Juan Chaves (MS in Electrical Engineering, 2009) is the recipient of Costa Rica’s two highest technology honors—the Jorge Manuel Dengo Award from the organization Strategy XXI Century, and the Clodomiro Picado Twight Technology Award from the Ministry of Science and Technology. He was presented with both awards by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla.
Chaves serves as the director of the Nanotechnology Laboratory at the Instituto Technologico de Costa Rica, which is the nation’s leading university of engineering and science. His laboratory is the most advanced and well-funded nanotechnology laboratory in Latin America, and he is regarded as a leading authority in this immense multidisciplinary field.
Nanotechnology, with its dizzying range of potential applications, is poised to change the world significantly in the coming decades. From steel that is hundreds of times stronger and lighter than that of today, to microscopic-sized circuit boards with processing speeds beyond our wildest imaginings, to cures for scores of illnesses—the race is on to bring the near limitless possibilities of nanotechnology to fruition in the twenty-first century.
Chaves received his country’s top technology honors for the groundbreaking graduate research that he conducted at CSULB in the use of carbon “nanotubes” as an alternative to pharmaceutical antibiotics for stopping bacterial infections. This graduate research project, which was supervised by Chaves’ graduate advisor, Dr. Tulin Mangir, began as an exploration into electrical engineering applications of nanomaterials, but Chaves was inspired to move into the arena of biomedical applications after witnessing an unexpected phenomenon in the laboratory.
“I benefited from National Science Foundation funding to develop interconnections for computer devices using carbon nanotubes, and Dr. Mangir and I were using bacteria to clean these nanotubes,” says Chaves. “I saw the bacteria reacting to the nanotubes in some very intriguing ways, and it became evident to me that nanomaterials could serve as highly effective antibiotics that function through mechanical rather than chemical means.”
Such nanotechnology innovations were first theorized in the late 1950s by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. He described a process in which scientists would one day be able to manipulate the individual atoms and molecules of virtually any material, and that by so doing they could imbue these materials with exponentially enhanced strength, electrical conductivity, etc. It wasn’t until the 1980s that specialized microscopes would be developed that would enable researchers to begin to view materials at the “nanoscale” (a sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick), and it has taken another quarter century for innovations such as Chaves’ to begin to emerge.
It is now evident that nanotechnology’s potential for impacting a nation’s economy will soon be on par with that of the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age. In 2003, the National Science Foundation predicted that nanotechnology would become a trillion-dollar industry within the next two decades. In response, Congress has enacted legislation that seeks to ensure U.S. leadership in this industry by requiring all federal agencies to strategically coordinate their nanotechnology research. Other highly industrialized nations are taking similar measures in an effort to stake out their shares of the global marketplace.
However, nanotechnology is also providing enormous opportunities to developing nations, as evidenced by the fact that Chaves’ work at the Instituto Technologico is positioning Costa Rica as a major exporter of this technology. “We’re seizing this opportunity to shape the future rather than waiting for others to create it and export it to Costa Rica,” says Chaves. “We’re developing nanotechnologies in niches that other countries aren’t actively exploring yet—particularly in agriculture. Costa Rica is an agricultural country, and we are well-positioned for developing technology that adds value to our own agricultural products on the international market and for licensing this technology to other countries as well.”
Engineering Ph.D. student Jeremy Bonifacio is distinguishing himself on the national stage as an innovator of high-tech solutions to longstanding environmental and public-health issues. Last year, he traveled to the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference in Washington D.C. to receive the METRANS Transportation Center’s “Student of the Year” award as well as a certificate of commendation from the U.S. Department of Transportation for his academic excellence and research in the reduction of airborne pollution.
A student in the “Engineering and Industrial Applied Math” doctoral program that is a joint endeavor between the College of Engineering and Claremont Graduate University, Bonifacio’s research in Fluid Dynamics is creating technologies that disperse indoor and outdoor pollutants before they can reach dangerously high levels of concentrations, as well as biomedical instruments for treating pollution-related illnesses. “The number of people who are getting sick from airborne pollutants is on the rise in developed and developing nations alike,” says Bonifacio. “There is urgent need for a comprehensive range of solutions.” Bonifacio recently served as the student team leader on a $1.8 million joint research endeavor between CSULB and the Port of Los Angeles that developed “seawater scrubber” technology for reducing the high concentrations of diesel particulate matter that are emitted from oceangoing vessels. The project’s principle investigator was Dr. Hamid Rahai, Bonifacio’s PhD advisor.
In addition to his research in Fluid Dynamics, Bonifacio is developing biomedical technology that holds the promise of providing more accurate diagnoses and targeted treatment of pollution-related illnesses such as respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer. He presently teaches Aerodynamics Laboratory classes in CSULB’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and is preparing for a career as a consultant in the field of environmental pollutants and as an entrepreneur in the field of biomedical technologies.
Though only in its second year of operation, the Engineering Student Success Center is already receiving campus-wide recognition for the dynamic range of support services it provides. The Center’s programs are aligned with the goals of the Highly Valued Degree Initiative (HDVI), which is a campus-wide program that CSULB President F. King Alexander launched in 2010.
