Roberto Prado-Rivera loves learning, and pushing the boundaries of current scientific knowledge is what drives his research. “Some might call it ‘innate curiosity’, but that is too rigid of a description,” Roberto says. “I truly do enjoy learning about new topics, especially those related to physics and mathematics. It’s fun!”
He hopes that pushing boundaries will one day enable him to put his research to use in the solar energy field. NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) is helping make that goal possible. In 2020, Roberto received a fellowship through the program, which is designed to support research in advancements in space exploration and increase minority STEM opportunities.
Roberto, a doctoral student in Mechanical Engineering, was born and raised in Miami, but his family is originally from Nicaragua. He attended Florida State University for his undergraduate degree. He is still deciding what his plans will be after he completes his doctoral program, but he wants to continue working on projects related to his current interests in nanomaterials, as well as branch out into other areas of scientific computing.
Roberto found out about the NASA fellowship from his advisor, Dr. Daniela Radu, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and the director of the NASA Center for Research and Education in 2D Optoelectronics, or CRE2DO, at FIU. CRE2DO aims to create technologies that integrate 2D materials into space-resilient materials, communication devices, and small satellite technology. 2D materials are ultrathin nanomaterials that have a sheet-like structure and can be as thin as a single atom and as thick as a few atoms. Nanomaterials can be used to improve the reliability of mechanical and electrical components in spaceship devices and wearable electronics. CRE2DO’s goal is to create superconductor materials that eliminate the need for battery power. The center is also focused on creating material composites that could be used for spaceship components for future Mars missions and for wearable electronics that would enable high-speed communication between astronauts and the space station.
Dr. Radu provided valuable guidance to Roberto as he prepared his application, and the NSF Bridge to Doctorate Fellowship that helped fund his first two years of graduate study provided several resources in applying for fellowships. However, Roberto says that practice was what helped him the most in applying for the NASA fellowship.
“This was not the first proposal-style application I have written, so I was able to use my past experiences (and mistakes!) to help me write a good application,” he says. “Over time, you will see how your application writing improves after the first couple that you do.”
Roberto says that fellowships provide three main benefits to students: funding their education, providing access to resources (such as labs, computing clusters, and experts in the student’s field), and accolades than can help on future applications. He says the most important thing to take note of when applying is the language of the fellowship.
“In other words, what is it that the judges at NSF, GEM, Fulbright, etc. want to hear?” Roberto asks. “It may come as a surprise to many, but every application is written differently even if the proposal for all of them is the same. Some are more focused on impacts to society, others ask for scientific merit, and even a few are looking for solutions to very specific problems. You want to write towards these focuses, but you have to figure out which one is needed for that application.”
Having a detailed research plan is also important. “By this I mean you should be able to write down the objectives you are setting out to accomplish and the tasks required to complete those objectives clearly and logically,” Roberto says. “A thorough research plan is much more enticing than one that sounds half-baked and incomplete, and the judges will be able to tell.”
One last tip from Roberto is to be specific and concise on the application. He advises that the person reading it should be able to answer key questions within a few minutes.
“What is it that you are proposing to do?” Roberto asks. “Why is what you are researching important? How will this be accomplished? What preliminary results, if any, are available? And what results are expected? The judges have to shuffle through hundreds of applications; do not make their job harder than it already is.”