Civil Engineering Student Andrea Coto Earns NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

SJSU student Andrea Coto presented work with SJSU AVP for Undergraduate Programs Thalia Anagnos at the Stanford Blume Center/SURI Affiliates/Alumni Meeting in fall 2018. Coto, '19 Civil Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to pursue a graduate degree at Stanford.

SJSU student Andrea Coto presented research with SJSU AVP for Undergraduate Education Thalia Anagnos at the Stanford Blume Center/SURI Affiliates/Alumni Meeting in fall 2018. Coto, ’19 Civil Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to pursue a graduate degree at Stanford.

By Abby McConnell, SJSU Office of Research

Despite her acceptance to graduate school at Stanford in the fall and an impressive undergraduate career, which boasts three associate degrees, internships with NASA and the Port of San Francisco, along with participation in the McNair Scholars Program, the Engineering Leadership Pathways Scholars Program (ELPS) and the Stanford Summer Undergraduate Research Programs (SURF), Andrea Coto is still a bit shocked that she was recently awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP). Securing a fellowship is intensely competitive: For the 2018 competition, NSF received over 12,000 applications and made 2,000 award offers.

Andrea Coto poses at a project at the Port of San Francisco in 2019.

Andrea Coto poses at a project at the Port of San Francisco in 2019.

The GRFP is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, and recognizes outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. NSF Fellows often become knowledge experts who contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

In the more immediate future, the fellowship will fund three years of Coto’s graduate program. While still processing the news, she is already mapping out the possibilities. Her NSF proposal and anticipated graduate research will focus on one of her passions: sustainable design and construction as it relates to extreme environments, specifically outer space.

“Space exploration is really a giant lab, right?” she said. “I want to bring that research back to earth.”

When asked how she’s achieved so much in such a short time, she shrugged and smiled. “I apply to programs I’m interested in,” she said. “I figure they have to pick someone, so why not me?’”

From El Salvador to the Mission District

Several years ago, Coto herself might have doubted this kind of self-assuredness. If not for a handful of key mentors, she said, she wouldn’t have made it this far.

Coto was born in the Bay Area, but much of her young life was spent in El Salvador, the native county of both her parents. After their separation and divorce, Coto’s mother was left to raise Coto and her brother on her own.

“My mom is the most resilient and resourceful person I have ever met,” Coto said. “She even learned to bake so she could sell bread to pay our bills.”

Although Coto earned a technical degree in civil engineering in El Salvador, upon graduation, there were no job opportunities. Soon afterward, relatives in San Francisco invited her to come live with them. Coincidently, she had saved just enough money for a flight to the Bay Area. She was hesitant to leave her family and her boyfriend behind, but she knew it was the only way.

Her early days here were challenging, from trying to learn conversational English to working at a Dollar Store in the Mission for $6 an hour. Things shifted when she started taking non-credit ESL classes at City College of San Francisco, and her English language skills were buoyed by her work in retail, which included selling shoes at Macy’s.

Andrea Coto, '19 Civil Engineering, participated in NASA's Community College Aerospace Scholars program while earning an associate's degree.

Andrea Coto, ’19 Civil Engineering, participated in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars program while earning an associate’s degree.

She eventually matriculated at the Ocean City College campus, where she met a key mentor, Dr. Edgar Torres. After a difficult semester juggling three jobs and failing Calculus II, she told Torres she was going to drop out.

“I told him I wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer,” she said. “He told me that wasn’t the problem, and that I should take the class again with a different professor. I did, and got a B+.”

Early mentors like Torres were invaluable to Coto, and she has consistently sought out female and Hispanic engineers, graduate students and professors as role models along the way.

“I don’t believe in the ‘you can’t see, you can’t be’ philosophy, but representation is incredibly important,” Coto said.

Finding a ‘Pathway’ at SJSU

Andrea Coto joined SJSU as a transfer student. Here she poses for a photo on Admitted Spartans Day after she accepted admissions to SJSU.

Andrea Coto joined SJSU as a transfer student. Here she poses for a photo on Admitted Spartans Day after she accepted admissions to SJSU.

Once at SJSU, she worked diligently to leverage the resources available to her. She also credits professors and administrators such as Dr. Laura Sullivan Green from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, McNair Scholars Director Dr. Maria Elena Cruz, and Engineering Leadership Pathway Scholars program founder Dr. Thalia Anagnos, for guiding her and showing her what was possible.

Anagnos created the ELPS program in partnership with the NSF, and it has provided scholarships, mentoring, leadership and career development to more than 70 low-income, academically talented students at SJSU.

While they have all been exceptional, Anagnos said Coto stands out. “From her first weeks at SJSU, she sought opportunities to both better herself and give back,” she said. “Andrea is a natural leader in all areas of her life—academic, professional and personal—but she also brings a genuine optimism to her every interaction.”

