TAMEST Member Profile: Karen Lozano, Ph.D. (NAE), The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
TAMEST Member Karen Lozano, Ph.D. (NAE) made history this year as the first-ever faculty member from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering for contributions to nanofiber research and commercialization. No stranger to blazing paths forward for women and people of color in her field, she says she has been overcoming barriers to the field of engineering from her earliest academic achievements.
Dr. Lozano grew up the daughter of a hardworking seamstress and produce salesman two hours across the border from UTRGV in Monterrey, Mexico. She majored in Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration in Mexico and was the only woman in her graduating class. Dr. Lozano says sexism at the time made it extremely difficult to secure a position after graduation, so she came to Texas to attend graduate school and post-doctoral training at Rice University in Houston. She was the first Mexican woman to receive a Ph.D. in Science and Engineering from Rice University and the fifth woman from the institution to get a Ph.D. from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.
Though she had a strong interest in developing a research-oriented career, she took a faculty position with The University of Texas-Pan American (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). It was then a teaching institution and Ph.D. programs were not offered at the time. She decided to take the job anyway, knowing it would be challenging to remain competitive in her research, but worth it to make a difference in the lives of students on the border between Texas and Mexico.
Now, more than 20 years later, she says she has seen her institution transform before her eyes, with expanding research opportunities, Ph.D. programs and the addition of a medical school. TAMEST connected with Dr. Lozano to hear more about her passion for nanotechnology, research and mentoring undergraduate students from underserved populations.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I was born in Monterrey, Mexico and studied Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration. I thought it was going to be the best combination to find a job and help support my family. To my surprise, upon graduation, there were zero opportunities for me.
In Mexico, there were plenty of jobs for mechanical engineers, however, all listed jobs would say, “looking for Mechanical Engineers; requirements; sex: male.” I applied anywhere and everywhere without any luck. After a couple of months of checking the newspaper on a daily basis, one day I found an ad that said “sex: female.” I called and was invited for an interview and was hired. Turns out I was the only applicant in a city of (back then) more than 4 million people. The female engineer that hired me said she had gone through my same situation a couple of years earlier and made the posting as a social experiment.
By the time I was hired, I had already started looking into other options out of desperation. Dr. Enrique Barrera and Dr. Yves Angel from Rice University had visited my university to try to start an international relationship between our institutions. I applied to their graduate program and months later received the acceptance letter.
Graduate school was a total shock to me, but I knew it was my most valuable option. It was mentally and physically exhausting, there was a constant feeling of not belonging, but I worked very hard, took advantage of every minute in the lab and learned as much as I could. I am forever grateful to Dr. Barrera and Rice University for this opportunity. I met so many amazing people, including role models that I admire like Dr. Naomi Halas, Dr. Richard Tapia, Dr. Richard Smalley and many more.
Talk about getting a job at UTRGV and watching the institution and your department grow.
I received an offer to work at UT Pan American (UTPA, now UTRGV) in 2000. Back then it was a teaching institution with no Ph.D. programs. I loved research and solving problems, but at UTPA, opportunities were limited and the teaching load was 4/4.
I loved sharing research projects with undergraduate students, knowing it is such an amazing tool to instill passion and new directions in students. I received an NSF (National Science Foundation) CAREER (Faculty Early Career Development Program) award, an NSF MRI (Major Research Instrumentation Program), and many other grants to fund my efforts. I am very proud to have built the first research team at UTPA, a team composed mostly of undergraduate students and a few graduate students.
Long story short, I used to tell my students, we might not be a research-known institution but our team should be. The “NanoTeam” became stronger, we published, we presented at conferences, but most importantly, we had 100% retention and graduation. The team, the projects, the opportunities, all helped to equip our students to succeed.
Back then, the Office of Sponsored Research was run by two people and grants and contracts by one person. Things are much different now. UTRGV is now an emerging research institution, we are in the last steps to start our first Ph.D. program in Materials Science and Engineering, which I will have the honor to lead. I’m very excited about what is coming.
