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The Thousand-Mile Engineering Journey: How Patricia Garcia left the comfort of her hometown and Latino heritage to pursue engineering research

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

“At just 18, I was leaving my family and Latino culture… and walking away into an unknown, mysterious world in search of that elusive adventure I longed for.”

It took guts to fly out of her hometown for the first time for a 10-week internship, but Patricia took the leap of faith to transform herself into a researcher.

Patricia grew up in in Miami and attended the Young Women’s Preparatory Academy (YWPA). With its strong focus on STEM and incorporation of technology in almost all of its courses, YWPA encouraged Patricia to pursue her passion for science and math by looking into engineering.

“When I walked into Young Women’s, it was almost like the gender bias and the sexism many women in STEM [face] vanished,” Patricia says. “I didn’t see myself as an aspiring ‘girl engineer.’ I simply saw myself as an engineer.”

Back home in Florida, Patricia was often told that her hopes to one day become a mechanical engineer were pursuits for “a man’s job.” But after much reflection, Patricia knew that societal influences could not deter her from pursuing her dreams.

What inspired Patricia most was watching her mother’s illness continually take a toll on her without any firm diagnosis, despite numerous tests. During Patricia’s senior year of high school, her mother underwent a Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement because she was no longer able to obtain the necessary nutrients.

“The only logical answer for my [never-ending] questions [was] the application of engineering principles and design concepts,” she says. “At that point in my life, I decided I would explore the intersection of engineering and research.”

As her mother’s health steadily improved, Patricia sought learning opportunities that incorporated the engineering principles she hoped to examine more deeply. In 2017, she took on a full-time research position at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). During this summer before her freshman year of college, Patricia focused her research on creating bio-engineered scaffolds to enhance the regeneration of damaged tissues and organs.

“To better understand the material properties of the composite patch, my project focused on evaluating the integration of the fibrin microthread and fibrin hydrogel phases,” she says. “After my time at WPI, not only did I solidify my passion for a long-standing interest, but I [also] developed the confidence in myself to pursue my goals.”

During the summer of 2018, Patricia spent time as a biomechanics project researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the course of nearly two months, she worked on a biomechanics project that consisted of engineering 3D skeletal muscle tissue.

“With everything that life threw at me, I look back and think… I could’ve just decided to give up and be average, but why be average when you have all these opportunities given to you,” Patricia says. “If it’s out there and I know about it, there shouldn’t be any reason why I won’t try to go get it.”

Patricia is currently a sophomore at the Florida International University Honors College and is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering with a research interest in the mechanical design of medical devices and prostheses. She has recently been selected as a McNair fellow at FIU. While she is awaiting notification from several prestigious universities for research positions, she hopes to one day develop products for a company in the biomedical field.

“You know yourself better than anyone else, so there’s no reason why someone other than yourself should be able to tell you whether you can or cannot do something,” Patricia says. “Who is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself?”

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This story was written by Shruti Kumar, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, and told in partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing (AiC).