Meet Carlos Figueroa: NCE’s Top Student

Carlos Figueroa pictured in the chemical engineering design lab.

Carlos Figueroa will graduate from NJIT in May with a perfect grade point average. And what’s more impressive is that he’s graduating in just three years – not the usual four.  That’s because he arrived here as a freshman with a year’s worth of advanced-placement credits.       

Carlos will also graduate with two of the university’s highest honors. Newark College of Engineering (NCE) at NJIT recently named him its Outstanding Senior of the Year.  Each year the college gives the award to a senior with exceptional academic and leadership qualities.  He was also named NCE’s Outstanding Senior in his major: chemical engineering.

NCE has a reputation for turning first-generation American college students into first-rate thinkers and scholars.  And Carlos is a perfect example of that.  He was born in El Salvador, but his parents immigrated to America when he was a baby.  His father, Carlos Figueroa Sr., worked for a Salvadoran human rights group and saw first-hand how dangerous the country had become, with an estimated 75,000 residents killed in the country’s long-lasting civil war.  

“We left El Salvador because of the war,” Figueroa Sr. said recently.  “It was unsafe and Carlos was just a baby. We visited a relative in the U.S. and decided to stay.  Since we came here alone it made our family especially close and my wife and I were always interested in our sons’ (Carlos has a younger brother) educations. We are very proud of Carlos and we appreciate all that NJIT has done for him. We think NJIT is a great school.”

In America, the family settled in South Orange and Carlos attended Columbia High School, in Maplewood, graduating either first or second in his senior class (the school doesn’t rank students but gives percentages and Carlos and one other senior constituted the top one percent of the class).

And as a result of his successes at NJIT, Carlos received a full scholarship from Princeton University, where in the fall of 2009 he’ll begin a Ph.D in chemical engineering. He’s the second NJIT chemical engineering graduate in two years to be accepted at Princeton.  Diya Abdeljabbbar, who graduated in 2007, is also doing his doctorate in chemical engineering at Princeton.  In this interview, Carlos talks about his background, chemical engineering, his research interests as well as his future plans. 

Why did you major in chemical engineering?
In high school I liked chemistry. And when I was child I always played with Legos, inventing designs.  That showed I liked building and engineering. I majored in chemical engineering because it mixed chemistry and engineering, the two things I liked. I picked chemical engineering over chemistry because engineering is an applied science. Engineers find practical uses for science -- uses that can improve a product or a production process. That’s why I wanted to be an engineer.  

You did so well here. What motivates you academically? Your father said leaving El Salvador and coming alone to America made your family close.
I’m not sure exactly why I did well academically.  My parents did encourage me, but they didn’t push me. We are definitely a really close family and perhaps they did instill in me the need to study hard. But I wanted to do well at NJIT and finish in three years because I want to start working in research as soon as I can.  I want to see if I can make a contribution to science.

What do your parents do now?
My father works at Novartis. He deals with animal welfare, making sure that the company’s tests on animals meet all regulations and laws.  My mother stays home and helped raise my brother and me.  Both my parents went to college – my father for law and my mother for business

Last summer you did an internship at Merck, where you worked on a research project. Can you talk that?
I worked on a research project trying to figure out if it’s feasible to apply excipients (inactive ingredients such as fillers or drug stabilizers) to active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) before drying them. The drug industry typically uses excipients in drug formulations, once the API is in its final form.  We wanted to see if adding certain excipients before the formulation steps would prevent APIs from granulating, which would allow for an easier manufacturing process.  I also did a summer internship in 2007 at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, but there I worked on clinical trials, not research.

What kind of chemical engineering research will you do at Princeton and after you graduate?
I want to apply sound engineering techniques to pharmaceutical manufacturing. As a chemical engineer, I won’t develop new drugs, but I hope to help develop better ways to manufacture drugs. If a company can manufacture drugs more efficiently, they can make them more cheaply. That means sick people who need the drugs but can’t ordinarily afford will be able to buy them. That’s the kind of research I hope to do at Princeton as well as after I get my doctorate.  It would make me feel good to help sick or poor people get the drugs they need to get better.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)