Envision Alumni Edition Fall 2018
Samuel Perez, a Passion for Learning and Giving Back
By Gabrielle Pata
Samuel Perez, retired military veteran, received his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida in May, 2018. He has used the skills he learned during his 21 years and three months in the military to succeed in his pursuit of higher education.
Perez joined the military in 1988, and waited 11 months to get into basic training in 1989. He arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic after graduating from high school in 1988, immediately knew he wanted to join the military, and talked to recruiters about joining the U.S. Air Force.
"I heard they offered money for school so you could get a good education; I also wanted to serve the country I was coming into right away," Perez said. "Joining the military helped me as an immigrant trying to transition and integrate into American society more easily. I had a unique opportunity to make a contribution while continuing my education in a way that otherwise might never have been possible."
From a young age, Perez took an interest in science, technology and math. He read scientific encyclopedia sets, watched science documentaries and followed NASA. He decided to attend Instituto Politecnico Loyola high school in the Dominican Republic where students trained in four different areas of technology.
"It was a five-year high school program where you come out with two years of college credits," he explains. "It was rigorous and prepared me for continuing my education in electrical engineering in the U.S., where I felt I would have a better shot at higher quality education."
Perez completed his bachelor's and master's degrees while in the military. He received his bachelor's degree in computer engineering from the University of Nebraska while based at Offutt Air Force Base (AFB) in Omaha. There, he was a clinical instructor for students who joined the military as medical assistants, while doubling as a college student taking one or two courses at a time.
"After that, I applied to MacDill AFB in Tampa, because I knew the University of South Florida was nearby with strong masters and PhD programs in the College of Engineering," Perez said.
He arrived in Tampa in June 2004 and started school at USF in August 2004 and. received his master's degree in 2010, which he describes as a pivotal year in his life.
"Three things happened within the span of a few months during 2010: I graduated with my master's degree, I retired from the military, and I was accepted into the PhD program at USF," he says.
When it came time for his PhD research, dissertation and defense, Perez chose to focus on a biomedical topic as his area of study, as he wanted to translate the medical training received in the military into his research. Working with his advisor, Dr. Sylvia Thomas, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, he miniaturized and integrated a notched turbine small enough to be inserted into the human body to harvest energy for patients who require it. It is unlike other battery-powered implantable medical devices currently used for the same purpose. "Our research could potentially revolutionize the manufacture and use of implantable medical devices by reducing the cost burden to healthcare providers, the insurance industry, and patients," says Perez. "It might eventually help reduce the risk of repeated surgeries to patients who have been implanted with these life-saving devices."
As a component of his PhD program and encouraged by his advisor, he participated in the NSF I-Corps program, which provides entrepreneurial training for graduate students. According to Perez, "it was an eye-opening experience unlike any other, because the program [I-Corps] forces you to connect with real-world experts in the field to investigate how your research fit in the industry."
Perez attributes his academic success partly to his own drive and determination, but also to the USAF. He says the Air Force incentivizes people to go to school, by funding it and providing encouragement. Perez was grateful that the military also gave him the opportunity to share his passion for education with fellow military members.
"I became a tutor for airmen that struggled in chemistry, math, physics and science, so I got to help other airmen also achieve their educational goals," he says. "This gave me even more passion for my education because each time I attained a higher level of training and education, I was also able to help others achieve higher goals and objectives."
He also says the military instilled in him a skill set and mindset that helped him complete his PhD. It helped give him focus and helped him understand that there is an optimal process to everything you do.
"Military processes are very structured; my service taught me how to develop a plan so that everything you pursue has a purpose, plan of action and goal that is iterated for continuous improvement," Perez says. "I also learned the value of being flexible and adaptable to meet the unexpected, regardless of any chaos going on around you."
He took what he learned and applied it within his research group, the Advanced Materials Bio and Integration (AMBIR) laboratory under Dr. Thomas. He joined her lab because working alone on his PhD did not feel right after being in the military where he worked in groups and trained younger military students. He uses the same philosophy and motivating attitude refined in the military to mentor graduate students and undergraduates in the lab. According to Perez, "I could've been isolated myself working on the research, but the military really prepared me for pursuing goals as a team."
Perez describes balancing family and education as the biggest challenge. He is grateful for the support of his wife and daughters. Throughout his military career and doctoral program, he made it a priority to maintain the strong family bond he has developed not only at home, but also at his local church Templo La Hermosa in Valrico, where he is also a family counselor and personal coach.
Now that he has earned a PhD, Perez has ideas in mind for what he would like to pursue going forward. He is considering staying in academia to teach including at a community college, university or joining a governmental agency.
"I would love to give back to the military, government and society by helping veterans obtain their education and prepare them to enter the STEM workforce," he says. "I feel like I owe it to our country for all those years of support, training and preparation."
Perez was able to earn his degree with financial support from the military tuition assistance, the GI Bill, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Minority Ph.D. Program at USF, and the Department of Electrical Engineering where he served as a TA. He is grateful for his research advisor Sylvia Thomas, his dissertation committee, Bernard Batson, director of Diversity Programs within the College, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and most importantly, the support of his family, and the grace of God in his life. He thanks his wife, Dorka, and daughters, Shania and Chenella, for their endless encouragement, love and support.
"I have definitely learned throughout the years that it takes a village to accomplish great things – you can't do it alone," Perez says.