UTRGV professor Karen Lozano keeps her calendar full.
She’s often found in the lab, where she and her students have pioneered production methods in nanotechnology. Other times, you’ll catch her mentoring prospective engineers in her office, or out in the community, proselytizing to high schoolers about careers in science and technology.
If students need to talk to her, they usually try to catch her in her office. She gets so many emails that it’s hard for her to reply to all of them.
Last month, Lozano’s research took her all the way to the White House, where she received the Presidential Excellence Award in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring — she was one of just 15 educators chosen for the award. This week, she’ll speak about her work at TEDxMcAllen.
Arguably, she’s one of the busiest professors on campus, but it definitely wasn’t easy getting there.
Twenty-five years ago Lozano graduated from the Universidad de Monterrey at the age of 21, with a degree in mechanical engineering. She’d always been passionate about solving problems and the hard sciences, and mechanical engineering seemed like a natural path to take.
Lozano had her doubts, however: It was almost unheard of for a woman to become a mechanical engineer in Monterrey, but her mother pushed her to stick to her passion, telling her that it would open up doors in the future.
“‘If we’re going to keep on supporting you and sacrificing for you, why are you going to study something that will not give you opportunities?’” Lozano remembers her mother saying. “‘Study something that will give you opportunities. Follow the path less traveled.’”
Lozano did just that, but it was a lonely path. She was the only female mechanical engineering graduate in Monterrey in 1993. In fact, she was the only female in her program at UdeM.
“The guys would all go together to a house to study and I was never allowed to go to somebody’s house to study with 20 guys, so they would all study in teams and I would study alone, in my house,” she recalled. “Of course, once in a while, somebody would give me the comments like, ‘Why are you here? You’re only gonna marry and have kids. Why are you here?’”
Lozano would blow off the comment with a tongue-in-cheek joke.
“‘If I’m gonna have kids, and I’m doing all this advanced math and stuff, I’m gonna be able to help them in their math when they were in high school.’ That was my answer all the time,” she said. “Which is something that I never did. I have a senior in high school and one that already graduated, and I don’t think I ever sat to help them with math.”
Monterrey is an industrial city, and there’s no shortage of engineering jobs. Lozano remembers watching companies snap up her male peers before they’d even graduated. No calls came for her.
After college, she started applying to jobs she found in the newspaper. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months.
“Every morning I would wake up and the first thing I would do, I would go through the classifieds,” Lozano said. “I was just sitting in my house for three months.”
There were plenty of listings, but none she was qualified for.
“There were tons of openings,” Lozano remembered, “but all of them said, ‘We’re looking for a mechanical engineer. Sex: Male.’ You can google right now, and you’ll still find them, in 2019.”
Finally, one morning Lozano opened the paper and saw a different ad, asking specifically for a female mechanical engineer. Lozano thought her classmates had bought the ad and were making fun of her.
“Everyone that graduated me was already working,” she said. “It was totally weird.”
Lozano applied anyway and got an interview.
“I went, and it was legit,” she said. “There was this girl working there, this engineer, that graduated four years before I did from another university as a mechanical engineer, and she had faced the same situation that I was facing. So when they had a position, she asked the boss if it was OK for her to post this one as a social experiment, to see how many women would show up. I was the only one, so I was hired.”
Lozano worked at the company for a few months before being accepted into a Masters/PHD program at Rice. After her post-doc she was hired on at UTRGV, where she’s researched and taught for the past 20 years, making one of the most significant breakthroughs in her field in the late aughts.
Nanofibers are an interesting technology. A thousandth the diameter of a human hair, nanofibers can be worked into a variety of products that can be used in medicine as skin grafts and drug delivery, as an ultra-efficient filtration material and even as batteries.
“There are some that are very, very small and have very high thermal conductivity and electrical conductivity, so if we combine them with plastics, then we can make plastics that can conduct electricity,” Lozano said. “Instead of copper or aluminum it can be a polymer, a plastic, that will have similar properties in terms of electrical and thermal properties, and we can lower the weight.”
According to Lozano, there’s a fair chance that because of advances in nanotech, your cellphone battery will weigh little more than a Post-it Note in the near future.
As exciting as the field was, Lozano had a problem: nanofibers took forever to make. They were traditionally made through a process that involved using heat or electricity, and only produced a miniscule fiber or two an hour. Instead of making groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of medicine or technology, Lozano’s undergrads were spending all of their lab time laboriously teasing out solitary strands of nanofibers.
“At the undergrad level, you need to hold something in your hand, to see it, to be able to bring that interest,” she said. “If I just give you one little hair, you can’t do very much. There’s no way I could excite them or ignite that spark to fall in love with research.”
Lozano was at a loss. She considered directing her students to research something else. Then, one day, inspiration struck her in one of the most likely forms: a cotton candy machine.
“My mind just went crazy,” she said. “You have tons of fibers, very simple to produce. They’re not nanofibers, but we’re engineers, we can make changes to make it nano. A group of students started working on it, and long story short, we developed those machines, we even created a company.”
With the new machines, Lozano and her students could make nanofiber material by the bolt. They created an actual business that operated in McAllen for several years, producing material at an industrial scale and showing off their new process to others in the field.
At one point there were so many people coming by, Lozano says, the FBI dropped in to see what was going on.
“It was very good,” Lozano said. “We hired lots of people and we had people from all over the world coming by.”
The business was bought by a larger company in Tennessee in 2017, but Lozano and her students have continued to work with nanofiber. Their research has led to dozens of patents and scholarly articles.
“A lot of our undergraduate students are co-authors in scientific publications, and that’s amazing,” Lozano said. “It’s not that common that undergraduate students graduate with journal publications from top journals. Even our high school students that work in the lab get the opportunity to be co-authors.”
For Lozano, exposing students to science in such a direct way is just as, or more, important than her research breakthroughs and academic recognitions.
If you walk into her office, you won’t see the White House commendation from October; it resides in a drawer at her home. It was gratifying, she says, but not as gratifying as seeing her students working in the lab.
You will, however, see a full-sized carnival cotton candy machine in Lozano’s office, a reminder of the inspiration that helped her students succeed.
“I see my students getting like five offer letters, and they come to me and their problem is which one to select,” she said. “So I’ve seen what can come after, and I tell people that there’s opportunities and there’s jobs and you can contribute to society.”
In many ways, the woman whose own path toward a career in science was unlikely has devoted herself to paving the way for others. Lozano frequently works with local high schools and even made a YouTube channel geared at inspiring and instructing children.
“It’s important to plant that seed in boys and girls,” she said. “To me, it’s the fuel that keeps me going.”
On Tuesday, Lozano will continue talking about science at TEDxMcAllen. Her discussion will be streamed live on the group’s Facebook page.