From boats to brains

Jordan Escarcega applies mechanical engineering to study brain deformation, biomaterials with an eye on cutting-edge tech

Shawn Ballard 

Would you rather spend months at sea out on the Pacific Ocean or uncover the fine details of brain deformation in a state-of-the-art lab in St. Louis? Jordan Escarcega has resoundingly chosen option two. 

Growing up in Costa Mesa, California, a city in Orange County just south of Los Angeles, Escarcega always loved hands-on problem solving. He was also good at science and math. That led him to study mechanical engineering at California State University Maritime Academy, where he planned to prepare for a career in the maritime industry, likely with military applications.

But, like all the best stories, Escarcega’s took an unexpected turn. He realized during a training cruise where he had to spend two months at sea in his first year at Cal Maritime that building big boats for the U.S. Navy wasn’t for him, so he started exploring other options. That search brought him to Philip Bayly’s lab at Washington University in St. Louis through the university’s summer engineering fellowship program, WUSEF.

This May, Escarcega will graduate with a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from the McKelvey School of Engineering. Below, he shares highlights from his journey, his accomplishments and who has helped him along the way.

Your educational journey was more complex than you envisioned when you first started college. What decision or opportunity had the biggest impact on getting you where you are now?

The WUSEF program was the fulcrum point where everything shifted for me. Coming to WashU to do research as an undergraduate was a big change. I had the freedom to explore, investigate and conduct research that put what I’d learned in theory to use on real-life problems. That’s also what propelled me to want to go to graduate school. I’m a first-generation college student, so before WUSEF, I didn’t know what a PhD entailed; I just thought it was more school.

What are you most proud to have accomplished as a graduate student, and how do those accomplishments prepare you for what’s next?

My biggest accomplishment as a graduate student was earning a diversity fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. It took a lot of work, but it allowed me to keep doing my research and also freed up financial resources to allow other people to join the lab. My other big achievements are my publications. Being published as the first author on a paper in a scientific journal is a big deal for me because I'm like, “There's my name. I did that.” It’s amazing that I can look myself up and see all the work I've done.

After graduation, I’ll be doing postdoctoral research continuing my work in biomechanics, though not necessarily brain deformation. Right now, I’m interested in the heart and in cardiovascular tissue, but there are lots of fascinating biomaterials. Traditional materials perform in well-known ways, but biomaterials are soft and can behave more interestingly and more unpredictably. There’s a lot of new technology being developed, for example, in bioprinting, or 3D printing biomaterials, so I have more to explore before I find my niche.

Earning a doctorate is a massive challenge, and one best not undertaken alone. Who have been your most important supporters on your way to achieving this goal?

My lab group and my mentors, Dr. Bayly and Dr. Okamoto, are my greatest supporters. Dr. Bayly is always there to provide support and a useful research framework while giving me space to explore. Dr. Okamoto is the kind of researcher I want to be. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and she has this amazing ability to critique ideas down into the details to help inspire better research.

What advice do you have for incoming graduate students?

Take advantage of lab rotation opportunities at beginning of your doctoral studies. Look around at the broad spectrum of work you can do and start early to figure out what you want out of your PhD program. Starting with a goal in mind – especially regarding your career aspirations – will help you get the most out of your time in graduate school and position you to achieve your larger goals.

Also take advantage of being part of the St. Louis community. Forest Park and everything in it is amazing, and we’ve got a great food scene, one of the best I’ve ever experienced.

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