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University of Texas engineering professor making breakthroughs in science

Lydia Contreras, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas's Cockrell School of Engineering, is making strides in her field.

AUSTIN — Hispanic Heritage Month is from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 and KVUE is showcasing outstanding Hispanic men and women making strides in their fields.

KVUE spoke with Lydia Contreras, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas’s Cockrell School of Engineering.


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"I think the main driver of my inspiration is challenges,” said Contreras.

She has won a distinguished alumni award from Cornell University. She has also won a young investigator award from the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, among several other awards.

She now researches how human cells react to the environment.

Her work on ribonucleic acid will be published soon in the “Nature Communications” academic journal.

"I'm hoping that our research brings more solutions to how to protect our health,” said Contreras.

She was born in the Dominican Republic, but she grew up in New York.

Contreras said the road here has not been easy, but works to inspire her students.

“I always admire her that she's really organized,” said second-year grad student Matsuri Rojano. “She's really good at keeping the lab going and making sure we're all not getting stuck."

According the United States Department of Commerce, women make up only 24 percent of STEM careers. The number is even smaller for women of color.

Contreras said when faced with failure she sometimes takes it personal.

"I think the problem I see with a lot of students, and I face that myself, to a large degree at times, is that we fail and we take it personal,” she said.

She said sometimes failure has very little to do with you.

"Sometimes failing that exam or feeling like you're not good at math is more a reflection of who's teaching you, or how they're teaching you,” Contreras said.

Contreras advises women to find an encouraging community, motivate yourself and embrace your differences.

"I think that those barriers of differences, if you really think about them, they're really minimal in relationship to the big, deep things that a human being brings,” said Contreras.

Contreras coordinates summer and volunteer programs for grade school students with a passion for engineering.

Visit her website here to learn more about how you can get involved or email her email at lcontrer@che.utexas.edu. You can also follow her lab on Twitter at @Contreras_Lab.