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symposium participants
Student Benjamin Rodriguez (center) with alumni Sarit Kapur (left)
and Ron Blumoff

UTSA Impact: UTSA Opens Doors, Part I -- Benjamin Rodriguez

By Cindy Brockwell
Special Projects Writer

(Sept. 9, 2008)--El Paso native Benjamin Rodriguez is the youngest of eight siblings. The graduate student in the UTSA College of Engineering once came close to dropping out of college to join the ministry. He would have missed a tremendous opportunity to travel this summer to the Canary Islands, where he visited with Nobel laureates from around the globe.

Rodriguez presented a research poster at a prestigious international conference in June. The Campus de Excelencia brings together many of the world's brightest young students. They present their research to world leaders in the scientific, political, economic and business communities.

For a student who had never been outside of the United States, a trip to an island off the coast of Africa was a real adventure. Rodriguez calls the experience eye opening, life changing and a door opened because of UTSA.

During the daily "Corner of Those Who Are and Those Who Are Going to Be," Rodriguez chatted informally with scientists and world leaders at the event.

"I was able to have dessert with Nobel prize winners. I was exposed to culture and intellect that I could receive nowhere else," he said. "I met people who spoke four to eight different languages, which completely shook my paradigm."

He connected with people from Spain, Chile, Brazil, Canada, Kenya, South Africa and other countries. "I became aware of how easily we Americans can become near-sighted and how important it is to network with other parts of the world," Rodriguez said.

He felt honored to be part of the UTSA engineering team. Others attending from UTSA were Julius Gribou, executive vice provost; Mauli Agrawal, dean of the College of Engineering and holder of the Peter Flawn Endowed Professorship in Biomedical Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Cory Hallam, director of the UTSA Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship; and William Flannery, associate professor of information systems in the College of Business and director of the management of technology program.

UTSA offered two posters and an oral presentation. Rodriguez' poster described the engineering of a solar-powered, portable medicine and vaccine refrigerator he developed with fellow students Jeremy Mercer and Todd Hartley. Their portable refrigerator could be used to transport medications "the last mile" into remote villages. According to Agrawal, half of the vaccines going to remote locations are ruined once they leave refrigerated trucks.

Rodriguez skipped his senior year in high school and attended the University of Houston on a music scholarship (he plays the trombone). But he dropped out after his first semester when he realized he did not have the maturity to succeed in college.

He moved to San Antonio several years later. He worked full-time and attended San Antonio College at night, during lunch hours and online. After five years of part-time college, he transferred to UTSA in spring 2006.

Rodriguez' grades dropped dramatically, however, when his mother suffered a severe heart attack. She was comatose for nearly a month. That's when he seriously considered the ministry over a future in mechanical engineering, but that didn't happen.

"God has blessed me with an understanding of math, physics, engineering and computer programming," he said. "I want to put those talents to use in a practical and powerful way." Rodriguez talks frequently and openly of his faith.

He was a computer geek as a kid before PCs and the Internet. "I find myself constantly looking for new ways to utilize the computer to improve solutions," he said. It makes sense, then, that he has a graduate research assistantship with the Computational Bioengineering and Nanotechnology Laboratory.

A UT System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) internship with UT El Paso's electrical engineering department in the summer of 2005 provided his introduction to graduate-level research.

Rodriguez continues work on a project begun during his final semester as an undergraduate. This research stems from previous work done by his adviser, Yusheng Feng, UTSA associate professor of mechanical engineering. Rodriguez hopes to create a computer simulation of a cancer treatment procedure specifically targeted at liver cancer.

Rodriguez believes that his time at UTSA is building character. He has learned to persevere and to pursue excellence... and to walk through the doors that open for him.

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