Outstanding Islander Graduate Kimberly Lopez Earns Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Growing up in a small town in the Rio Grande Valley, Kimberly Lopez ’22, a mechanical engineering technology (ENTC) major at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, dreamed of working with her hands just like her father did. Along the way, Lopez broke down barriers and took inspiration from the community she served to become the Fall 2022 Outstanding Islander Graduate for the College of Engineering. The honor is sponsored by the TAMU-CC Office of the Provost.

“Growing up, my future always seemed predetermined based on my gender,” Lopez said. “My parents immigrated to the United States to provide a better life for my brother and me, but it was expected that I would only become a housewife. According to the traditional Mexican rules of my family, women are to clean, raise kids, and serve their husbands.”

As a child, Lopez, a first-generation student, enjoyed accompanying her father to work repairing air conditioning units. In those moments with her dad, she developed a passion for understanding how machines work. 

“My desire to learn more about hands-on work was stronger than my family’s expectations, so I attended an early college to get my mechanical engineering associate’s degree,” she said.

While in high school, Lopez also worked in retail and was a volunteer firefighter/EMT. It was through the latter role that she witnessed the medical challenges people in underserved communities managed daily. Through this experience, Lopez realized that she could have a greater impact by earning a bachelor’s degree. She then set her sights on TAMU-CC, where she would pursue a ENTC degree in hopes of creating affordable medical devices to increase the quality of life for low-income patients.

“Here at TAMU-CC, I’ve been given every opportunity to learn and advance my knowledge, whether in the male-dominated field or outside my major,” Lopez said.

During her time at TAMU-CC, Lopez worked as a research assistant in the labs of Dr. Jose Baca and Dr. Jian Sheng. In Baca’s lab, Lopez gained hands-on experience in Unmanned Autonomous Systems and in human motion analysis. Under Baca’s direction, she also developed new modular technologies that can enhance astronauts’ health and performance in long-duration space missions and assisted in the creation of STEM outreach activities for K-12 students to inspire future engineers. Under Sheng, Lopez is working to develop a new cancer detection system by analyzing circulating tumor cells and has been able to apply her engineering and mathematical knowledge in ways she never imagined. The mentorship of Baca and Sheng also helped guide Lopez in her involvement with the Luis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). In addition, she found mentorship with Ronald Carson, TAMU-CC engineering faculty, and Jack Esparza, engineering lab coordinator.

“I am a quiet student. I like to stand back and observe,” Lopez said. “But after working with Dr. Baca and Jack Esparza, I slowly started speaking up more. Dr. Baca is always encouraging me to share my ideas and to get more involved. I now speak up more in group projects, share my ideas, and even take the lead.”

Baca met Lopez on her first day at A&M-Corpus Christi, and he quickly identified her as a student with a bright future.

“Lopez has demonstrated a high intellect in solving different challenges, a strong work ethic, and shown tremendous skills and motivation in pursuing a career in STEM,” Baca said. “I’m incredibly proud of all her achievements, and I’m sure she will go far.”

In the summer of 2021, Lopez hit a roadblock. Although she had two jobs at the time, there was not enough money to pay for classes, and she started traveling two hours away to work as an EMT to make ends meet. Her grades took a hit, and she decided that she would drop out of school. But just when she thought her dreams were over, she received a glimmer of hope.

“Dr. Sheng reached out to me with good news about our research. Then, Dr. Baca emailed me to congratulate me for getting into the LSAMP program, which came with a stipend I could use to pay for rent,” she said. “At the start of the semester, I met Jack, who taught me how to weld, and Mr. Carlson, who assured me his door was always open if I ever needed help. Before long, I knew I was not going anywhere. Since then, I have been able to pass my classes with no problem, accomplished a lot in research, and did a summer research internship at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory in Maryland.”

Just this fall, Lopez led a team of engineering students to a first-place victory at the NASA Texas Space Grant Consortium Design Challenge. Their design would provide modular, reconfigurable lighting solutions for spacecraft habitats beyond low-earth orbit.

Lopez plans to enroll in the marine biology doctorate program at TAMU-CC and continue her cancer research with Sheng. Her ultimate goal is to earn a doctorate degree and continue research on human diseases to develop affordable medical devices.

“Before starting school here at TAMU-CC, I knew what I wanted to do, but I did not know how to get started,” Lopez said. “Now I know those farfetched dreams I had when I was a kid are attainable. I just have to keep working hard towards them.”