Lozano featured in national report highlighting immigrant patent holders
By Jennifer Berghom, Public Affairs Representative
Posted: 06/29/2012
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Dr. Karen Lozano, the Julia Beecherl Endowed professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Texas-Pan American, has become sort of a celebrity throughout the Rio Grande Valley and the science and technology world ever since she and colleagues developed a more efficient way to create nanofibers.

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Dr. Karen Lozano, the Julia Beecherl Endowed professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Texas-Pan American, was featured in the Partnership for a New American Economy's report, "Patent Pending: How Immigrants Are Reinventing The American Economy," which highlights the value foreign-born graduates bring to the U.S. economy.

Numerous articles have been written about her and her colleagues' invention of ForceSpinning™ and last month she spoke about her research to The University of Texas System Board of Regents.

Now the native of Monterrey, Mexico will be known to a larger audience.

Lozano is one of several foreign-born faculty and research staff members from colleges and universities across the United States featured in a report released by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group of more than 450 Republican, Democratic and Independent mayors and business leaders who support immigration reforms that will help create jobs for Americans.

The report, "Patent Pending: How Immigrants Are Reinventing The American Economy," highlights the value foreign-born graduates bring to the U.S. economy and shows that 76 percent of patents from the country's top patent-generating universities in 2011 had a foreign-born inventor.

Lozano, who earned her master's and doctoral degrees from Rice University and began teaching at UT Pan American in 2000, said she was honored to be featured in the report.

"I'm glad because ... when publications like this occur, you get a chance to impact more people and tell them that it is possible, that anybody can do it," Lozano said. "It's not easy, but you can do it. There are opportunities and you have to take advantage of them. It's not a matter of luck, it's a matter of climbing the stairs; you climb the ladder, you get there. Of course it's painful and tiring, sometimes frustrating, but the more that you fail and the more that you step down and then come up, the more that you learn and the better you become."

Lozano does not take all the credit, however. She said her colleagues and students are equally responsible for the success of the commercialization of her invention and the creation of FibeRio Technology Corp.

"There's a wonderful circle of people who helped for this to get national attention," she said. "There are a lot of people doing wonderful things. I think because of these people we're surrounded by is why we're getting all this attention."

Lozano's rise to success involved much hard work and proving to herself and others that women can prevail in STEM-related careers.

The professor said she's always had an interest in science and math, and when she was in high school an aptitude test she took revealed her strengths were in industrial design, architecture and mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineering piqued her interest the most, because of the opportunity to create and innovate and understand how to do something.

"It's not just the manner of managing what is already there, but the opportunity to learn a little bit about the unknown and how you can make that unknown be useful for society," she said. "It's like a game, it's like a puzzle, you just keep on learning and trying to put the pieces together until it works."

Despite her talent in science and math, Lozano was a bit hesitant to pursue engineering at first because it was perceived to be a career exclusively for males. Her family, however, convinced her to ignore stereotypes and go after her dreams.

"My mom told me when I was discussing with her, 'Why do you have to do what people say you have to do? Is this written somewhere? You might as well study what you like.' There were times when I was the only woman in the class," Lozano said.

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UTPA's Julia Beecherl Endowed Professor of mechanical engineering Dr. Karen Lozano, right, works with a student on producing nanofibers using technology she invented.

After earning her undergraduate degree from the Universidad de Monterrey, Lozano moved to the United States to study at Rice University. When she earned her doctorate in 1999, she was the fifth woman to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 25 years and the first woman from Mexico to earn such a degree from Rice.

Lozano continued to pioneer through her career in the STEM fields when she was hired in 2000 as a faculty member at UTPA. She was the first woman, and for several years afterward, the only female faculty member in the mechanical engineering program.

"I used to feel very intimidated, and I guess it's normal," Lozano said. "I think I said somewhere that for a man you're a good engineer just because you're a man. If you're a man, it's just assumed that you're a good engineer. But if you're a woman, you have to prove that you're a good engineer."

Lozano said she felt she had to prove herself to her new employer and colleagues, so she continued doing what she does best, work hard, and began researching nanotechnology.

And prove her abilities, she did. Lozano and fellow mechanical engineering faculty member Dr. Kamalaksha Sarkar, invented a more efficient way to produce nanofibers.

Their invention led to the creation of UTPA's first startup company FibeRio and garnered the University two grants from the UT System's Texas Ignition Fund and a $1.5 million Commercialization Award from The Texas Emerging Technology Fund. It also provided employment opportunities for Rio Grande Valley residents and UTPA graduates.

FibeRio was born from the faculty members' ForceSpinning™ technology in 2009 and now has about two dozen employees, with hopes of growing its workforce to 250 people within the next five years.

Lozano admits she hadn't realized the impact she has made on the region until the Partnership for a New American Economy's report came out. Throughout these years, Lozano focused on working hard to solve problems rather than seeing herself as a trailblazer and innovator.

"I remember one uncle who once told me, 'You're not realizing the importance of what you're doing.' And I guess he was right, I was so busy when I was a student trying to graduate as soon as I could. I never felt that I was doing something special," she said. "So now, still after doing all that ... and working with the students and all this that has happened with FibeRio, I still don't believe it so much."

"I look back and what I can see is a lot of hard work. I can see it because that is what I've always done. It hasn't been easy at all, and (there have been) a lot of sleepless nights. I'm very proud that I've been able to work for it, that I earned it."