From sandblasting to nanoscience, one graduate’s journey from San Jac to Duke

09.26.2018 | By Jeannie Peng Mansyur

PASADENA, Texas – Less than 10 years ago, Dr. Christopher Reyes was a painter and sandblaster. Today, he’s a Duke University graduate working to inspire others to take a chance on themselves.

Reyes started his journey in Corpus Christi, where he once tried classes at a university but didn’t really know what he wanted to study. This decision led him to Houston to work in the craft trades, but without an associate degree, he realized his chances of moving up in the industry were slim. Reyes searched for a college that would offer both mentorship and a personable environment, and that led him to San Jacinto College.

“It was a tough first semester; I took a rigorous load in the STEM courses that included physics, organic chemistry and computer programming,” said Reyes. “I really had the goal of becoming an electrical engineer, and my San Jac professors Dr. Chris Wild and Sharon Sledge were very supportive in this.” 

His professors not only taught him the subjects needed for his transfer goals, they also encouraged the reluctant college student to apply for a number of opportunities- those that would eventually open the door to Duke University. Reyes founded the College’s first astronomy club and co-founded a math and engineering club. He also applied and was accepted to the Rice University summer undergraduate research program and to the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which provides scholarships for minority students that works to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. 

“I remember Chris being very reluctant at first to apply for the LSAMP scholarship; he didn’t believe he could get it,” said Dr. Chris Wild, department chair of physical sciences at San Jacinto College. “Boy, did he prove himself wrong. I just knew he had a great chance of receiving that scholarship and that he’d be perfect for the program because he had the drive to learn.”

The LSAMP scholarship not only funded his studies at San Jacinto College but also his transfer education at Texas State University, where he received his next big opportunity, a summer internship at Duke University. 

“It was at Duke University that summer where I decided that I wanted to study chemistry and to teach in a classroom one day,” said Reyes. Having already obtained many credits in mathematics, he earned his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics with a minor in chemistry. Reyes and his wife, Zava, then packed their bags and moved to North Carolina to spend the next four years as he studied for a Ph.D. in chemistry at Duke University. 

Doors continued to open for the young Ph.D. candidate. Keeping his San Jacinto College professors’ encouragement in mind, Reyes applied for and received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship, a merit-based grant that requires recommendations, research and personal statements. Reyes would receive two more fellowships during his time at Duke.

He also mentored two undergraduate students, published seven research papers, competed in the Duke Startup Challenge business competition and completed a nanoscience certificate program. His dissertation topic for his Ph.D. was “nanowires as conductive filler for lithium ion batteries.” 

Throughout his eight-year journey from community college transfer student to Ph.D. graduate, Reyes never forgot where he came from and is now on a mission to encourage others to pursue their own educational paths.

“I remember my mother, who was a single mom, would push me in school, and she always stressed the importance of education,” said Reyes, who was the first man in his family to earn a college degree. “Being a Mexican-American from a lower income neighborhood in Corpus Christi, I want others to know it is possible to get to where you want to go, but you must take the opportunities presented to you.” 

Wild said Reyes’ story is just one of the many examples of how research opportunities at community colleges pays off. San Jacinto College held its first district-wide undergraduate research symposium this year and has sent many students on summer research internships to institutions that include Iowa University, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine.

“Chris is an example of how undergraduate research on the community college level can get you to places like Duke University,” said Wild. “Undergraduate research at community colleges is still a pretty rare concept, but we’re looking to change that. Students are here to receive great instruction and save money on their courses; we hope they can also experience the chance to conduct their own research that will take them to the next level.”

About San Jacinto College 

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has served the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, since 1961. The College is fiscally sound, holding bond ratings of AA and Aa2 by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. San Jacinto College is a 2019 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence Top 10 institution, a 2017 Aspen Prize Rising Star Award recipient and an Achieving the Dream Leader College. The College serves approximately 45,000 credit and non-credit students annually, and offers eight areas of study that puts students on a path to transfer to four-year institutions or enter the workforce. San Jacinto College’s impact on the region totals $1.3 billion in added income, which supports 13,044 jobs.

For more information about San Jacinto College call 281-998-6150, visit sanjac.edu or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.