The HVDI challenges the CSULB community to find innovative ways to cut in half the “achievement gap”—the existing gap in degree attainment by underrepresented minority (URM) students—and to reduce the time it takes to earn a degree. The HDVI’s goals were particularly relevant to the College of Engineering (COE), where approximately 35% of all undergraduate students come from URM backgrounds and are graduating at rates that are significantly lower than those of their fellow students.
The COE embarked on an exhaustive evaluation of the root causes of this disparity among its students in an effort to design a program that effectively addresses them. “The challenge that we faced was to create a range of support services that is at once broad, integrated, and able to be tailored to meet the needs of each student,” said Dhushy Sathianathan, the COE’s associate dean for academic programs.
The Engineering Student Success Center (ESSC) provides a range of support services to all undergraduate engineering students. Among the integrated support programs that it provides is academic advising, tutoring, professional development, and career guidance. “A key element of the ESSC’s student success strategy is close tracking of each student’s progress, and early intervention measures when needed,” said Sathianathan.
Since the ESSC’s launch, the graduation rate has risen from 585 to 671 per year, and the ESSC’s programs are believed to be a key contributing factor to this increased success.
Henry Ford once said of great ideas: “The air is full of them. They are knocking you in the head all the time. You only have to know what you want, then forget it, and go about your business. Suddenly, the idea will come through. It was there all the time.”
Indeed, though great ideas don’t grow on trees, it seems that under the right circumstances they can enter your life like an overly ripe citrus fruit that has for too long been dangling unnoticed overhead. There is perhaps no greater testimony for this notion than the story of the “SquE-Z,” the invaluable little implement for sanitary and incident-free squeezing of citrus slices that was created by Engineering Technology student Cameron Karamian as a semester project.
The semester project required Karamian and his fellow classmates to come up with innovative product ideas, and to develop manufacturing and marketing plans for them. Karamian had a clear goal in mind for his product: he wanted it to be easily and cheaply manufactured, and to ideally have some secondary, value-added feature that would make it even more beneficial to the customer. However, arriving at precisely what that product should be proved to be something a challenge for him.
Despite many weeks of contemplation and market research, the idea for the SquE-Z came to Karamian in something of a flash, or perhaps more accurately, a “squirt.” While having a drink with a friend and brainstorming yet again about his semester project, he attempted to squeeze a lime into his beverage. The stream of juice strayed from its intended target and fortuitously directed itself instead at his eye. “Thankfully, the irony of the situation wasn’t wasted on me as I dabbed the juice from my eye,” said Karamian. “It was immediately clear to me that this was a consumer need that, to my knowledge, had yet to be met, and I was pretty certain that I could do so within the design parameters I had decided on.”
Karamian assembled a team of talented fellow students, and they set about developing detailed manufacturing and marketing plans for the product that he envisioned. The fruit of their many weeks of intensive labor was “Squ-E-Z, the Sliced Citrus Juicer.”
Their first production run of 50 units of the SquE-Z demonstrated that the product would indeed be cheap and easy to produce. Upon inspecting these prototypes, Cameron realized that he could customize them for customers by printing their company names, logos, etc. on them, thus achieving the value-added component that he had hoped for.
Emboldened by the glowing response that their presentation received from their professor and fellow students, they decided to present the product at the annual Nightclub and Bar Trade Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Though they had no company and no manufacturing facility, they set up a professional-looking booth and presented themselves as a growing concern.
“We imagined that the attendees would see through our little ruse, but we were hoping to at least get a few orders out of sympathy,” said Karamian. “So it didn’t come as a big surprise when we didn’t get a single order at the show, and we were just grateful that so many people seemed to have a genuinely positive response to our product idea.”
It did come as a surprise, therefore, when a flood of orders began to come in the following week, including one from Don Julio Tequila Company for 50,000 units. Though Karamian and his teammates were thrilled to learn that their product was in such demand, they also knew very well that they were not set up for manufacturing in this sort of volume.
Karamian’s teammates suspected that, as fulltime students, they wouldn’t be able to devote the time that would be required to run such a bustling startup company, and they each ultimately decided to opt out of the ambitious endeavor. Karamian went on to form his own company, Reckko Technologies, and he has since managed to singlehandedly field a steadily increasing number of orders from restaurants, bars, and individuals who want to use personalized SquE-Z’s as a unique form of advertising.
He credits his ability to parlay his semester project into an entrepreneurial solo venture to the training he received as a student in the Engineering Technology program at CSULB. “Through the program, I’ve gained the skills and knowledge that have enabled me to be bold and to think outside of the box.”
Karamian is presently in negotiations with several potential investors in an effort to take the SquE-Z to the international marketplace. Energized by the success he has enjoyed with the SquE-Z thus far, he is also keeping an eye peeled for another juicy entrepreneurial opportunity.
Undergraduate Aerospace Engineering student David A. Stout will be continuing his education at Brown University. A few weeks ago, David was offered and accepted admission to Brown University’s PhD Biomedical Engineering program with a full academic fellowship, where he will be studying under Dr. Thomas J. Webster. Dr. Webster directs the Nanomedicine Laboratory which design, synthesizes, and evaluates nonmaterial for cardiovascular, nerve, and orthopedic implant applications. At Brown, David hopes to use his aerospace education on a multidisciplinary approach to investigate new biomaterials for the cardiovascular system.