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Student awarded prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

UIC student Daniel Torres

If Daniel Torres’ post-UIC plans had played out in the way he envisioned, he might be working in automotive engineering right now, maybe at Ford or Navistar.

Instead, a string of experiences in the mechanical and industrial engineering department, combined with encouragement and advice from faculty and staff, changed Torres’ path in a way he hadn’t imagined. Today, he is not only a doctoral student but also a winner of the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which provides three years of financial support to some of the most promising scholars in the nation.

Torres has always been a math person. He taught himself advanced algebra as an eighth grader. When a high school math teacher’s classroom style didn’t work for him, he took charge of his own geometry education and turned himself into one of the best-performing students. When he came to UIC, he looked for the college major that would require the most math and thrived in courses like Thermodynamics, where his class broke down a household fridge into its component parts and investigated the mathematical equations that drive refrigeration.

Torres has always been a hands-on person, too. As a kid, LEGO blocks were his territory, and he’d start all of his designs with a schematic or floor plan. He has a passion for cars: somewhere in this world, there’s a ’67 or ’68 Mustang fastback that will be his someday. As an undergrad, he took a job in the MIE department that made him an expert in assembling, troubleshooting, and operating 3D printers.

When he thought about his future, Torres wanted something that would allow him to do math all day—and that would provide financial security. But his mentors in the MIE department wanted him to think bigger. Professor Suresh Agarwal advocated for Torres to pursue a second degree. Associate Professor Carmen Lilley offered research experience in her lab and talked up programs for talented undergraduates who might be considering further education, such as UIC’s Bridge to the Doctorate program.

“People would always give me advice about graduate school, but I was over here thinking, I’m never going to go to graduate school,” Torres said.

Eventually, though, the advice began to resonate. Especially through his department job, which afforded him a great deal of interaction with faculty and graduate students, Torres saw the value in continuing at UIC and applied to the master’s program in mechanical engineering. Lilley felt that he could do more. She encouraged him to apply for the PhD program, to which he was accepted, and to several fellowship programs that could provide long-term funding. Torres learned last month that NSF had selected him for its award.

“That’s where I put all of my energy and effort,” Torres said of his NSF application. “This was my top choice.”

Torres hopes to gain research and teaching experience through the UIC PhD program that will allow him to realize his dream: creating centers for kids in Chicago, starting in his own Back of the Yards neighborhood, that will provide the early-stage science, technology, engineering, and math experiences that students need to succeed in college and beyond. The idea is inspired by Torres’ work with UIC’s chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and its annual Noche de Ciencias program for school-age children and their parents.

“I really would have appreciated that when I was younger,” he said. “I hope I can make it happen.”

To UIC students who are in the same situation now as Torres was three years ago—with zero doctoral ambitions on the horizon—he advises a willingness to consider a degree that sounds out of reach to many people.

“You should always keep your options open,” he said. “Don’t close that door on yourself. Especially for students at research universities like UIC, pursue research. Maybe you find out it’s not for you, but maybe you love it—and you end up going for a PhD.”