Syracuse University Magazine

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Erika Rodriguez

Taking Flight in the Research Lab

When Erika Rodriguez G’08 was in elementary school, she participated in a rocket-building program that captured her interest. Although the initial launch of her toy rocket wasn’t successful, the project unveiled what would become her true passion: aerospace engineering. “I haven’t stopped working since kindergarten,” jokes Rodriguez, a doctoral student in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science. 

Her comment is anything but a joke. Instead of testing toy rockets, Rodriguez is now developing a special polymer that has the potential to be used in making more durable surfaces and infrastructure for aircrafts. “Polymer is essentially a fancy word for plastics,” Rodriguez says. 

Rodriguez knew where she was heading on her career path while attending high school in Fresno, California. She enrolled in Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to study engineering science. After graduating, Rodriguez spent a year at aircraft manufacturer Pratt and Whitney as a design engineer before deciding to return to school for graduate work. “I wanted to do more hands-on work and use my engineering skills for more practical applications, instead of sitting behind a desk all day,” Rodriguez says.

While attending a seminar at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, she met Professor Patrick T. Mather, a polymers expert who now heads the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute (SBI) at SU. At the time, Mather was a CWRU faculty member who was in the process of joining Syracuse as the Milton and Ann Stevenson Professor of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering. “He invited me to join his research group in Syracuse,” Rodriguez says.

She accepted. Now in her fourth year with Mather’s group, Rodriguez has focused her time and energy on her research at SBI. Currently, she is working on the use of shape memory-assisted self-healing polymers—materials capable of returning to their original shapes after being damaged—for the aeronautics industry. Aircraft are typically made out of metallic surfaces that are subject to corrosion when exposed to extreme temperatures during flight. When surface damage occurs, repair costs can be substantial—upwards of millions of dollars, Rodriguez says. In hopes of preventing such damage, Rodriguez is developing a polymer that is durable in a variety of temperatures and may reduce corrosion. “The idea is to coat the surface of the aircraft with this polymer, so it serves as a protecting agent to minimize the degree of corrosion,” she says. 

To test the material, Rodriguez makes a tiny razor blade cut in the polymer, which looks like a paperclip-sized piece of dried glue. Then she exposes it to extremely cold and hot temperatures. These tests give Rodriguez an idea of what types of conditions the polymer can withstand and still maintain its shape or return to its original form after being damaged. Until she gets the desired results, she may modify the polymer’s molecular structure.

As a skilled researcher, Rodriguez is a role model in the department for her younger female colleagues. “I try to be a resource,” she says. “Engineering is a very male-dominated field. But as a woman, you get so much attention as far as internships go and there are so many resources available to you.” 

In a typical week, Rodriguez and her fellow researchers can put in 40 to 50 hours of work.  But she has also managed to learn the importance of taking time out for herself. In her spare time, she enjoys Latin and ballroom dancing, a passion she has had since childhood. “Aerospace engineering is a full-time job,” she says. “We’re always running labs 24/7. And you have to be passionate about your research because you can get burnt out so fast.”   —Sierra Jiminez

 

Photo by Susan Kahn