As a researcher, Jomary Mercado-Montijo understands first-hand how tapping the right resources and asking the right questions can achieve positive results in the lab. By tapping the right resources in her academic pursuits, she has found success through mentorship. Mercado-Montijo is a Ph.D. student in the Andrew Research Group in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, National Science Foundation Research Fellow and first-generation college student.
Mercado-Montijo’s interest in science began as a young child when doctors surgically restored her father’s hearing loss by replacing his malleus with a prosthesis. Since that moment, her interest in science has been driven by how materials can improve others’ health and wellness.
However, after graduating from high school in Puerto Rico, Mercado-Montijo struggled to decide her future path. Because of her family’s financial situation, she considered two options: an accounting degree from a nearby college followed by a job or pursuing her passion for science while attending a different university, hours away from home, and with no plan on how to pay for it.
“I chose the accounting major, but when I was registering, I happened to meet a professor from the department of chemistry and physics,” said Mercado-Montijo. “He inspired me with the story of his journey in engineering and his contributions in the field. He encouraged me to follow my dreams and, after speaking with him, I decided my curiosity in science and engineering was something I needed to fulfill.”
Mercado-Montijo quickly discovered that being a first-generation college student comes with many challenges. One major obstacle is not knowing what resources are available, especially in STEM-related fields.
“Without having anyone else in my family to ask, I didn’t even know where to start looking for help,” she said.
After enrolling as a chemical engineering major at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez (UPRM), Mercado-Montijo met Bárbara O. Calcagno, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Engineering Sciences and Material at UPRM, who became her mentor and role model.
“She motivated me to continue my studies and go beyond my boundaries in chemical engineering. She also introduced me to the world of materials science and allowed me to work with her on research both in Puerto Rico and in the United States,” said Mercado.
During undergrad, another challenge Mercado-Montijo encountered more than once was a tendency to doubt her readiness for graduate school. “In Puerto Rico, if you do go to college, the expectation is to go straight into the workforce after graduation,” said Mercado-Montijo. “Postgraduate work is much less common, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. But Dr. Oscar Marcelo, who I still consider an advisor today, pushed me to apply for grad school. He put me in touch with Dr. Jennifer Andrew and Dr. Michele Manuel at UF and told me to ‘go for it.’ That was just what I needed to hear to help me believe in myself.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree, Mercado-Montijo applied for graduate school at UF, where she is currently a Ph.D. student and part of the Andrew Research Group.
“I chose UF for a couple of reasons,” said Mercado. “First, it was their consistent engagement with the UPRM community. UF is one of the few U.S. universities that come to campus every year, and I felt a connection there. That, combined with an MSE graduate program ranked in the top 10 among public universities and Dr. Andrew’s work in biomaterials, was a huge draw for me.”
“Of course, coming from a tropical island in the Caribbean, UF’s location and warm weather is a bonus,” she added.
Mercado-Montijo’s primary interests now are biomaterials and polymer science, and the National Science Foundation recently awarded her a Graduate Research Fellowship for her work.
“My current research focuses on lung diseases, one of the leading causes of death in the world, and, also, something I was touched by personally with the loss of my grandmother,” said Mercado. “I work on creating smart drug microcapsules that can be inhaled directly into the lungs to treat diseases such as tuberculosis, without affecting any other organs. When someone is suffering from pulmonary disease, their body reacts by releasing mass amounts of enzymes into the lungs. By designing microcapsules that are sensitive to these enzymes, we can take advantage of that natural reaction. The body’s molecules will break down the microcapsule and release the drug exactly in the desired treatment area.”
As busy as Mercado-Montijo is with her work, she still finds time to give back to others around her – as both a mentor and a teacher.
“My favorite part of graduate school is my involvement with student mentorship,” said Mercado-Montijo. “Throughout my time as an undergrad, I was always active in educational outreach for all levels of students. It allowed me to organize fun, hands-on engineering activities with elementary school kids, stirring their curiosity for science which helped me develop the skills to explain advanced concepts, such as physics, to younger students. I also provided chemistry and math tutoring lessons to other undergrads under the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program, which helped me sharpen my teaching skills even more.”
The combination of community engagement and the tutoring made Mercado-Montijo realize the impact she could have as a spokeswoman for the scientific community and the benefit these types of outreach and support programs can have on student success.
Currently, Mercado-Montijo stays involved with the UF MSE community by serving as their representative in the Engineering Graduate Student Council and supporting incoming graduate students in their transition to graduate school.
“Working together with other student leaders and within the department has been refreshing,” said Mercado-Montijo. “I am one of the founders and current treasurer of a new student organization called the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Student Council, where I work with undergrads from other disciplines interested in nano-related research. I also serve as a mentor for senior undergraduates applying for graduate school through the Cientifico Latino Graduate Student Mentorship Initiative. Overall, being a mentor for undergraduate and incoming graduate students has been extremely rewarding and is one of the main reasons I want to become a professor in the future.”
Mercado-Montijo provides plenty of useful, first-hand knowledge to new grad students.
“I feel that the greatest challenge graduate students face is maintaining a work-life balance,” said Mercado-Montijo. “Plus, being so far away from family and friends can be particularly tough, especially for those out of their home country. My advice to the first-year grad student is don’t hesitate to reach out for help or advice from other graduate students and faculty members. Feel free to talk to professors from other departments, too. They are all experts in their field and can provide great insights or new approaches to your research. Plus, talking with them can also open avenues for collaboration, which can be key to your research progress. I have been working on my hydrogel project in a joint effort with Dr. Coray Colina’s computational research group from the chemistry department, and it has been essential in helping me further understand the structural dynamics of our hydrogel system.”
For someone once unsure what her future held, Jomary Mercado-Montijo now has a clear view of what comes next for her.
“In 10 years, I see myself as a UPRM faculty member,” said Mercado-Montijo. “I want to give back to minorities and first-generation STEM students by providing research opportunities and experience in my lab. Currently, UPRM only offers a master’s degree in MSE, but I want to build an undergraduate and a Ph.D. program there, as well. With my expertise in biomaterials and as a role model to my community, I want to design courses and spread my passion for materials science to my students while reciprocating the same support I received – all at my alma mater in Puerto Rico. In the meantime, I will continue mentoring undergraduate students in engineering and help them develop their professional interests. My biggest passions are educating young students and giving back to the community; I want to let them know about the resources out there to help them achieve their goals.”