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Industry Insights Alejandro Gutiérrez

July 16, 2021

This series of interviews with industry professionals, professors, and other faculty serves to bring light to the inspiring coming-to stories that our school inhabits. We hope that these stories bring hope and encourage students of all majors, backgrounds, and walks of life

Our first interview is with Alejandro Gutiérrez, an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Merced. His focus is the Engineering Economic Analysis, Statics and Dynamics, Engineering Computing, and Capstone Engineering courses.

I made the professional choice of dedicating myself more to teaching instead of research after my experiences of teaching UC Merced students.

Would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself?

I am originally from Venezuela. I was born there, grew up there, and went to school there. I did my master’s program in Venezuela as well, but I went to study in Italy for my PhD. I lived in Italy for four years before coming to the U.S. I first came to UC Merced as a post-doctorate researcher and later began lecturing for about two years. Then, I became a professor.

What inspired you to become a professor?

I decided to be a professor once I started teaching. I wasn’t interested at first. I wanted to stick to research or just working in the industry. I started teaching because I needed the money to pay for my living expenses while doing research work and found that I enjoyed working with students and being able to see them learning and changing in such a short period of time.

When you do research, you work for a couple years and maybe write a few papers that are published at a journal or conference. In the grand scheme of things, nothing’s changed. Scientific advancements are done by very small steps over a long period of time by many people. But, if I’m teaching in the classroom, then the life of a student can completely change in just 16 weeks—if I’ve done my job well. Teaching is a much faster and effective way for me to enact positive change in our community.

What was the emphasis in your research?

I’m a mechanical engineer by training. I did my PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering. But it was really structural mechanics that I focused on. Structural mechanics is the study of the mathematics and physics governing the behavior of all civil structures (buildings, bridges, walls, columns, beams, cars, etc.). Every object made of any material has to withstand a certain load. My research focused on that and the usage of sophisticated mathematics to solve engineering problems while reducing the use of computational resources. My area of expertise is called computational mechanics—this means how you write computer code that solves engineering problems in quick, efficient ways.

You mentioned that you are originally from Venezuela, then later moved to Italy, then found yourself at UC Merced. What was that journey like? Were there any major events that happened to you during that period?

Many things went on during that time. I had traveled outside of Venezuela a few times after I graduated. I had a job as an engineer, and I made decent money, so I was able to travel from time to time; but I had never been out of Venezuela for prolonged periods of time. I went to Italy not knowing how to speak Italian, and it was a challenge being on my own. That helped me develop my own independence and a sense of individuality.

I also met my life partner in Italy. She was completing her master’s in Bologna, in the north of Italy.

Everybody has a plan—but nothing ever goes according to the plan. When I first left Venezuela, my plan was to go back and continue working in industry and to improve things in Venezuela. But Venezuela got progressively worse, it was no longer safe or reasonable to go back. I also wanted to be with my partner, and she was coming to the United States. I had to make that life choice.

I made the professional choice of dedicating myself more to teaching instead of research after my experiences of teaching UC Merced students.

What were some of the major successes that you had during that time?

I got many scholarships along the way. I wouldn’t have been able to leave Venezuela if I hadn’t gotten any scholarships. I also was able to travel abroad to Italy for the prestigious PhD program I was offered. I published my first few scientific papers and got very good feedback from reviewers. I also met my life partner—that was probably the biggest success.

I was also able to get a PhD, which is another major success. Nobody in my family had gone to graduate school. My dad is a retired teacher, so he went to university.  Most of my family didn’t understand what a PhD was, they just think I went to school for a long time.

Another thing was coming to the U.S. If you’ve gone through the U.S. immigration process, you can call that a huge success. That was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.

What was your favorite part about working toward your career path or in your personal life?

My favorite part of going to grad school and being a professor has always been having to use my brain. I always have to think about what I’m doing.

Before I went to grad school, I worked for a large multinational engineering company in the research and development division. It was a good job—I got paid very well. But I soon realized that I was going to be using my brain less and less as I moved up the corporate ladder. That kind of work just wasn’t for me.

The thing about being a professor is that I am constantly intellectually challenged. I’m never not thinking, and I’m never bored.

What do you find is the most inspiring aspect of working with undergraduate students?

I teach Engineering Economic Analysis, which is a class about the economic aspects of engineering projects. The average student in my class has a basic understanding of economics but doesn’t know the details. By the time they leave my class—if I’ve done my job well—they have, at the very least, a fundamental understanding of how money works for any engineering project. They know what interest is and how to calculate it and can even apply that knowledge into other aspects of their lives. They learn about the stock market, investing, and taxes in my course.

The student goes from being in a position where they could be financially taken advantage of, and through the process of learning, they become stronger and more independent. No shady car salesmen are going to swindle my students.

Being able to see that growth and change is the most inspiring thing for me while teaching.

What is it like working with Engineering Service Learning students in the Engineering Economic Analysis course and the Capstone course?

The best students in Capstone are usually the Engineering Service Learning students. They already have the experience of working with external clients and how to work on a project from beginning to end. Engineering Service Learning students are able to hit the ground running. If it were possible, I would have Engineering Service Learning be a requirement to the Engineering major. I’m such a big advocate for it because those students are always more prepared and more successful in Capstone.

Do you see yourself in our student body as a minor-majority campus?

Yes definitely. I was poor growing up, so that is the thing I see the most in my students beside our racial backgrounds. There are a lot of students who come from a situation similar to the one I had growing up. Most of my students grew up having little resources and they really rely on the university for most things outside of their academics.

In my students, I see myself when I was their age. But I also hope that they are going to do even better than I, that they will have more opportunities that I did. Thinking about them being more successful than I was brings me such joy. 

In your opinion, what is the most important thing for students to focus on?

I can give you two answers.

The most important thing is for students to focus on their studies. That can be difficult sometimes; many students have responsibilities outside of the classroom, like jobs or families. However, it’s very, very important that students remember why they’re here.

It’s also important for students to focus on their happiness. Students need to be able to reflect on their time here and think about how they feel in their chosen study. The work that they do now is similar to what they will do in the future, so they need to work towards happiness. This is especially important for students who are pressured into engineering or medicine. If you aren’t happy or satisfied in your courses, maybe it’s not for you. It’s one thing to have a good salary, it’s another to be happy. 

If you could give yourself advice while you were doing your undergraduate or graduate studies, what would you say?

I would tell myself to be more social and make more friends. It’s easy for people in the sciences or academics to be working all the time but it’s important to make connections and build friendships.

I also wish I had studied abroad when I was an undergrad; I didn’t do it for multiple reasons, but the main one was that I couldn’t afford it. This was true, but there are always scholarships and additional financial aid available for students who want to study abroad. That’s what many students always tell themselves here at UC Merced. Many students don’t even apply for study abroad because they think they can’t afford it.

I would tell myself, and students now, to just go for it. Don’t think it’s impossible because of your background, financial status, ethnicity, or immigration status.