Hard work and a willingness to take chances: graduating senior Álvaro Sahagun’s success story

Álvaro Sahagun

For senior Álvaro Sahagun, the final semester at UIC has been filled with a unique challenge: choosing from among the seven electrical engineering doctoral programs that accepted him. The University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Berkeley all made offers to Sahagun.

Last month, Sahagun said yes to MIT. He’s received an MIT Alfred P. Sloan Scholarship, GEM PhD Engineering Fellowship, and an MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Departmental Fellowship, which combined will fully support him for five years of study, including housing, health insurance, and more.

“That helped sway my decision,” said Sahagun, who was originally torn between Berkeley and MIT.

Sahagun plans to study electrical engineering generally, but his main focus is nanotechnology, and the electrical and optical property of two-dimensional materials. This is a continuation of the work Sahagun started as an undergraduate here at UIC.

Sahagun said Vahe Caliskan, clinical associate professor, planted the seed of pursing an advanced degree during his first semester in UIC’s Honors College. Caliskan served as Sahagun’s advisor at the time.

“At this point, I was thinking maybe a master’s degree. It wasn’t until I conducted research as part of UIC’s Guaranteed Paid Internship Program that I thought of pursuing a PhD,” Sahagun said.

Sahagun had been interviewing with an electronics company his freshman year when he was contacted by UIC’s ECE Department to say he had been placed for a summer internship with Associate Professor Igor Paprotny, in Paprotny’s Micromechatronic Systems Laboratory (MSL).

“My brother was doing research in chemistry [at UIC] and said, ‘what do you have to lose?’ That’s been a running theme for me now: what do you have to lose,” Sahagun said.

It turned out Sahagun really, really liked research.

One of the first projects Sahagun worked on was related to Paprotny’s Microscale Aerial Robots, or MicroFliers. The thin devices levitate using thermal gradients, rising as heat expands. One day, MicroFliers may be used in applications include pollution testing, and Sahagun was working to develop methane sensors to attach to the MicroFliers to facilitate this work.

“Dr. Paprotny instilled in me the idea not to do traditional work, but to be on the forefront, work on what you’ll see in the future,” Sahagun said. “Its’ exciting to go into a place that hasn’t necessarily been explored. Maybe I won’t be the first, but I can do my little piece and it will be exciting.”

After the Guaranteed Paid Internship Program ended, Sahagun expressed interest in continuing research, and was able to stay on in the MSL. The following summer and fall semester, with Paprotny’s guidance and encouragement, Sahagun worked at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory as an undergraduate research associate. He learned laser writing, etching, and became a qualified user of their clean room—all things that set him up for the rest of his undergraduate research career.

Sahagun spent the summer of 2018 at the Microsystems Technology Laboratories at MIT, as a research intern. His work at MIT was similar to some of the research he had conducted at UIC over the years; a field emission project. The idea was to create a low power device which could be used for portable x-rays by first responders, or perhaps to aid production in factories, to ensure parts are assembled correctly and aren’t missing components.

Last summer, Sahagun worked as a research intern at the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University. It was his first experience working in photonics. He used a 3D printer and created wave guides out of polymers to reflect light and to connect the microscopic components.

“When I arrived, a lot of the simulation work had been done to figure out the best shape for this wave guide, so there was reduced noise or transmission loss when light traverses through,” Sahagun said. “My work was to do a lot of the trial and error runs. How much power, scan speed, write speed, once I’d print something I’d look at it under microscope. So, that’s what I did, the beginning processes of fabrication.”

He also took advantage of being close to MIT, and visited his former colleagues at the Microsystems Technology Labs several times per week, staying up to date on their work.

This spring, Sahagun traveled with fellow student Aaron Schreyer-Miller to the Marvell Nanofabrication Laboratory at University of California, Berkeley, where the duo fabricated field emitters and electrodes for some of Paprotny’s MicroFliers.

In addition to his accomplishments in the lab, Sahagun has been active on campus at UIC. He reestablished the dormant Eta Kappa Nu Iota Lambda Honor Society, and served as its president, a chapter that inducted 45 new members during his tenure. He co-founded the UIC chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, and served as its vice president. He’s a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the Honors College Advisory Board.

Ironically, Sahagun hadn’t even planned on attending college in the first place.

Sahagun, from Chicago Heights, had a brother studying medicine at UIC, and knew the financial burden it would place on his family to have two children in school at the same time. But his friends were all applying to college, he had a fee waiver to take the ACT and one to apply to UIC, and decided to go for it. The only problem? He didn’t know what to study.

Fortunately, in his sophomore year at Bloom High School, Sahagun and his classmates were given an assignment to write a paper and do a presentation on a career, and he randomly chose electrical engineering.

“I literally pulled the career out of a hat,” Sahagun said. “I had to write an essay for the UIC application, I was like, what do I do now? So, I wrote about that.”

Sahagun received scholarships to attend UIC, including the President’s Award Program Honors Scholars Program.

“I wasn’t the best student in high school, but being here gave me motivation. I felt like, someone believes in me and gave me this funding,” Sahagun said. “What do I have to lose?”

When he arrived on campus and learned more about electrical engineering, he knew it was what he wanted to pursue.

After his doctoral program, Sahagun said he’s not sure if he wants to go into industry, or teach. For now, he’s excited to see where the research takes him, and is grateful for where UIC has gotten him.

“Dr. Paprotny, Dr. Caliskan, Dr. Jim Kosmach, and Dr. Timothy Murphy, all had a positive impact on my undergraduate and professional career, and I cannot imagine going through my time at UIC without their support and guidance. I feel very lucky,” Sahagun said.