Originally from Central Mexico, Professor Joaquín Rodríguez-López grew up in Monterrey, the third-largest city in Mexico, famous for its industrial centers and mountains. He attended Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of the most prestigious institutions in Mexico, widely known for innovation and engineering. Even though Monterrey Tec had a relatively small chemistry program, López said that he was always lucky to be surrounded by inspiring mentors.
During college, he was intrigued by electrochemistry, which allowed him to perform complex chemical reactions by using instruments and connecting wires. Currently an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his inspirational journey from Monterrey to Urbana symbolizes the American Dream at its core.
When asked how he decided to attend graduate school in the United States, López grinned and responded, "Well… I initially wanted to go to Europe for graduate studies. I did not know how the U.S. graduate school application system worked, and I was worried about how I could afford my education."
After his undergraduate mentor Professor Marcelo Videa encouraged him, López reflected upon a book from his future Ph.D. advisor and was convinced. With one and a half weeks remaining to prepare for the GRE, he only applied to the University of Texas Austin, where he obtained his Ph.D. under the guidance of Professor Allen J. Bard, who is considered the "father of modern electrochemistry." Because of lack of experimental resources in Mexico, he felt like a kid in a candy store in the Bard lab. His graduate school experience was culturally not too much of a shock because his research group was diverse, with colleagues spanning different continents.
López's first real experience of cultural shock came from education, not from his daily life. "Adjusting to the undergraduate teaching system in the U.S. was a bit of a struggle at the beginning, but I eventually adapted by interacting with undergraduate students in my research group," said López.
Another area where he initially faced challenges in his academic career was writing, and the only solution to that problem was through "writing and reading intensively."
Lopez has the following advice for current international students. "Once you decide to leave your home country, you leave your family and support system there, so you must work hard to get far. As a graduate student, I used to send money back to my family. I even had financial difficulty in Ithaca as a post-doctoral scholar. However, my resourcefulness and struggles helped me make the best out of any given opportunity. Nothing is easy: make a plan, follow and adapt it, but never forget your roots while also understanding where you are."
Because he took the leap of faith when leaving Mexico, it was all worth it at the end, as he is currently pursuing his "dream job." Giving a big smile at the end of the interview, he adds: "In addition to the top-notch research environment, Urbana-Champaign also has a perfect balance of both Chinese and Mexican food, which is critical as my family is multi-cultural."