Winning an award can always be an emotional moment for a student, but for University of Houston senior Jose “Javi” Solano, being picked as a 2021 Goldwater Scholar especially resonated.
“The Goldwater Scholarship is the most prestigious undergraduate STEM scholarship in the nation, and I couldn’t have been more humbled to receive it. However, this award means much more than that to me,” he said. “It is the greatest, and sadly last, award my father was present for me to receive. He recently passed away due to complications with cancer, but I am proud to know that he was aware that I had worked in his name to receive this award.”
The Barry Goldwater Scholarship Awards are designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. The Goldwater Scholarship is considered one of the preeminent undergraduate awards of its type, with only 410 students picked this year from an applicant pool of more than 5,000.
Growing up with his father Javier Sr., mother Karen and brother Gabriel, Solano graduated from the Woodlands College Park High School, and his initial interest in UH came from its proximity to home. However, after attending several open houses at the Cullen College of Engineering, he was more motivated to join what he called “a diverse community of researchers,” majoring in Mechanical Engineering.
He identified several members of the faculty as supporting his work, and being responsible for his success.
“I believe I excelled here because I was taken in early by two professors in the First Year Experience program, Dr. Jerrod Henderson and Dr. Dan Burleson,” he said. “In high school I had enjoyed STEM subjects, but never pushed myself to excel. When I started taking my early engineering courses, Dr. Henderson began teaching me different learning strategies, and the one that has stuck with me most is simply reading the textbook!”
Solano said Burleson was responsible for his first research opportunities at UH.
“He mentored me through my first engineering research opportunity – the HERE program at the University of Houston – and has since served as my boss for a course I serve as TA for,” Solano said. “He was the mentor that introduced me to engineering research.”
Solano said he couldn't imagine being in the position he is now without the influence of either.
“Without each of them I definitely wouldn’t be the academic I am today,” he said. “Coming into college, I had a lot on my plate, and I believe that the wrong influences would’ve instead pushed me to ignore my responsibilities. Dr. J and Dr. B taught me how to deal with these responsibilities through my studies.”
When applying for the Goldwater Scholarship, Solano noted that Ben Rayder, Ph.D., the Honors College Director of Scholarships & Major Awards, assisted him thoroughly and worked as tirelessly for him.
“We have worked together only two times, during the summer of 2017 and during my application for the Goldwater scholarship,” Solano said. “However, he has been the biggest supporter of my research career at UH. I also want to mention a few other faculty – Dr. Matthew Zelisko, Dr. Cunjiang Yu and Dr. Roberto Ballarini. My experiences with them range from working in Dr. Yu’s lab, to a simple one-time discussion about engineering literature with Dr. Ballarini. Being a previous student of all of them, their teaching styles continued to inspire me to push through the challenging courses.”
Going forward, Solano hopes to pursue his own doctorate degree, and to continue doing research this summer. He expects to graduate in December 2021.
“The last two summers, I have worked in the lab of Dr. Michael Sangid in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University,” he said. “I plan to pursue my masters and PhD. under his supervision come Spring 2022.”