Blog post by Marcos A. Reyes-Martinez, Materials Research Engineer, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
I often say I was born in paradise, surrounded by idyllic weather, stunning landscapes and beautiful people. I was born in the oldest city of “New Spain,” Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. I am the product of the clash and melding of worlds. In my blood runs the heritage of the Taino people who inhabited Hispaniola, the enslaved West Africans trafficked as labor, and the Spanish conquistadors who catalyzed a “New World.”
My childhood home is blocks from Columbus Alcazar, a colonial-era mansion. A few blocks in the other direction sits the Caribbean Sea, where the Southern Cross is visible at night. As a child, I would sit on my parents’ roof to stargaze, guided by the Cross as I memorized the constellations and studied their paths. I cannot remember how or when I became fascinated by the night sky. Perhaps it is in my genetic code, the primordial navigation skills of an island people, expert astronomers who were swept away not by angry seas, but by the unstoppable tide of change. In equal measure runs an insatiable curiosity about the physical world and a need to explore new frontiers. These forces — which originally compelled me to want to become an astronomer — set me on the path to where I am today.
My goal to work in astronomy led me to study math and physics as an undergrad. Through a few fortuitous research internships, I learned the value of tangible samples that are not light-years away. My focus shifted to materials science, and I earned my Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Today, I work in the Material Measurement Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). I study soft mechanics; within that field, I focus on the high rate deformation of soft materials. My work allows the design of better materials for impact mitigation: Think better helmets for athletes, stronger body armor for soldiers, and lightweight impact-resistant materials for spacecrafts. To this end, one of my projects relies on computer simulations to generate materials with exotic mechanical properties not seen in nature, e.g., imagine a block of foam that, when pressed on top and bottom, shrinks in the middle rather than squishing out the sides.
Since joining NIST, I have been collaborating with a small group of colleagues to reactivate the Association for NIST Hispanic Americans (ANHA). Our renewed purpose is to conduct outreach in the local Hispanic community, especially among youth, to spark the interest of a new generation of Hispanic scientists. If I were to advise young people interested in federal service, I would say to find what you love doing. From there, identify how your work can serve others. A career in the federal government is fundamentally a life dedicated to public service. We all have ways in which we can use our talents for the greater good — find one that makes you want to wake up every morning and explore.
Researching standards and technology directly betters people’s lives and contributes positively to the American economy. I always wanted my work to be in the service of others and the betterment of humankind. And, at NIST, I do just that. When I think of the little boy stargazing on the roof in Santo Domingo, I know I am living my career dreams. Working at one of the most important national labs, in a country at the frontier of scientific knowledge, is a unique privilege. I am as eager to go to work every morning as I am proud to represent my heritage.
Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce Hispanic employees in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15--October 15)