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September 26, 2001

Hispanic immigrant ‘rags-to-riches’ tale

Sandia researcher Alfredo Morales wins Hispanic ‘Most Promising Scientist’ Award

Alfredo Morales
Dr. Alfredo Morales, Sandia National Laboratories.
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sixteen-year-old Alfredo Morales arrived in Los Angeles from Nicaragua in 1985, broke and speaking no English. His education consisted of schoolwork memorized in a Jesuit-run school in war-torn Managua. Like other impoverished immigrants, he enrolled in an English-as-a-second-language high school program in East Los Angeles.

On Oct. 13, at a formal black-tie dinner in El Paso, the former penniless immigrant, now bilingual and degreed, with eight patents applied for and one granted, will be awarded the 2001 “Most Promising Scientist” award by the Hispanic Engineer National Achievements Award Conference (HENAAC).

“In my 29 years at Caltech, I consider Alf one of the two or three best undergraduates I have worked with,” says his undergraduate research mentor, Professor John Bercaw. Morales graduated from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena with a grade-point average of 4.0.

Harvard Professor Charles Lieber writes, “Dr. Morales is one of the top two graduate students to have worked with me over the past ten years at Harvard.”

“He progressed from a tenth grader with limited English skills to one of our most outstanding graduates in the three years he attended,” writes his high school assistant principal, Thomas Fessler, from Woodrow Wilson High School in east Los Angeles.

“Leaving everything behind and coming here [to the US] was a good character-building experience,” says Morales, a researcher in Livermore, Calif. at the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories.

Unconventionally, he learned English by reading novels with the aid of an English-English dictionary instead of an English-Spanish one. “I knew that if you wanted to learn a language well,” he says, “you shouldn’t translate in your mind.” He lost some comprehension by this method, but gained in fluidity. And he likes novels.

As a high school senior with engineering dreams, he applied to Harvard, the California Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, and Notre Dame, was accepted by all of them, but went to Caltech because, he quipped, “I wasn’t ready to be well-rounded.” Perhaps more to the point, the school was a bike ride from his parent’s home when he was hungry. (His parents, Alfredo and Martha Morales, and his sister Martha arrived in the US shortly after he did.)

At Harvard, where Morales obtained his PhD in chemistry, he discovered how to make nanowires at a controlled cross-sectional dimension and length.

He went to work in 1997 at Sandia in a group that makes micromachines, he says, because “I wanted to work with short-term deliverables” rather than on projects with results expected somewhere in the far future.

Morales was nominated for the HENAAC award by Sandia management.

Says Lenny Martinez, VP of Manufacturing Systems, Science and Technology, who wrote in support of Morales’s nomination, “The award is rather prestigious because it coincides with the naming of the Hispanic Engineer of the Year as well as the ceremony for honoring this year’s inductees into the Hispanic Engineer Hall of Fame. Inductees into that Hall are selected only from this pool of folks.”

Morales says he dedicates the award to his parents, who gave up their small pharmacy in Managua to take unskilled jobs first in a gas station and then in a water faucet factory, working 12 hours a day to give Morales and his sister a chance to succeed in their new country. “They taught me a very strong work ethic,” he says.

There was little opportunity for Morales in Nicaragua. “History was rewritten every time a new dictatorship came in, and success didn’t depend upon how hard you worked or how smart you were but if you had the right connections and were from the right family.”

“What this award means to me is that it demonstrates it is possible to get ahead and be successful in this country even though there is a perception that things are stacked against immigrants, Hispanics, and other minorities. It’s very satisfying to see that there are professional associations that look at and recognize and help these people and provide the infrastructure to further the development of these groups.”

Success hasn’t stopped him from helping others where he can. “The great thing about Alf,” writes Fessler, “is that he has never forgotten where he came from. On many occasions he has returned to Wilson when in the Los Angeles area to speak to our students and to offer his help and advice… He always enquires if we have any students whom he may help.”

In helping summer students at Sandia, he tries to teach what it takes, in his view, to do good work in science. This includes developing a model of the system being studied not only to get an idea of expected behavior but of what could go wrong. “The interesting science you read about isn’t planned. It’s almost always totally unexpected. Something happened in an experiment and someone realized, because of the model they had made, that it shouldn’t have happened. Because of that awareness, a discovery is made.”

He expresses his research philosophy as “Make, measure, or explain something no one else has made or measured before; learn to talk about it; and surround yourself with the best people, even if they’re smarter than you.”

The problem that women and minorities face, he says, in addition to a lack of opportunities to network, is that they don’t feel comfortable talking about their ideas. “It’s not hype, it’s important to do, but it’s a painful thing to learn.” It’s necessary, he says, because “people are more receptive to funding risky ideas if they know you or have talked to people who have heard you.”

Sandia student interns Shawn Allan, Marcela Gonzales, and Michael Winter in a joint letter write, “From the beginning, [Alf] stressed that the goal of the internship experience was not only to obtain experimental results but also to learn to think like a scientist and engineer…. We developed the ability to see problems from multiple viewpoints, leading to a better understanding of the relationships in the experiments we were conducting.”

Morales’s other work at Sandia includes recent funding to start a nanotechnology project investigating super lattices of organic molecules and polymers, improvements in LIGA mask-making techniques, and participation in Sandia’s Center for the Study of Emerging Threats. He is married to the former Christina Cabrera.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy under contract DE-AC04-94AL85000. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Media contact:
Neal Singer, nsinger@sandia.gov, (505) 844-0645

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