Crossing Science Borders


By Ioana Patringenaru

Olivia Graeve, Revelle ’95, has spent a fair bit of her life going back-and-forth between Tijuana and San Diego. Today, the UC San Diego materials science professor strives to bring the two cities together in everything she does—from leading-edge research, to student outreach. Indeed, Graeve is both a world-renowned expert in the field of ceramics and an expert in bringing more under-represented students to the field of engineering.

Graeve was born in Tijuana, where she grew up as the oldest of five children. Her father left the family when she was just six years old, and her mother worked two jobs to put all of her children through college. Graeve studied at Southwestern College in San Diego County for two years before transferring to UC San Diego, where she earned a bachelor’s in structural engineering.

Last year, she came back home to UC San Diego, as an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and brought with her a world-class research lab of more than 20 people and several outreach programs.

This July, Graeve was inducted into the Tijuana Walk of Fame—a recognition of her scientific endeavors and her cross-border outreach efforts. The organization honors artists, professional athletes, musicians, poets, writers, business owners and researchers who were born in Tijuana and whose trajectories have put them in the spotlight on the national and international stage. Graeve was nominated by Tijuana radio and TV newscaster Pablo Barragan Marquez, a family friend. She credits her mother for her successful career.

Graeve (left) working in the lab with Rocio Peña, Marshall ’14. Graeve’s research focuses on discovering unique ways to manufacture new materials, mostly ceramics, for a wide range of applications, from energy storage, to turbine manufacturing for jet engines, and monitoring structural damage.

“I think my mother always taught me to try and fix problems when I saw them,” she says. “It’s about making a contribution to the world in a small way.” Graeve’s drive to “fix” problems started young. While studying at UC San Diego, she commuted from Tijuana, but still showed up at 7 a.m. every day to work in the lab of Joanna McKittrick, a professor of mechanical engineering. She appointed herself a de facto lab manager, reorganized the lab and motivated the other undergraduates to follow her directions. Both McKittrick and Jan Talbot, a professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego, mentored Graeve as an undergraduate, and remember her as an outstanding student and a woman mature beyond her years.

When she graduated in 1995 she had nine publications to her name. “I had never seen an undergraduate student excel this way,” McKittrick says. After UC San Diego, Graeve went on to earn a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at UC Davis in 2001. She then joined the faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno and later at Alfred University, a ceramics research powerhouse in upstate New York.

Her research focuses on discovering unique ways to manufacture new materials, mostly ceramics, for a wide range of applications, from energy storage, to turbine manufacturing for jet engines, to monitoring structural damage.

Graeve’s research is unique in that she has a remarkable handle on the basic chemistry and physics of the particles she’s trying to create, says Talbot, who currently serves as an associate dean at the Jacobs School of Engineering. “She has an idea of the way they should look and she makes it happen.” says Talbot.

For example, this spring, a research team headed by Graeve created new ceramic materials that could be used to store hydrogen safely and efficiently. Storing hydrogen has become increasingly important as hydrogen fuel cells gain popularity in industry and elsewhere. But hydrogen, the lightest element on the periodic table, is difficult to store. It tends to diffuse through the walls of pressurized tanks. It also needs to be compressed in order to occupy manageable amounts of space when stored.

For the first time, Graeve’s team created compounds made from mixtures of calcium hexaboride, strontium and barium hexaboride. They also demonstrated that the compounds could be manufactured using a simple, low-cost manufacturing method known as combustion synthesis. The manufacturing process for the ceramics is faster and simpler than traditional methods.

Graeve also works closely with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, especially with its Ensenada campus. Her team is developing materials to sense damage to structures. The new materials could warn when tell-tale micro-cracks are developing, well in advance of structural failure. It is a technology particularly useful for bridges as well as buildings.

Graeve (above) creates new ceramic materials, one of which could be used to store hydrogen safely and efficiently.

Throughout her career, Graeve has fostered collaborations between the United States and Mexico, and especially between San Diego and Tijuana. As soon as she returned to UC San Diego as a professor, she set out to foster cross-border collaborations at the high school level. She brought five girls from Tijuana, who went to Colegio La Paz—the high school she attended—to UC San Diego for seven weeks during summer 2013. The girls worked in the labs of nanoengineering professor Shirley Meng, chemistry professor Rommie Amaro and of course Graeve. At the end of the seven weeks, the girls presented their work to their families and friends during a small symposium.

Explaining her outreach Graeve says that being one of the few women, and few Hispanics, in a male-dominated field was not easy. “When you’re the only one, you become a representative for your community,” she says. “My hope is that this program will eventually lead Mexican students in Tijuana to consider UC San Diego for both their graduate and undergraduate education.”

This spring, Brianna Fernandez, who worked in Amaro’s lab, was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Inamori Foundation, which also sponsors the Kyoto Prize, to help finance her undergraduate education. She plans to study environmental engineering.

“This program was an amazing opportunity to me,” Fernandez wrote in an email. “It helped me grow as a student and as a person in so many ways. It helped me define my future career in science and, most important of all, it gave me the motivation I needed to keep working on my studies to reach my goals.”

Graeve plans to expand the program to 16 or 20 girls, half of them from Tijuana on the Mexican side of the border and half from San Ysidro on the U.S. side. The high school students work in labs to develop their engineering skills, and learn how the scientific process works. They also learn cross-cultural collaboration, working in pairs, with one student from each side of the border. Graeve expects more low-income students to take part in the program this year, especially for those coming from San Ysidro. “We hope to foster friendships across the border,” she says.

Graeve also inspired UC San Diego undergraduates, especially members of the campus’ chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, says Rocio Peña, the group’s outgoing president. “She told us: ‘I want to mentor you; I want to talk to you about your goals,’” says Peña, a chemical engineering major.

Students are now more comfortable approaching other professors, says Peña, who is now conducting research in the Graeve’s lab. She is working on the fabrication of special fluids infused with metal or ceramic particles at the nanoscale.

The Diversity Pipeline

Graeve has been acutely aware of the lack of Hispanic faculty members in engineering for a long time. Many years ago, she set out to compile a list of all of them. She found 400 colleagues—a good number. But she then noticed that only 10 percent of them were born and raised here—products of the American educational system.

To encourage Hispanic American students to apply to graduate school and then faculty jobs, she helped start the Graduate Institute for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. The program’s goal is to educate students about what they need to do to succeed in graduate school and how to apply for faculty positions. “The main obstacle was the lack of mentors,” Graeve says. The Graduate Institute seeks to remedy this by connecting students with faculty mentors and developing a network of Hispanic engineering faculty members that can serve as mentors for one another and help one another advance. It has generated several success stories.

“Olivia is deeply committed and passionate about offering new experiences and opportunities to students from all walks of life,” says Amaro, the chemistry professor who worked with Graeve on the summer outreach program for high school students. “She wants to give back and do so on both sides of the border.”

Ioana Patringenaru is a public information officer at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.