermodynamics and heat transfer to system dynamics and controls, I believe ME would provide me with extensive training to become a great engineer,” he said, adding that ME 335: Measurements and Instrumentation and ME 421: System Dynamics and Control have been among his favorite courses he’s taken.

Alvarez-Valdivia also does research in the lab of Jaime Juárez, assistant professor of ME. Not only has this given Alvarez-Valdivia hands-on research experience, but he’s also developed a close mentor-mentee relationship with Juárez.

“Dr. Jaime Juárez has been a great mentor, and I really appreciate all the wisdom he has shared with me over my undergraduate education,” said Alvarez-Valdivia. “He provided me with educational experiences that I could not have gotten in any other way.”

Alvarez-Valdivia has also participated in the combat robotics team (part of the ISU Robotics Club) and works as a peer mentor for Engineering Student Services, helping students who transfer into engineering at Iowa State. During the summer of 2019, he served as a summer research intern in the SUNFEST REU Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

On top of everything, Alvarez-Valdivia is also part of the McNair Program at Iowa State, which he considers “one of the most impactful experiences of my life.” The program is designed to prepare underrepresented minorities and first-generation undergrads for graduate school.

“In addition to being provided with academic research training, application preparation, and personal and professional development, I was also introduced to a great and diverse community of scholars that have become my family,” he said.

In his free time, Alvarez-Valdivia enjoys cooking and gardening. In addition to preparing traditional Mexican family dishes, he also enjoys experimenting with different cuisines from other parts of the world. He currently has about 15 indoor plants and more than ten different hot pepper plants. During the warm months, he maintains an outdoor garden with cucumbers, zucchinis, corn and radishes.

Pursuing a Ph.D. in ME will be Alvarez-Valdivia’s next step after he graduates from Iowa State. After completing his Ph.D., he will decide if he wants to enter the field of academia as a professor or if he would be a researcher for either a national lab or a private company. As his time at Iowa State University comes to a close, Alvarez-Valdivia reflects and offers some advice to incoming students.

“I would say that it is important to think about your professional goals at the early stages of your undergrad journey. If you want to become an engineer in a specific industry, push yourself to get an internship as soon as you can, and if you want to go to grad school, definitely explore the research opportunities available,” he said.

“Another thing I recommend is to become friends with people outside engineering, as it will help you think outside the box. Having a diverse group of friends, both academically and culturally, has been an enriching experience for me.”

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