Even when discussing the recent death of her father, that optimism is evident. Coto learned he had terminal cancer in the midst of applying to graduate schools and the NSF program. As she toured places like MIT and Stanford, she sent him photos and videos so that he could share in the experience. She also returned to El Salvador several times last fall to visit him.

“Being there with him before he died healed a lot of things,” she said.

Looking Toward the Future

Despite this loss, she continues to move forward. Her mother, brother and her boyfriend (who is now her husband) were able to join her in the U.S. in 2013, and she views her accomplishments as collective achievements. “All that really matters is that we are together,” she said.

As graduation nears, Coto is focused on yet another goal: outreach. She wants underrepresented students like herself to hear her story and see where they can go, and in the process, hopefully shift negative narratives around Latino immigrants.

“Storytelling is powerful. I believe it’s the way we change lives and perspectives, especially in light of the current administration,” she said. “I want to fight the misconceptions about El Salvadorians and other immigrants from my own ‘trench’ in this way, in order to increase knowledge and understanding.”

Research Foundation Fuels Faculty and Student Discoveries

Whether one is a seasoned researcher or someone just launching a scholarly agenda, San José State University’s Research Foundation has long offered administrative support to faculty members and students as they pursue intellectual exploration.

“The Research Foundation is the bridge between us researchers and our sponsors,” said David Schuster, an associate professor of psychology, who has a grant through the National Science Foundation. “With my current work, I sleep well knowing that I can turn to the foundation to help me navigate new situations that come up in my funded research, especially ones they may have seen many times already.”

He added that early in his career, he appreciated resources to help with grant proposals.

“At times, the hardest part is keeping up to date with the current regulations and grant formatting requirements, and the foundation has a lot of expertise in this area,” he said. “Last, but not least, my post-award manager, Luann Chu, helps me to manage my research budget.”

Rajnesh Prasad, executive director of the Research Foundation

Rajnesh Prasad, executive director of the Research Foundation

SJSU’s Research Foundation is one of the oldest nonprofit corporations associated with the California State University system, founded in 1932 and known initially as the San José State College Corporation.

“As the campus organization that supports the SJSU research community, we continue to be inspired by the talent and passion evidenced by faculty, staff, and student endeavors,” said Rajnesh Prasad, executive director of the foundation and senior director of Sponsored Programs.

Key services include:

  • Actively seeking out funding opportunities for faculty research.
  • Partnering with investigators in all aspects of proposal development and submission.
  • Supporting investigators with the management of the administrative and financial details of their projects after they have been awarded a grant.

Like Schuster, Meteorology and Climate Science Professor Eugene Cordero is working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation and works closely with a Research Foundation analyst to manage his grant, noting that he “can’t imagine this grant going so well without post-award manager Diem Trang Vo — she’s amazing.”

“The Research Foundation plays a key role in helping support my scholarly research,” he said. “And because Meteorology and Climate Science is one of the most research-active departments on campus, I also appreciate the advice and support that the Research Foundation provides to me and my department colleagues. We all realize it’s really a team effort to bring cutting-edge research to our university and students.”

Laurie Drabble, a professor in the School of Social Work, connected with the Research Foundation early on in her career at SJSU through workshops and training sessions. More recently she receives support as a principal investigator on two grants, one with the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and one with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (both in collaboration with the Public Health Institute).

“One of the things I’ve found most useful is getting assistance with budget spreadsheets early on,” she said, of the pre-award phase. “It allows me to work out the grant concept in parallel with mapping out the budget and aligning resources.”

In some cases, Research Foundation services enable faculty to move the products of their work from the laboratory, classroom, and field into local, national, and international businesses and communities. This often results in initiatives that create strategically productive partnerships with Silicon Valley and its culture of creativity, diversity, and technology.

By the numbers for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018:

  • #2 out of 23 CSU campuses in terms of extramurally funded sponsored grants and contracts (San Diego State is first)
  • $1.1 million in indirect revenue and strategic investment into the campus community
  • 290 proposals valued at more than $94 million submitted
  • 244 awards valued at more than $54 million received
  • 300 grants and contracts under management annually
  • 433 students employed as research project employees or Central Office Staff
  • 176 faculty members engaged in sponsored grants or research projects managed by the Research Foundation

The Research Foundation will be hosting the Annual SJSU Celebration of Research on April 23, from 3 to 6 p.m., in the Diaz Compean Student Union Ballroom. Faculty and student researchers will be honored at the event and the 2019 Research Foundation Annual Report will be released there. For more information on services, resources, and to view previous annual reports, visit the Research Foundation website.