Vicksburg, Miss. -- (Aug. 16, 2019) When Dr. Edith Martinez-Guerra, a research environmental engineer with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center's Environmental Laboratory, attended the Great Minds in STEM Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award Conference (HENAAC) last year, she never dreamed she'd be receiving an award in 2019.
"It feels great, I'm honored," she said. "It feels like ⸺ 'why me'? It's a national award! The competition is very tough." Martinez was selected to receive the Department of Defense Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Military Hero Award.
Meanwhile, Henry Diaz-Alvarez, a research civil engineer with the ERDC's Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, will receive the HENAAC Outstanding Technical Achievement Award. "It is a huge honor to be able to represent Puerto Rico. As a young engineer, to be selected is amazing," he said.
"We compete with people from federal agencies, private companies, all Hispanic people in STEM in the country," Martinez said. "A committee decides who is selected."
The awards will be presented to Martinez and Diaz at this year's HENAAC, September 25-28, in Orlando, Florida.
Since beginning work at ERDC in 2008, Diaz has conducted research into the structural assessment of bridges and concrete dams, with emphasis on developing new techniques for monitoring structures in real time. "My projects help protect lives and equipment during maneuvers by identifying stable and unstable structures," he said.
After meeting Dr. Mihan McKenna, a senior scientific technical manager (geophysics) at GSL, Diaz was challenged to work on a new method of measuring structural stability using infrasound.
"Diaz provided his structural expertise to develop techniques for remote persistent monitoring of the global health of bridges based on observations of the fundamental resonant modes of the structure at non-line-of-sight distances using low frequency acoustics," McKenna said.
The technologies and methods Diaz delivered were soon used in civilian applications.
"Mr. Diaz's continued interest in advanced structural design led him to become an integral team member who developed an all-thermoplastic composite bridge made of waste plastic and automotive bumper scraps, which includes a novel I-beam design," wrote McKenna in his award nomination letter.
Diaz received his Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez in 2005. While employed at ERDC, the GSL employee completed a Master of Engineering in civil engineering at UPRM in 2011.
Reflecting on where his career really began, he recalled a junior high school math teacher, Nelson Lopez, who noticed that one student's performance far exceeded that of his classmates. "Lopez challenged me, and I accepted ⸺ reluctantly at first ⸺ to take accelerated math courses the following year," Diaz said.
Since joining ERDC in 2016, Martinez has worked on several projects; most are related to water and wastewater treatment, mainly supporting the DOD.
"The STEM military hero award is a DOD award, but it's presented as part of the HENAAC. Lt. Gen. Semonite will present it during the National Defense Award Dinner," she said.
"One of the most high-profile projects I've worked on was the investigation, design, development and demonstration of the Deployable Decontamination Effluent Treatment System," she said, referring to the mobile water treatment system used for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear contaminants.
"The DETS is a trailer-mounted system ideal for deployment to transient wastewater streams. The system employs ion exchange for water softening; sand filtration, granular activated carbon for bleach, surfactants, oils and greases and reverse osmosis for treating chemical and radiological agents. The DETS was successfully tested in 2017, in a simulated decontamination demonstration that treated wash water from both vehicles and personnel."
Martinez is also currently collaborating with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command on the reduction of water leaks in DOD installations, and she is contributing to the research on the stabilization of explosives in contaminated soils.
She earned a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Arkansas State University in 2012, and a Master of Science and a PhD from Mississippi State University in civil engineering-environmental in 2013 and 2016, respectively.
Jared Johnson, acting chief of the Environmental Engineering Branch, nominated Martinez for this award, and McKenna played a role in nominating her as well. "I've been involved with the mentorship program for two years, and as my mentor she wrote one of the four letters of recommendation for the nomination package," Martinez said.
McKenna wrote: "I have been impressed by Edith's approach to research in environmental engineering. She has a knack for elegant solutions that may not be immediately apparent and develops solutions to contamination and remediation problems that can actually be implemented by real people in the real world, moving the science from the realm of academics to users."
"When I went to the HENAAC last year, I thought to myself, 'Hopefully, one day I'll get an award, and when I do, I would like to dedicate it to my brother,'" Martinez said. "My little brother, Rafael, has shown interest in the STEM field, and he would like to become an engineer."