As part of the Science Journeys lecture series—designed to inspire scientific curiosity, especially among students in eighth grade and higher—graduate student Fernando Villafuerte discussed his path to Caltech and his research on batteries, including their role in sustainability solutions.
Before joining the Institute, Villafuerte studied German and international relations at Cornell University. After several years of work in the nonprofit legal sector, he returned to college and completed a second bachelor's degree, this time in physics. Now pursuing a PhD in materials science, Villafuerte works in the lab of Julia R. Greer, Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering; and Fletcher Jones Foundation Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute. His research focuses on a novel material known as a solid polymer electrolyte, which could potentially be used to create batteries that can store more energy than currently possible.
Outside of research, Villafuerte tutors Pasadena high school students through the Caltech Y's RISE program. Highlights from his Science Journeys presentation are below. The full presentation is available for free thanks to support from the Friends of Beckman Auditorium.
What motivated you to study batteries?
I believe it's a very socially relevant thing to study, namely as it pertains to dealing with things like climate change or enabling renewable energy technologies. When we speak about renewable energy, we generally think of things like wind and solar energy. The challenge with actually enabling a transition to these technologies has to do with the fact that they are intermittent sources of energy, which means that they don't produce energy consistently throughout the day. Moreover, they don't necessarily produce this energy when we need it the most. We need to think about ways of storing this energy and using it at times when we actually need it.
You've said that your parents played an important role in your science journey. Would you share how your childhood experiences shaped the scientist you are today?
My dad is from Peru, my mom from the Dominican Republic. My parents weren't able to achieve the same level of education as I was for lack of opportunity. That being said, they still came to value education and intellectual inquiry. In the case of my father, his father dabbled in a number of things from archeology to astronomy. My father admired him greatly and passed on that admiration to me and my siblings. In the case of my mother, she became an avid reader at an early age, and that was an escape for her. Moreover, in her childhood, she had a lot of latitude to explore the local forest and countryside. That contributed heavily to her creativity and her curiosity, which she passed on to me as well.
What led you to Caltech and materials science?
After high school, I went to Cornell, where I got my first bachelor's degree in German and international relations. From there, I wanted to pursue a career that was intellectually satisfying but also had some social impact, so I did a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer at a social service agency in Astoria, Queens, where I led ESL classes as well as a seminar series for local high schoolers on the college admissions process. I then spent a number of years working as a paralegal for a nonprofit appellate defense firm in New York.
But, even though I valued the social impact of the work I did, I didn't find it intellectually stimulating to the degree that I had hoped. I started thinking about these larger-scale social problems—climate change and the like—and began to realize that the people who are really tackling this are working in science and engineering. At that point I decided, well, I think I'd like to go back to school and pivot my career and try to do something that could help. So, I went back to school, this time to Hunter College, and studied physics. From there, I was able to get an internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and that's what ultimately led me to Caltech, where I study batteries in the group of Julia Greer.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
It's never too late to start something new. I studied something completely different from what I'm doing now. If you find something worthwhile that you want to do, by all means, go ahead and do that. This life is too short to waste time regretting or thinking about what-ifs.