It’s been hard, but it’s been a transformation.
How did you find the fields of nanofiber research and commercialization?
Given that I work primarily with undergraduate (UG) students, I am ALWAYS designing projects in my head. Projects that could be competitive in the research arena, that could provide societal benefit, but more importantly, that could have low-hanging fruit “hooks” to provide opportunities to UG students.
Years ago, I was contacted by a professor at MD Anderson to create some nanofibers with specific properties, so we started looking into electrospinning. I didn’t like the process mostly due to safety concerns for my students and I wasn’t excited about it.
I took my children to a show at the Arena and saw that they were selling cotton candy. Holding the cotton candy in my hand, I realized it was a collection of fibers. I had a eureka moment! I left the show halfway and bought some cotton candy toy machines to take to the lab to figure out how we could make polymeric nanofibers. Years later and through the work of many students, Forcespinning was born, and enabled us to make nanofibers from a wide range of materials using centrifugal force rather than electrostatic force in the electrospinning process.
I co-founded Fiberio Technologies, Corporation with amazing leaders. We had talented engineers work tirelessly with the goal of producing systems for large-scale manufacturing of nanofibers. I honestly can say this is an amazing technology, nanofibers are produced by hundreds of meters per minute, in a safe, green, cost-effective and controlled way.
What makes you most passionate about your work?
My students make me the most passionate. When I was in my undergraduate education, I didn’t have an example of someone who had gotten their Ph.D. and I really didn’t know what it meant or how it would help my career.
Now I have the opportunity to teach undergraduate students the tools for success. I love instilling aspirations in people and watching them work to achieve their goals. It makes me so proud to keep up with my students and get to see them travel the world and become leaders at different institutions and in different industries. It just really fuels me and feeds me, especially on my worst days.
Otherwise, I have such a deep-seated passion for research in general. I just love to make things happen. Like with nanofibers. You can heal people, you can make batteries, you can use them for drug delivery and even potentially as systems to help cure cancer. There are a lot of things you can do with fibers, and it can all start with the simple concept of a cotton candy machine to start inspiration flowing.
You are the first UTRGV professor ever to be elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering (NAE). What was your reaction when you heard the news?
I started shaking. I had watched many of my colleagues become members of the National Academies. However, I always doubted whether eyes for election would ever be turned as south as UTRGV.
I am so happy for the opportunities my election can bring and the platform that can be given to developing new pathways nationwide. More importantly, as someone who lacked female role models early in my education, it sets the example to UTRGV students that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to, no matter their starting point. It provides to our younger generation a “si se puede.”
Besides your groundbreaking research in nanofiber commercialization, you were elected to the NAE, for the “mentoring of undergraduate students from underserved populations.” Talk about the importance of mentorship.
I have started from ground zero in way too many senses, and I have been blessed to have people that have always believed in me despite the rejections I faced early in my career. I am still pinching myself that I am called a “scientist” and want to open as many doors as I can for the next generation.
I am lucky to have created career opportunities that I was able to take advantage of thanks to liters of sweat, tears and hard work. As a first-generation student, an international student, and the only woman for years in way too many circles, I want my students to be able to see themselves in me. I want to ease their load, not to make it easy, but to propel them higher than they ever could have dreamed of.
My wish for my students is for them to care for their families, care for their parents, and for them to develop solutions that will leave the world a better place.
What does TAMEST mean to you?
TAMEST is an amazing organization that promotes opportunities and that cares for the well-being of our State and Nation in general. I love that it provides junior faculty a chance to meet amazing role models.
Why do you live and work in Texas?
I love the culture in Texas, the people, the weather, and the opportunity to be just two hours away from my hometown and family in Monterrey. People often overlook South Texas, but there is just a ton of potential here.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m looking forward to participating and learning more from NAE and TAMEST in the years to come.