One of the first initiatives Olivia Graeve put in place when she arrived on the UC San Diego campus last year was an academic summer program for female high school students from Tijuana and San Ysidro. The girls lived on campus and conducted research in engineering and biology labs.
The program is close to Graeve’s heart. She was once a Tijuana high school student and attended Southwestern Community College for two years before transferring to UC San Diego, where she earned a bachelor’s in structural engineering in 1995. Today, as a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who specializes in materials science, she hopes to inspire more female students to follow her path.
Graeve will be recognized for her scientific endeavors and her cross-border outreach efforts in July by being inducted in the Tijuana Walk of Fame.
The organization recognizes artists, professional athletes, musicians, poets, writers, business owners and researchers who were born in Tijuana and whose trajectories have put them in the spotlight on the national and international stage. Graeve was nominated by radio and TV newscaster Pablo Barragan Marquez, a family friend. She credits her mother for her successful career.
“I think my mother always taught me to try and fix problems when I saw them,” she said. “It’s about making a contribution to the world in a small way.”
Graeve grew up in Tijuana as the oldest of five children. Her father left the family when she was just 6 years old. Her mother worked two jobs throughout Graeve’s childhood. The family managed to put all five children through college. Two, including Graeve, went to UC San Diego. Two went to UCLA. One went to San Diego State University. Getting a faculty position in San Diego has been a homecoming of sorts for Graeve, whose siblings now all live on this side of the border.
After graduating from UC San Diego, Graeve went to the University of California, Davis, where she earned a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering. She then was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and, in 2008, joined Alfred University in New York as an associate professor.
Being one of the few women, and few Hispanics, in a male-dominated field was not easy, she said. “When you’re the only one, you become a representative for your community,” Graeve said. “But you have no role models to figure out what success stories to emulate.”
Outreach for high school students
As soon as she got to San Diego, Graeve set out to remedy this at the high school level. She brought five girls from Tijuana who were students at Colegio La Paz, the high school she attended, to UC San Diego for seven weeks during the summer of 2013. The girls worked in the labs of nanoengineering professor Shirley Meng, biochemistry professor Rommie Amaro and, of course, her own lab. At the end of the seven weeks, the girls presented their work to their family and friends during a small symposium.
“My hope is that this program will eventually lead Mexican students in Tijuana to consider UC San Diego for both their graduate and undergraduate education,” Graeve said.
Graeve selected high-achieving girls whom she knew would do well in the program, so the pilot program would run smoothly. And they didn’t disappoint. This spring, Brianna Fernandez, who was in Amaro’s lab, was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Inamori Foundation, which also sponsors the Kyoto Prize, to help finance her undergraduate education. She plans to study environmental engineering.
“This program was an amazing opportunity to me,” Fernandez wrote in an email. “It helped me grow as a student and as a person in so many ways. I expanded my horizons to a global perspective since I was working with people from different parts of the world, it helped me define my future career in science and, most important of all, it gave me the motivation I needed to keep working on my studies to reach my goals.”
This summer, Graeve plans to expand the program to 16 or 20 girls, half of them from Tijuana and half from San Ysidro. The high school students will work in pairs, with one student from each side of the border. They will work in labs to develop their engineering skills and learn how the scientific process works. Graeve expects more low-income students to take part in the program this year, especially for those coming from San Ysidro.
“We hope to foster friendships across the border,” she said.
Reaching out to undergraduates
Graeve also inspired UC San Diego undergraduates, especially members of the campus’ chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, said Rocio Pena, the group’s outgoing president. “She told us: ‘I want to mentor you; I want to talk to you about your goals,’” Pena said.
Students are now more comfortable approaching other professors, Pena said. She has taken Graeve up on her offer and is now conducting research in the professor’s lab on the fabrication of special fluids infused with metal or ceramic particles at the nano scale.
Broadening the pool of Hispanic U.S.-born and raised faculty
Graeve has been acutely aware of the lack of Hispanic faculty members in engineering for a long time. Many years ago, she set out to compile a list of all of them. She found 400 colleagues—a good number. But she then noticed that only 10 percent of them were born and raised here—products of the American educational system.
She helped start the Graduate Institute for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers to change that. The program’s goal is to educate students about what they need to do to succeed in graduate school and how to apply for faculty positions. “The main obstacle was the lack of mentors,” Graeve said. The Graduate Institute seeks to remedy this by connecting students with faculty mentors and developing a network of Hispanic engineering faculty members that can serve as mentors for one another and help one another advance. It has generated several success stories.
“We’ve made a lot of efforts to try and see if we can move the needle,” she said.