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Solving big problems with small solutions


When it comes to career choices, student Jonathan Spencer Martinez is thinking small – as in nanotechnology.

By Dan Vaccaro

Jonathan Spencer Martinez wants to make a big difference by working on a very small scale.

The third-year student at Metropolitan State University of Denver has his eyes on a career in nanotechnology. In other words, he spends a lot of time looking into microscopes.

Nanotechnology is the study and application of extremely small things, often accomplished through the manipulation of atoms and molecules. The science is relatively young but already making an impact in many fields. In health, for example, nanoparticles have been used to find tumors and carry drugs for treatment.

“The potential of nanotechnology to change lives is extraordinary,” Martinez says. “The future looks very promising.”

Until recently, Martinez’s own future wasn’t exactly clear.

He’d excelled at math throughout his schooling. And he knew he wanted to help people. But he wasn’t sure how he could combine those twin passions into a single career. On top of that, he had made two forays into higher education with limited success.

Then he discovered nanotechnology.

With a clear goal in sight, he took on a double major in chemistry and mechanical engineering technology, and a minor in engineering mathematics. He also works full-time as a machinist to pay his way through school.

Martinez is vice president of MSU Denver’s Humanitarian Engineering Club, a group that aims to use engineering to benefit disadvantaged communities. He was one of 10 students who traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, last summer to put humanitarian engineering into practice.

At an elementary school in the mountain village of Atemajac de Brizuela, the team designed a rain-catching system and storage container to help with water conservation. They also built raised-bed gardens using 1-liter soda bottles collected in the village. The gardens are used to teach children to grow produce, which can be a potential source of income for families.

Martinez was so inspired by the experience, he and three classmates went back during spring break. This time, they built and installed a space heater made from aluminum cans. The cans are spray-painted black to absorb sunlight, and a small fan spreads the collected hot air into a home for an entire night.

“Only 10 percent of people in the world benefit from all of the incredible advances we’ve made in engineering,” he says. “We need to figure out how to change that.”

It’s that spirit of service that animates Martinez’s work in the sciences. His immediate goal is to gain the skills he needs to excel in his career. After graduation in 2020, he hopes to become a nanotechnology engineer and score his dream job at the National Institute of Science and Technology. NIST is one of the pioneering organizations in the field. Ultimately, Martinez would like to own a company.

“We can fix big problems if we take our ideas and scale them down so they are usable for real people,” he says. “I’d like my work to help people have better lives.”

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