Maria Bambrick-Santoyo ’19 Brings Her Unique Perspective to Applied Physics

Maria Bambrick-Santoyo ’19 stands beside a large spectrometer — one of the primary characterization techniques used to map the trajectory of electrons in her research material.

Maria Bambrick-Santoyo ’19 left Oak Knoll with a lifetime love of learning and empowered with a sense of adventure and a willingness to explore. Oak Knoll had nurtured her love of science and math, and one of her favorite classes was physics, so she felt confident in enrolling in a first-year engineering class at Yale that would ultimately solidify her career ambitions.

“When I enrolled in my freshman year at Yale, I didn’t know what engineering was. Yet within weeks, I was on a team charged with creating a vibration mitigation device to protect Egyptian coffins at the Met that had started to chip, powder, and crack. The Center for Engineering Innovation & Design at Yale quickly became my home, and I learned the foundations of design and basic skills in the machine shop. Three years later, we see the fruit of our work, and the devices are presently installed at the museum.”

Her subsequent pursuit of a degree in Applied Physics has also involved discovering a love of research through work in various labs. For her senior project, she worked on synthesis and characterization of high-temperature superconductors in crystal form. This project is part of an attempt to understand what might help or harm superconductivity — which would bring the world one step closer to applications like fusion energy and improved electricity transmission.

While her interest in physics was still developing at Oak Knoll, she credits the school for creating a fertile atmosphere for intellectual curiosity and growth.

“I’ve always felt an excitement around school,” said Bambrick-Santoyo. “It’s always been something I enjoy. At Oak Knoll, I felt so much support. Being in an all-girls environment was liberating and made it very normal for me to try anything and feel free to explore many different interests.”

After flourishing in an all-girls environment, she entered Yale with the confidence to pursue any study area — even those stereotypically associated with men. Finding success in applied physics has made her an even greater advocate for representation among women and Latinas. Bambrick-Santoyo was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and an American father and moved to New Jersey at a very young age.

“Only 2.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics and engineering are awarded to Latina women,” she related. “My degree will be one of them. But from this challenge has also emerged an opportunity to pave the path for those who will come after me. That led me to serve as co-president of Yale’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) last year.”

Bambrick-Santoyo re-energized the Yale chapter of SWE after it had struggled during the pandemic. The re-invigorated chapter hosted over 30 annual events, ranging from career panels to study breaks. The chapter also started a mentorship program.

“I wanted it to be a group where women felt they could share encouragement and advice,” she explained. “It’s been meaningful to see a community of female engineers building at Yale. Diversity in science is really important to me, even beyond the identities that I hold. When you have a team of people from different backgrounds, I think more creative ideas come up, and people feel more welcome. I’m passionate about making science more welcoming.”

The Society of Women Engineers recently recognized her volunteer work at the Yale Chapter with the SWE’s Silver Mission Award, which “strives to recognize SWE groups that embody the national organization’s core values and demonstrate continuous improvement and growth as they work to achieve the Society’s strategic goals.” 

 Looking to the future, Bambrick-Santoyo aims to pursue a Ph.D. at the intersection of physics and materials engineering, where she hopes to fuse fundamental physics research with device applications to address the climate crisis and advance energy transmission. “As I prepare for this next step, I do so equipped with the persistence, creativity, and compassion I gained along each step of the way,” she remarked.

Some tend to see science and religion as opposite ends of the spectrum. As a scientist and a devout Catholic, Bambrick-Santoyo is passionate about the compatibility between the two.

“I feel most connected to God when I am in the lab,” she explained. “I think it’s such a beautiful opportunity to observe and explore His creation.” 

She shared one example when she first saw a microscopic image of individual atoms. “I just looked at them lined up so perfectly and thought, ‘How could that happen? How is it that at so many times magnification, there’s all this order that allows wood to be wood and metal to be metal? How could anything but God have created that order? That’s not accidental. The awe and wonder of exploration and creation is how I see the connection between religion and science.”

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