uc davis materials science engineering gradaute student luis sotelo caless shpe
Photo courtesy of Luis Sotelo.

Luis Sotelo: Strengthening Ceramics and Communities

Third-year materials science and engineering Ph.D. student Luis Sotelo is always working to make things stronger. Whether it’s ceramic materials in the lab or the graduate student communities he’s part of in the UC Davis Chicanx and Latinx Engineers and Scientists Society (CALESS) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), he aims to make a difference in his community.

Graduate Student Leader

Sotelo is a graduate student representative for both CALESS and SHPE. In each role, he’s working to recruit and maintain a larger graduate student community in the organizations that historically skew toward undergraduates.

He first learned about CALESS as an undergraduate at Purdue University and when he applied for graduate school, it was one of the selling points of UC Davis because knew he would immediately have a support group.

“I feel like it’s really helpful to have a support group that can help lift you up when maybe your experiments aren’t going very well, or you’re sort of in a rut, or even if you’re looking for opportunities post-graduation.”

However, when he joined in 2018, he was one of the group’s only graduate school members. Since becoming one of CALESS’s two graduate student representatives in January 2020, he’s helped change that. He recruited 10 new members in his first few months and over 30 more since this summer. The CALESS grad student group chat he set up has been active the whole time and he plans to organize virtual social and professional events throughout the rest of fall quarter.

“A lot of Latinos and underrepresented minorities come from a backgrounds where not a lot of our lineage went to grad school, or even college, for that matter, so it’s been great to have a place to reach out to all these fellow Hispanic or Latino graduate students at Davis,” he said.

Sotelo also serves in a similar role for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), representing region 1 (Northern California and the Pacific Northwest). Like CALESS, he found that graduate students were an underrepresented demographic in the organization, so he plans to apply what he’s learned. His goal is to form a committee of fellow graduate students across the region to develop resources and plan events at SHPE’s regional conferences that are targeted at graduate students.

“If we have a committee that’s geared toward keeping grad student interest in mind, I feel like we can tailor these events a little bit better and get more people involved,” he said.

Making Ceramics Tougher

In professor Ricardo Castro’s lab, Sotelo works to make the ceramic material zinc aluminate stronger and harder to break. To do this, he looks at the material’s grain boundaries, where clusters of atoms meet.

In nanoceramics, grains are nanometer-sized, which means there are a higher volume of grain boundaries—something that has been proven to make a material harder and tougher. His project looks to understand how processing methods like doping and sintering affect the material and enhance its mechanical properties. Since zinc aluminate is both tough and transparent, it can potentially be used for both next-generation body armor and laser mirrors.

“I think it’s really cool that ceramic materials have such a broad range of applications,” he said.

Sotelo was recently honored for research and leadership with the Ray Mellado Scholarship from Great Minds in STEM (GMiS). The $1000 award, named after one of GMiS’ founders and administered by the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC), spotlights one undergraduate and one graduate student every year as “up-and-coming” Hispanic engineering leaders.

Sotelo hopes to do this by continuing his work in ultrahigh-temperature ceramics and thermodynamics. His dream is to work at a national laboratory, aerospace organization like NASA, or in the semiconductor and electronics industry.

For now, though, he’s focused on making CALESS and SHPE better places for graduate students and fostering a community that will help him and his peers as he continues his graduate school experience.

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