Although Vanessa Espinoza '17 earned her undergraduate degree just three years ago she’s scored some impressive achievements in that short time. Ask anyone who knew her at TLU and you'll see why they’re not surprised.
As a first-generation student, Espinoza was a standout on campus—a chemistry and physics double major, Student Government Association president, soccer team captain, and a Society of Physics Students National Council representative.
Espinoza is currently a graduate student in Rice University’s Weisman Research Group, where she’s part of a team studying a nanoscopic material formed from carbon atoms. These molecular-sized tubes display remarkable physical properties with promising applications in the fields of nano-scale electronics, solar energy harvesting, molecular sensing, medical diagnostics, and therapy.
The experience has been both challenging and exhilarating.
“Graduate school is not easy, but I’ve learned that I’m tougher than I thought," she said. "There are many long nights and hours spent working on experiments that maybe aren’t as successful as I hoped, but that's the point of the science. We don't know what the conclusion is until we get there. The unknown gets frustrating at times, but resilience and perseverance carries you past the bad data to get closer and closer to the end goal.”
Espinoza says she developed that resilience and perseverance at TLU where she also learned the importance of being more than just simply good at science.
“I was challenged in the classroom, of course, but I was also challenged to be a leader, a teammate, and a professional,” she said. “I think these other components helped me become a better scientist.”
The bulk of her graduate degree is being funded by a prestigious National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship, a highly sought-after award that attracts nearly 20,000 applicants each year. She was one of just 26 in the nation to win the fellowship for Physics & Astronomy – Condensed Matter Physics. This honor put her on an exclusive list of premier scientists, including most of the American science Nobel Prize winners.
When she’s not in the lab, you'll often find her out in the community sharing her love of STEM. Last summer, through the Research Education for Teachers program, she mentored Houston-area teachers.
She also participated in a STEM panel for Bellaire High School students.
“That was a really awesome opportunity and it was rewarding to see that I could help young ladies feel more confident in their abilities to tackle science," she said.
She is also a member of the TLU Alumni Association Board of Directors and is always up for the chance to speak to young female students about science.
“TLU will always be a home to me, so I try to stay as connected as possible," she said. "TLU was a significant part of why I’ve been able to thrive at Rice, so for me, it’s so important to remain plugged in.”
Her goal is to continue spreading her love of STEM by becoming a college professor.
“I think professors have such an important task in molding and encouraging students, especially those who feel like there is not a place for them in science," she said.