Materials scientist Nic Argibay and ES&H senior manager Rafael Gonzalez were honored at the 31st annual Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference by Great Minds in STEM, a nonprofit organization that recognizes Hispanic leadership and achievement in science, technology, engineering and math. Nic received a Most Promising Scientist or Engineer award and Rafael received a Luminary award during the conference in late September.
HENAAC awards represent Hispanic contributions at the highest levels of academia, government, military and industry. Luminary honorees are professionals who lead key programs within their companies and who have made significant contributions to the Hispanic technical community as leaders and role models.
Nic has made outsized contributions to the scientific field of tribology, the study of interacting surfaces in relative motion, including the principles of friction, lubrication and wear. He has received more than $7 million in scientific grants and awards leading to groundbreaking discoveries such as the in-situ formation of diamond-like carbon on platinum-gold substrates and one of the most wear-resistant materials ever tested.
“Ultimately, we developed an alloy that is insensitive to remarkable amounts of temperature and mechanical stress,” Nic said.
Nic’s work with high-entropy alloys, metals that blend similar proportions of several elements, has led to multiple invitations to speak at conferences, colloquia and seminars worldwide.
He currently serves on the board of directors of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, a position he was elected to in recognition of his many contributions to the tribology field and his service to the society.
The son of a computer programmer and a physicist, Nic moved to Miami, Florida, from Montevideo, Uruguay, when he was nine.
“They sold everything they owned, with the exception of the contents of a few suitcases. My parents were nuts. So courageous. I’m so grateful they did what so many wouldn’t dare to try,” Nic said.
That same year, Hurricane Andrew, one of the most destructive hurricanes ever recorded in Florida, struck their new home. Nic’s parents were undaunted in starting their new life despite the immediate upheaval.
One of Nic’s early mentors was a prep school physics teacher who formed a physics club and organized a trip to watch a space shuttle launch. “I remember thinking, ‘this is what I want to spend my life working on,’” he said. Nic pursued a career in aerospace engineering. Unsurprisingly, he is now an airplane enthusiast and has a pilot’s license.
Nic came to Sandia in 2011, immediately after receiving his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida, transitioning from a postdoctoral researcher to a permanent member of the R&D staff in 2013.
His manager, Cole Yarrington, said, “Nicolas has also demonstrated, without expectation of recognition, his commitment to giving back to the community through his public school and university outreach.”
This outreach has included coaching a National Science Bowl team and helping high school students craft experiments for a STEM outreach program.
As a child, Rafael loved spending time in his grandfather’s carpentry shop, where he gained mechanical skills and learned life lessons that proved equally useful in life.
“Mi abuelo was the wisest individual that I have ever met, even though he only completed primaria (elementary school),” Rafael said. “He taught me that working hard with integrity and doing your best with purpose was the most important thing in life — whether you were a barrendero (street sweeper), engineer or a carpenter like himself.”
Rafael’s hard work in school paid off when he unexpectedly met the president of the University of Texas at El Paso, who was visiting Rafael’s high school to promote a financial assistance program for Mexican students. Rafael, who grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, had wanted to study at an American university but could not afford to do so. The morning after graduation, he took the SAT exam, scoring high enough to qualify for the support and acceptance to UTEP, where he ultimately received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.
“Rafael is known for his passion and boundless energy,” said MESA director Dave Sandison. “Given that I see how much effort he puts into his work, I’m always amazed (no longer surprised) to learn how much he does in the community.”
Deeply committed to STEM education for Hispanics, Rafael initiated the first Noche de Ciencias (Science Night) in New Mexico in 2016, which has led to 800 middle school students participating in science and technology activities and 150 parents attending bilingual workshops.
Rafael has served in many community organizations, including the United Way Hispano Philanthropic Society, where he helped establish a mentoring program, and the Middle School Initiative Fund for low-income, Hispanic middle school students. He is a past president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the New Mexico Society of Professional Engineers. He is currently deputy co-chair of Sandia’s Hispanic Outreach for Leadership and Awareness organization and serves on the boards of directors for New Mexico Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement — a group that helps prepare students for college and careers in STEM fields — and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Foundation.
In 2015, Rafael joined Sandia as an R&D manager in MESA, where he oversaw research programs and production operations for radiation-hardened microsystems technologies. His work enabled new and increasingly powerful technology for critical national security programs, the nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear deterrence. Rafael is currently a senior manager for performance assurance and engineered safety to ensure efficient, effective and safe operations across Sandia.