Perseverance lands engineering student an internship at MIT

Garcia (middle) with MIT team.

Growing up in Havana, Cuba, Manuel Garcia dreamed of becoming an engineer. It wasn’t a far-fetched idea – both his parents are electrical engineers. As a child, his father taught him how to assemble computers from scratch, and also fix them. By the time he was 12 years old, he was helping his dad set up computers for companies. “At that time in Cuba, you could not buy a computer; no one had one, only companies.” Garcia had found his passion.

As he grew up, he started studying telecommunications and electronics in Cuba. “I used scrap pieces and boards – finding new pieces was impossible – to make my own school projects,” he said. He’d get the components from old radios and TVs, and whatever else he could find.

Garcia had big aspirations, a strong will and unwavering support from his family to follow through on his dreams. “I knew I couldn’t do anything with my degree in Cuba. I didn’t see a possibility for improvement,” he said. So, the family decided to head to the United States.

In preparation, Garcia took intensive classes for six months to learn English. And in September 2013 – at age 21 – he arrived in Miami with his mother and brother. Immediately, he looked for a job to help support himself and his family, but he never lost sight of his goal. He worked at a car wash while taking classes to be placed at a local college. When the manager refused to grant him time off to study for an important exam, he quit.

He found another job working as a valet. He would take English classes every day, from 6 to 9 p.m., and then he would head to work to park cars, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Garcia was determined to go to school and decided FIU was the place to do it. But first, he had to find a way to work while attending school.

A year shy of arriving from Cuba, he applied for a job as a custodial worker at FIU. His job – cleaning windows, bathrooms and hallways at FIU’s dorms, and also pressure cleaning and polishing marble.

He also applied for admission and got accepted. As a full-time employee, FIU paid for seven credits, so that’s what he took. At the end of his first semester, he learned about the Discovery Lab, which developed “Hutch,” a telebot that allows disabled police and military personnel to serve as patrol officers. There was no paid position available in the lab, but as a student, Garcia worked on the communication systems that control Hutch’s movement.

“Manny is an extraordinary student, an example to all of us,” said Jerry Miller, associate director, robotics & wireless research, and adjunct faculty in the School for Computing & Information Sciences. “When I first met Manny here at the Discovery Lab, he was racing in between classes, doing as much research work in a short amount of time as possible, and then heading out the door each night to get to his job in order to support his family.”

Eventually, Garcia was hired as a student researcher in the Discovery Lab. He was able to quit his job and focus on school. “The results were phenomenal. He became even more dedicated to his studies and research, and really demonstrated his genius,” said Miller.

This past summer, Garcia got the opportunity of a lifetime. He always dreamed of going to MIT so when a friend told him about a summer internship program, he applied. Out of 600 students who applied, 36 were accepted. Garcia was among them.

He spent 10 weeks at MIT, but not as a computer scientist. Instead, he was placed in mechanical engineering, where he worked in the Heat Transfer Department researching omniphobic surfaces, which describes materials that are able to repel most substances, from water and oil to other solvents. Again, Garcia had to rise to the occasion, taking online courses at MIT and reading everything he could about materials science and dynamics of fluids since it was not his subject area. In the end, the research was presented at a materials science conference, and the group he worked with is trying to publish a paper on their findings.

“Genius is one percent talent and 99 percent hard work, “said Garcia. “I try to focus – everything I do is to have a better future. It’s why I came here. I want a better job so I have time to focus on myself and my family.”

Next for Garcia is applying for U.S. citizenship in October. He’s currently a legal resident. He still hopes to go to MIT for grad school to study robotics and artificial intelligence.

“I love space, and want to focus on systems that take you there,” he said. He has a special interest in the space rover, specifically vision recognition so theses robots can identify more items on missions.