Doctoral program a first for College of Engineering and Computer Science

  Tuesday, September 26, 2023
  Announcements, Around Campus

By Karen Villarreal

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – SEPT. 26, 2023 – The UTRGV College of Engineering and Computer Science launched its first Ph.D. program in Materials Science and Engineering at an inaugural reception held Sept. 17 at the Ballroom on the Edinburg Campus.  

University and Valley leaders along with officials from the National Science Foundation were in attendance to usher in the new doctoral program. 

“This is a momentous and historic event for our College and University,” said Dr. Ala R. Qubbaj, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science and director of the NSF Center for Equity in Engineering. “We’re excited for our future doctoral students, and the research they will pursue while attaining this educational milestone – right here in the Rio Grande Valley.”     

  • The first cohort of the UTRGV Ph.D. engineering program is comprised of nearly40 percent women – and the college as a whole is 20 percent Latina – while the nationwide Hispanic representation for Latinas in material science is 1.7 percent. 
  • The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPEnamed UTRGV its inaugural Academic Institution of the Yearfor 2023. 

UTRGV President Guy Bailey welcomed the 18 doctoral students and their families, as well as college faculty and community partners, including NSF representatives.   

“In eight years, we've accomplished a remarkable thing,” he said. “We are the highest ranked national university in Texas. This Ph.D. program – and the growth of engineering – is part of that.” 

He said the new Ph.D. will empower local students to develop new material technologies, start businesses, and be the high-skilled, research-based workforce that will attract companies to the region. 


Dr. Germano Iannacchionne, division director of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Materials Research (DMR), said the 18 students who launch this program are the “tip of the spear” of a problem-solving ecosystem. 

utrgv professor
Dr. Karen Lozano, doctoral director for the new Ph.D. program, presents at the inaugural reception held Sept. 17 at the Ballroom on the Edinburg Campus. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)

“You will be able to find solutions to things that are important to you – and share that information,” Iannacchionne said to the engineering students. 

There are country-wide infrastructure problems that require new materials, he said, which NSF has entrusted UTRGV to solve through grants awarded to research faculty and for the education of their students. 

“You’re going to be an engine for this community, making the products of the future,” he said.   

UTRGV Ph.D student Rodrigo Barrera III, 28, is fired up about being part of that engine. From his undergraduate days as president of The Herd student spirit group, to teaching math in La Grulla Middle School while researching sustainable electric batteries for his master’s program, he has been driven to inspire his fellow Rio Grande Valley natives to be the best they can be. 

“Teaching chooses you. And with a Ph.D., I feel like, ‘Why not me in that auditorium, teaching people?’” Barrera said. 

He looks towards advancing electrical car technologies, and hopes to be a professor at UTRGV someday to keep encouraging local students. 

“I can be a pioneer for academic success in this region. I was able to come back – from nothing to something, through adversity,” he said.  “It's time for us to solidify our foundation here, and make sure that these kids are encouraged so that they can continue.” 


Dr. Karen Lozano, doctoral director for the new Ph.D. program, said it will grow hand-in-hand with the opportunities for undergraduate students in the pipeline to the graduate world. 

Lozano, a National Academy of Inventors Fellow, said the research of the UTRGV College of Engineering and Computer Science has produced more than 300 peer-reviewed journal articles since 2000, more than 30 patents, and two companies.  

Many of the research activities are the result of the UTRGV Partnership for Research and Education in Materials Science (PREM) program, which was first funded by NSF in 2009.  

“Over 500 undergraduate students have participated in our materials science related research projects, and we have had a 100 percent retention and graduation rate,” Lozano said. “And 50 percent of our students have gone on to do a master’s or Ph.D.” 

Samantha Ramirez, a UTRGV lecturer and undergraduate program coordinator for mechanical engineering, said she enrolled in the new Ph.D. program to bring another layer to her teaching in the form of ­research experiences for her undergraduate students. 

“I love teaching. By incorporating students into my research projects, it’ll hopefully get them excited about engineering,” she said. “I was very fortunate to be involved in undergraduate research. I learned a lot in that process with my advisor, and I think a lot of students can benefit from that.” 

For more information, contact Dr. Karen Lozano at (956) 665-7020 or 


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.