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Graduating Senior Sees Beauty in Physics and is Set to Make a Difference Working on “Exotic” Materials

His fascination for science and math and processes was first sparked in middle school. Then high school hooked him on chemistry. But it was the physics courses at University of St. Thomas – Houston that made graduating chemistry and physics major Joel Orlando Garcia “all in.”

“With physics, the math is all calculus, and it revealed an awakening of beauty,” Garcia B.S. ‘21 said. “If you asked me to describe physics to someone, I would call it beauty through math. The math for physics is extremely complicated, but when you stick with it and work through it, it gets simplified to an ‘aha’ moment and shows the true beauty of nature. An example would be the apple falling from the tree. It’s gravity, right? But there is so much more going on, and physics is the path to what else.”

Aiming to Pursue Studies in the Exotic Nano World

His integrated understanding and capability prompted Garcia’s interest in the exciting interdisciplinary field of modern materials science — a fusion of physics, chemistry and engineering, which covers the design and discovery of new exotic materials.

“Essentially, this branch of science studies materials on a nano scale to understand and improve them. It could be plastic or ceramics or textiles, and we would see it and manipulate it and change it for use in cell phones, engines, perhaps durable plastics,” Garcia said.

Physics Professor Jim Clarage, Ph.D, said Joel will find himself working with exotic new forms of matter. He further explained, “Materials can, in a sense, be ‘designed’ to suit a task. Plastic is a classic example — it’s actually very exotic and strange, totally man-made, but we take it for granted. A couple of other products from materials science include semiconductors (from which computer chips are made) and nanoparticles, which are the lab-created coatings constructed to surround the RNA in the latest COVID vaccines.”

Young Scientist with a Talent for Art & a Heart for Mentoring

Garcia appreciates dealing with the theoretical and working an initial question out with a pen on multiple pages of paper. Pen and paper also serve as a creative outlet for his artistic side. He expresses himself by elaborately designing his planner journals and notebooks, which calls “works of art.”

“His notebooks are infamous,” Clarage said. “He even has a page with a Newton’s Cradle theme. Joel stands out in my mind for his intelligence and the way he has generously served multiple roles at UST. He has been a teaching assistant for labs, tutor, STEM mentor and a student researcher.”

Garcia said, “I had a STEM student come in and ask, ‘Can you help me with this?’ I busted out the whiteboard and showed her how to approach working the problem, which she did, and it’s such a great feeling when they get the ‘aha’ moment too.”

He Followed an Academic Reputation to UST

Garcia grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and chose UST because of its reputation for providing an excellent education.

“I find UST to be a very, very good university, and I value the small classes,” the young scientist said. “I also value the Catholic mindset of critical thinking and debate and proving what you can. At UST, knowledge is always heating up on the backburner, seeping into everything I do.”

Next, Garcia will attend Lehigh University for graduate school in Physics and Engineering. There, he is thrilled to share that he will be working with an electron microscope on ceramics for engines. With his passion well identified, Garcia intends to pursue his Ph.D in materials science and engineering.

“I want to make a difference,” he said.

About the Graduation Ceremony

Bishop Robert Barron, founder of the global ministry Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, will present the keynote address at the 2021 University of St. Thomas - Houston Commencement at 11 a.m., Sat., May 8, at the NRG Stadium, NRG Parkway, Houston, 77054. More than 700 undergraduate and graduate students will walk at Commencement.