Our group keeps growing!

Since this summer we had the arrival of new members in our group. Three PhD, two MSc and one undergrad student more are now working in our group.

Léster (PhD student from Nicaragua) is working on the development of environmental barrier coatings  produced by plasma enhanced chemical vapour deposition for the protection of structural materials in molten salt reactors. Ana (PhD student) will study the interaction between ZrO2 and FLiNaK salt also for molten salt fast reactors. Ana and Léster´s projects are part of the European Consortium SAMOFAR. Ceci (Ana Cecilia, PhD student)  and Omar (undergraduate student also from Nicaragua) are working on the development of graphene oxide adsorbents for the removal of arsenic in water.

As for the MSc students, Lili is working on the development of superhydrophobic coatings and their application as self-cleaning materials. Finally, Orlando is working on the production of ZrO2 coatings by sol-gel as corrosion protection of Ni alloys in molten salt reactors.

I am very happy and very fortunate to receive this students. I expect a lot from them and I am sure they expect a lot from me. Hopefully this week will have a gathering to celebrate again their arrival, I´m afraid I had postponed this meeting quite a few time already =S.

Meet the new members in the group!

New students. Picture top-right: Ana (left) and Ceci (right). Picture top right: Léster. Picture bottom left: Lili. Picture bottom middle: Orlando. Picture bottom right: Omar.

Challenges faced by young scientists

While writing a proposal for funding with the industry and battling with my son so he can finish his homework at 9 pm, I came across a very interesting question from Nature, what challenges do young scientists face? With the all too common suggestions about problems with funding and paperwork.

Funding in a country like Mexico is for sure an issue, but I guess I have been very fortunate to have the resources from government and industry alike to keep my group healthy and growing. This of course comes with a price and that is paperwork in all sort of formats, thesis to read, review, examine, papers, new grants to submit, reports to send, meetings with colleagues and students and the now constant trips to meetings and conferences so people get to know me. All in all, everything is part of the job and I wasn´t expecting anything less. At least for me the real struggle is not really funding or paperwork as such but TIME. Time to work, to rest and to spend with my FAMILY.

As young scientists we generally are also at the stage of forming a new family, with babies, toddlers and young kids playing, laughing, crying and even throwing things around. That means that the house is hardly in a very good state with tons of dirty cloths and dishes to wash and bits of food to pick up in every corner of the kitchen and living room. If you have a garden I bet it looks more like a jungle than a place of peace and tranquility where you can rest. For me, every moment I spend getting things sorted in my lab, is a moment I cannot spend with my family at home. I can see it right now, looking at my 7 years-old kid with whom I couldn´t go out to play with the dogs because I arrived late.

As young scientists we are in a stage where our kids and partners need us the most at home, a stage where we also have the urge to work more because in some/many cases we start with a brand new empty lab…full of potential but with no students and not a cent to even buy water. The feeling of finally being independent is amazing, but when you stand at the door of your empty lab you know that you have to get some students and money fast, really fast and that´s when the urge to work kicks and without realizing it you see your family less and less. I bet there are some who are good at balancing life and work, but I think it is at this stage where we easily go off-balance in many aspects of our life.  Here I am at 3 am trying to finish this post after falling asleep while putting my son into bed.

I guess I have to let go and finish this post, something that I think we are also in the stage of learning, we still don´t know when enough is enough.

Five rural schools in five days

A few weeks ago we were visited by personnel from the Secretary of Education requesting our help to organise a science fair in five rural schools. We were thrilled with the idea of having contact with more schools and access to their students, which many times is not that easy.

The first trip to know these schools was tiresome as we visited them all in a single day. The feeling that I had during and after this visit was very complex. I was happy to see the happiness of all those kids and the hard work of directors and teachers alike, but really sad and even angry to see the conditions of some of those places. There are schools with only two teachers in towns with only a few houses, another one was a single secondary school in the area, where I was told, kids are picked up by the bus-school starting at 5 am so they can start classes at 8, a three hour trip!.

I can´t deny that the more I try to work in outreach activities the more I feel frustrated with the work I do. I wish I could spare more of my time and my students´ time to work with all those kids, however with all the projects ongoing I also need to focus on making sure I can deliver all the work and results that we promised and that my students graduate on time. I wonder how other scientists manage to do their work and still have time to these type of activities. I promised myself that I would try to focus on only a few things now that I have even less time with the arrival of my second son, but is really hard to say no when all you want to say is yes.

Anyway, we have a few weeks to prepare the experiments, so let´s get on with it.



Goodbye Abuelita Nico

The first few months of this year have been full of up and downs. In January I became father for the second time and last week I had the misfortune of losing four relatives in one week. Today after all the rush of travelling to see my parents and sisters finally the events of last week really got me. I found myself feeling worried about the future while having my little son on my arms.  Talks about obituaries, where you would like to be buried and such among cousins made me feel not that young anymore.

