Expressing our GRADitude

10/22/2021 Emily Jankauski

Written by Emily Jankauski

Give it up for those University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Materials Science and Engineering graduate students! We're celebrating Graduate Student Appreciation Week all week long. MatSE graduate students make this department shine. Now it's our time to turn the spotlight on our stellar grad students.

Roll out the red carpet! Let's introduce a few of our all-star cast in a fun Q&A. Entering stage right are:

Erick Hernandez Alvarez, a U of I MatSE doctoral student, is all smiles while synthesizing quantum dots at the Smith Lab in Everitt Laboratory in Urbana, Ill. on Oct. 11. Quantum dots are semiconductor nanomaterials that emit different fluorescent light. The color varies with the quantum dot’s size as well as the material used and its shape. Quantum dots can be used in display technology for labeling and tracking bio molecules, like proteins, nucleic acids in cells and much more.

Erick Hernandez Alvarez

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a MatSE grad student?

A: "Every opportunity to talk about my research feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work."

Q: What makes grad school at MatSE so special?

A: "The breadth of research taking place under one roof. It's exciting to learn from my peers about their work that covers the full range of materials."

Q: What have you enjoyed most about being a MatSE grad student?

A: "How open everyone is to talk about their work and interests. A deep-dive on research can just as easily turn into a deep-dive on how to brew the best pot of tea."

Q: What’s your favorite memory during your time as a grad student here at MatSE?

A: "Sharing my work at (the MatSE) Hard Materials Seminar was a lot of fun!" 

Q: Where do see yourself in 10 years?

A: "Still doing research, whether as faculty or at a national lab. Only time will tell."

Q: What’s your favorite material and why?

A: "Anything made by nature. The complexity and functionality of nature's designs are something we are only just starting to understand."

Francisco Andrade Chávez, a U of I MatSE doctoral student, showcases how to deposit nickel-titanium thin films using direct current magnetron sputtering at associate professor Jessica Krogstad’s laboratory inside the Materials Research Lab on Oct. 11. Direct current magnetron sputtering is used to tune deposition parameters of nickel-titanium films to obtain a nanotwinned microstructure. Nanotwinned alloys have superior mechanical properties and may exhibit an optimal combination of high strength, ductility and fatigue crack growth resistance.

Francisco Andrade Chávez

Q: What's your greatest accomplishment as a graduate student?

A: "My greatest accomplishment is the deep connections and meaningful relationships I have made with several people here in the department, including staff, students and professors. People are awesome here at MatSE."

 Q: What makes MatSE standout?

A: "The people at MatSE (are) what makes it so special. The staff and faculty are excellent, and (they) are always willing to help. Both graduate and undergraduate students are impressive, to say the least, and I have learned a lot from them."

 Q: What's the best thing about being a MatSE graduate student?

A: "This might sound cliché, but what I have enjoyed most about being a MatSE graduate student is learn(ing). When I look back to my first semester here, it is incredible the number of things I have learned since then. (The) people here are amazing, so every day you can literally learn something new."

Q: What’s one of your favorite MatSE memories?

A: "It is hard for me to pick just one, so I will mention three. I chose these three memories because they represent different stages of my time here as a graduate student, and all three are important.

"First, the week I was introduced to the MatSE department, faculty, staff, graduate students and facilities: the MatSE Visit Weekend. I have great memories about that weekend.

"Second, the first time I completed a whole TEM (transmission electron microscopy) session by myself. Before becoming a trained user in the instrument, I remember seeing TEM as a tool as, if not impossible, very hard to handle at least. Inserting/removing the specimen holder was something I was stressed out about a lot, so completing my first successful session felt good.

"Third, the day I read Ashley (Phillips Smith)’s, (MatSE’s senior coordinator of Graduate Programs), email saying I had officially passed the qualifying exams."

Q: Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

A: "I see myself working in a laboratory — either in industry or government — doing research I am passionate about. I enjoy hands-on work, so running experiments and everything that involves is something I want to keep doing."

Q: What’s your favorite material and why?

A: "Wakandan vibranium with its ability to store and release energy, and the indestructible adamantium are without any doubt my favorite materials. Also, rionium, also known as vanadium, (was) discovered in México, (and it) is another cool material.

"All jokes aside, I do not have a favorite material per se, but as a student who is working with and trying to learn about structural materials, specifically nickel and titanium, I believe both are very important materials in today’s engineering applications. Nickel is virtually present in all superalloys, and titanium has the highest strength-to-density ratio of any metallic element."

Salil Paranjape, a master's student, poses for a photo in front Chicago's iconic cloud gate sculpture in Millennium Park.

Salil Paranjape

Q: What are you most proud of during your time as a graduate student?

A: "I feel that my greatest achievement as a MatSE grad student is being able to work with such a diverse group of people who have very different backgrounds, which gives me the chance to learn something new every day."

Q: What's your favorite thing about the MatSE family?

A: "I feel MatSE is special because it feels like a tight-knit community that is very inclusive."

Q: What's the best thing about being a MatSE graduate student?

A: "The thing I have enjoyed the most as a MatSE grad student is the opportunity to know the various things that are going on in the field due to the Materials Colloquium and Hard/Soft Materials seminars. Also, I have enjoyed the MRS (Materials Research Society) events very much."

Q: What's one MatSE memory that you'll never forget?

A: "My favorite memory as a MatSE grad student, since I was here, is the apple picking event organized by the MRS team."

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: "I see myself in an academic position in a well-respected research university in the United States/India preparing novel materials and also future generations of upcoming engineers and researchers."

Q: What's the coolest material and why?

A: "My favorite materials are ionic materials as they can be used in various applications like energy storage, catalysis, etc."

Marilyn Porras-Gomez, a U of I MatSE doctoral student, uses a high-resolution microscope called cypher  at the Atomic Force Microscopy facility in the Materials Research Laboratory on Oct. 11. Porras-Gomez uses the microscope for topography and force mapping of lipid films and tissues.

Marilyn Porras-Gomez

Q: What's your biggest achievement as a MatSE graduate student?

A: "To have reached a good level of expertise in some characterization techniques for biomaterials, and to have had the opportunity to communicate my research (at) conferences and (in) journal articles."

Q: What's the best part of being a MatSE graduate student?

A: "First the people, faculty and staff have guided me through the path of being a grad student. Also, the facilities and staff available on campus have allowed me to perform very cool experiments."

Q: What have you cherished most during your time here?

A: "Mentorship. One of my favorite parts of being a grad student in MatSE has been experiencing the mentor-mentee relationship with my advisor (associate professor Cecilia Leal) and developing my own mentorship style with undergrad students."

Q: What’s your favorite memory from your MatSE days?

A: "Being mentored by late Scott McLaren (a former senior research scientist at the Atomic Force Microscopy facility in the Materials Research Laboratory) in AFM techniques. I have many nice memories of interacting with and learning from Scott."

Q: Where do you hope to be 10 years from now?

A: "I hope to be in a leadership position in STEM research/outreach that allows me to mentor young people, in particular untapped minorities."

Q: What’s the best material and why?

A: "I’ve always been fascinated by bacterial biofilms. They possess such a clever hydrogel-colloid design, though generally harmful to us."


Thank you to all of our amazing MatSE graduate students. MatSE faculty and staff so appreciate all of the hard work you put in here each and every day. Your efforts make us so incredibly proud. We are very grateful for each and every single one of you!

— MatSE faculty and staff


Thank you, MatSE graduate students!

MatSE faculty celebrate Graduate Student Appreciation Week.

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This story was published October 22, 2021.