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Carlos Pérez De Jesús
July 27, 2022

Graduate student Carlos Pérez De Jesús feels at home in CBE

Written By: Jason Daley

When Carlos Pérez De Jesús first traveled from Puerto Rico to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE) program in 2014, he was excited to attend a large, diverse campus and get a taste of the Midwest. So he was surprised at how familiar the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering felt.

“I didn’t know what to expect. But in any corner of CBE, you can hear Spanish being spoken,” he says. “There are a lot of students from Puerto Rico and Latin America here, and a lot of support. That’s something I noticed and really liked. I wanted to have a sense of belonging and having people with the same background made me feel welcome.”

Now, almost a decade later, Pérez De Jesús is a fifth-year PhD student working in the lab of Michael Graham, Steenbock Professor of Engineering and Harvey D. Spangler Professor in chemical and biological engineering. The sense of community he’s experienced and the many friends he has made have helped Pérez De Jesús thrive as a graduate student.

While CBE doesn’t have a formal relationship with universities in Puerto Rico, the National Science Foundation-funded Partnership for Research and Education in Materials has created collaborations between chemical and materials engineers at UW-Madison and institutions in Puerto Rico. That has forged a strong connection to the island, with many UW-Madison alumni from Puerto Rico encouraging their students to attend undergraduate programs at UW-Madison or apply to graduate school.

Pérez De Jesús’s uncle was a chemical engineer, so when he began attending the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, Carlos thought he’d give the major a try. It wasn’t until his sophomore year, when he attended a research program for undergraduates at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, that he got his first taste of life in the lab, and he liked it.

Back at Mayaguez, he began working as an undergraduate researcher doing computational work with his mentor Ubaldo Córdova. He also applied to SURE, a 10-week program that exposes undergraduate students from underrepresented communities to research in engineering. During SURE, Pérez De Jesús worked in Graham’s lab doing computational research on fluid flows, returning to continue the work the following summer.

Before applying to graduate school, Pérez De Jesús completed a yearlong co-op with AbbVie in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, at a plant where the pharmaceutical giant makes the rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira. He excelled at the company, even earning an employee of the month award, but more importantly, the co-op showed him the opportunities a PhD could open up in industry.

When he decided to apply to graduate school, his previous experiences led him toward Madison, and he matched up with Graham as his advisor. That was no coincidence. “During the SURE program, I saw that he really cared about his students and would meet with them individually. He’s really approachable. If you’re feeling it, you can say it, and he’s going to listen to your ideas,” Pérez De Jesús says. “That’s another reason, in the end, why I chose to come to Madison.”

In his research, Pérez De Jesús uses neural networks to simulate and study chaotic, two-dimensional fluid flows. In essence, using computational tools, his work simplifies the extremely complicated dynamics of the flows so they can be accurately simulated. In 2021, his research earned him first place in the #LatinXChem 2021 Twitter Conference.

While hard work and good mentoring has contributed to his academic success, Pérez De Jesús says having a strong sense of community has also helped. “Working on a PhD is hard. Classes are hard, and when you get here there are big changes,” he says. “There are people from all different backgrounds speaking in English and it can be hard communicating at first and understanding where they’re coming from. That’s why it’s good our department and lab are building a strong graduate student community.”

After graduation, likely in two years, Pérez De Jesús says he plans to join industry, inspired by some of the research and development PhDs he worked with at AbbVie.