I lost one person who without knowing it helped me be who I am, my grandmother. Against all odds and with only the second year of primary education, she managed to raise almost by her own 8 children. She believed that education was the key for a better future and she incite her kids to study, to aspire for more. My mother learned from this and she passed this idea to me, that education was the key for success. Within two generations we went from someone with no education to the first person (me) with a PhD degree. I am where I am because she decided that enough was enough, that her kids deserved a better life. The life that I had as a kid and my sons have is way too different from what my mother and grandmother had to withstand in their times. The last time I saw her I tried to tell her this but I just couldn´t master the right words to say it.

Good bye Abuelita Nico.

Abuelita Nico

Another new member in our group

More than a month ago we received our fifth PhD student in our group. Sergio Eduardo Mancilla Salas is going to be working on the development of nanofluids for thermal solar energy. We are aiming at developing cost-effective top-down processing routes for the synthesis of carbon nanoparticles that can be tailored for its use in nanofluids. We are particularly interested in developing these nanomaterials using only local carbon/graphite raw materials, thus avoiding the dependency from other sources and developing materials with added value for the internal market.


Happy New Year!

A couple of days ago was the end of a fantastic year. Trips, projects with the industry, reunions with old friends and colleagues, the organization of a new symposium, outreach projects, new students and a couple of new grants, made last year a year to remember. Last year brought me so many new experiences, being part of the organization of a large consortium on Ocean Energy (CEMIE-Océano) was probably one of the highlights. I was honored when the main organizer, Dr. Rodolfo Silva Casarín, invited me to coordinate the section of Materials, Components and Systems. Since then I have tried my best to do a good job. The news that the project was accepted and awarded approximately US$18,000,000 made me and all the participants extremely happy. This project means a lot to me and I think my institution too because it will allow us to purchase a state of the art Transmission Electron Microscope, something that we were in huge need and which funding to buy it was hard to find.

Of course this hasn´t come cheap, I almost lost a second student, constant stress, long weeks and weekends and by the end of the year, endless reports to write and read, which meant valuable time away from my family. In a couple of days I will be father for the second time and I already have a long list of meetings and reports to submit all before January 15th.

This year will be different, for start I will have a second child, my group will change a lot. This year I am expecting to graduate two PhD and two MSc students, the first in what I hope will be a long list of students working under my direction. As a young scientist I still have a long way to go, many things to learn, relearn, try, loose and try. I am honored on counting with the collaboration of experienced colleagues from whom I keep learning on the way they work and even behave. I would like to openly thank Gregorio Vargas, Reyes Sierra and Rodolfo Silva, because probably without knowing it last year they made an important mark in my professional life. I also would like to thank three colleagues that made my days at work very enjoyable, Francisco García, Keny Ordaz and Juan Carlos Fuentes. Finally, I would like to say thanks to my students, if this group is successful is because of their hard work.

Working towards the future

When I first arrived back to Mexico I decided it was time to explore new horizons and look for research topics more appropriate to the necessities of my new location. Dealing with arsenic appeared to be a very attractive topic considering the highly negative impact that this element has in Mexico. It hasn´t been easy to move from nuclear to environmental engineering, but it has been very enjoyable. I am far from being knowledgeable in the topic but I am fortunate to have two students and two colleagues (Reyes Sierra from Arizona and Joaquin Barroso from UNAM) with whom I keep learning. The more we experiment the more I wonder if what we do is really appropriate. When dealing with nuclear materials I knew the toxicity of what I was working with. When you think that you are going to put something in water and see if it works is not that simple. In nuclear technology I rarely considered the effect on the population as the material was always well contained. When this containment doesn´t exist, the novel materials used for environmental “remediation” might end up in systems beyond your original scenario. In the work we do we are planning to build up the first experimental water treatment plan in our Research Centre, nothing big of course, but this has made wonder if I have all the answers I need to know before we move forward to something this important.

Most of the work I see only focuses on seeing how much the materials we produce can adsorb arsenic, but you hardly see what effect that combination of adsorption material/arsenic can have on the environment, even worst, what are we going to do with them once they are saturated? Aren´t we just moving the problem from one place to another? The effect in plants, animals, micro-organisms, and containment efficiency are topics we need to cover before we move forward to more serious things. The objective of our work is not just to publish nice papers, but to look for tangible answers that can be of use for the population in Mexico. Even at this early stage of our work we are planning ahead to be ready to study possible negative effects of our materials considering off-normal conditions. I can´t deny I am looking forward to study how to contain our materials, the know-how learned in the nuclear sector I believe will be of great use, at the end I won´t be that far from home.