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Spotlight on Commerce: Rodrigo Vilaseca, Mechanical Engineer, National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron Research (NCNR)

Guest blog by  Rodrigo Vilaseca, Mechanical Engineer, National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron Research (NCNR)

Hi! I am Rodrigo Vilaseca, and I am a mechanical engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron Research (NCNR). I’ve been working here for a little over 14 years, but I’m not originally from the DMV. I was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The fourth largest city in Bolivia, Cochabamba is known not only for its folklore and gastronomy, but also for its amazing weather. Known as “La ciudad de la eterna primavera” — the city of eternal spring — or “Ciudad Jardin” — Garden City — for its spring-like temperatures all year round. 

Just like many other immigrant families in search of the American dream, my parents moved my family to the United States in 1995. I was 12 years old and didn’t know much English then. Neither did my three older siblings nor my mom, so it was a hard adjustment for the entire family. Thankfully, the school I attended had an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Between that, hanging out with cousins, and a lot of English TV (following the advice of one of my uncles), I was able to be understood in a few months. 

Doing schoolwork in a different language was tough, but lucky for me, the international language of math didn’t come as hard. This worked out well because it has always been my favorite subject. There are many in far more difficult circumstances, but for the first two years in the United States, my immediate family was split between two houses in Maryland as we stayed with relatives who had room. (On the positive side, we literally grew up with our cousins!)

Eventually, my parents were able to buy a house in Maryland, so this is where I stayed. It was in high school when I realized I wanted to pursue an engineering degree because of my interest in math and science. Getting accepted to UMD was a huge milestone for my family and me. With the help of financial aid, my parents, and working part time during the semester and full time during breaks, I was able to graduate with what one would now consider minimal student loans. My graduation from the University of Maryland College Park with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering really was a group accomplishment. 

The language barrier and cultural differences taught me to be perseverant and persistent to achieve my goals. When faced with adversities, I have learned to focus on finding solutions using my skill sets and build from there to excel. Arriving to this country with limited resources but with a family to welcome us has opened my mind to the value of teamwork, a sense of community and willingness to accept changes with open arms.

Working at the NCNR, my job is anything but routine, which is one of the aspects I love the most! The NCNR is one of only two neutron scattering facilities in the U.S. that run users’ programs. We provide cutting-edge neutron instrumentation and facilities for industry, academia and government.  Physicists and others use the instruments to study a range of things, like the atomic and molecular arrangements of materials, or to understand how to make a better battery, or the magnetic properties for next generation quantum computing, or how the permeability in biological cells is affected by additives and drugs. 

These instruments are quite large, and we house them in an aircraft-hangar-sized facility. My responsibilities include instrument design engineering and project management, as the facility is constantly being upgraded and improved to meet our mission goals. Currently, I’m co-managing the next major evolution at the NCNR, which includes an upgrade to the neutron cold source as well as an upgrade to three of the 12 neutron delivery guides. All these changes will increase neutron flux and improve the performance of the instruments. I’m excited to be a part of a crucial upgrade project like this one! I am also the chairman of the Non-Standard Lift committee, a subcommittee of the Hazard Review Committee that oversees all the safety evaluations at the NCNR. The Non-Standard Lift committee analyzes equipment designed to be lifted at the facility to ensure the safety of equipment, but most importantly, the safety of everyone at the NCNR. 

The most influential people in my life have been my parents. I still cannot comprehend how brave they were to risk everything and move a family of six to a different country and start all over with very little to no English background. They did this while ensuring we all retained a strong tie to our Bolivian culture. It’s likely that we have an above-average number of family get-togethers. My mom is an amazing cook, so there’s never a shortage of delicious Bolivian food along with music, laughter and sometimes Cacho, a Bolivian dice game similar to Yahtzee. My parents instilled in us that as first-generation immigrants, we have a responsibility to keep paving the road of opportunity for younger generations, as others have done before us; and that no matter how bad times are, we always have enough and should look for opportunities to help others. 

A quote that has stuck with me since high school and I feel resonates with my upbringing is “Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value,” from Albert Einstein.

I feel a great deal of pride working for the federal government. Mostly, I’m happy to be able to help develop cutting-edge instrumentation that is used in world-class research for ideas and technologies that will be mainstream in 10-20 years. The advice I have for today’s youth interested in a federal government career is to find a path they’re passionate about and go for it. There are many branches of government with career opportunities that are as rewarding and fulfilling as this one. In the end, it is about loving what you do day after day. It doesn’t just make the time go by faster. It also gives you a sense of accomplishment. Having welcoming and friendly colleagues also helps me feel like work is my home away from home. I am lucky to work with so many individuals who have outstanding work ethics whom I also respect. It also feels nice to contribute and give back to this country since it has given us (my family and me) so much.

For me, Hispanic Heritage Month gives me a sense of belonging. It not only highlights the diversity in this great country but also the diversity throughout the Hispanic culture. From school to the professional environment, Hispanic Heritage Month is usually celebrated with events that include a great mixture of culture, food and music. For a lot of us Hispanics, Latinos and Latinas, it’s not just a reminder that we live far away from our roots; it’s also a celebration of our multicultural upbringing without having the guilt of having to choose one culture over the other. 

The United States may have its fair share of flaws, but all in all, it’s still the greatest country on Earth. I hope I’m able to keep contributing to its improvement until I retire; and why not add a little bit of “llajua” (Bolivian hot sauce) while I’m at it. 

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).