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Jorge Muñoz stands in the lobby of the Health Science Center at NAU

Pushing Boundaries

Jorge Muñoz, Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics at the Northern Arizona University (NAU), Flagstaff got his start at Pima.

by Kanika Samra, External Relations

Science is full of rules – formulae and theories – defined after rigorous experimentation. Occasionally, old affirmations are challenged paving the way for new discoveries. Just like the ideas and preconceived notions we tend to carry in our minds. This is true of Jorge Muñoz, Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics at the Northern Arizona University (NAU), Flagstaff.

Jorge Munoz smiling in his lab
Jorge Muñoz at the ¡MIRA! lab, N.A.U.
Image by Tanner Grammar,
External Relations

Originally from Puerto Rico, Jorge graduated from Canyon del Oro High School, Oro Valley and studied at Pima before pursuing his bachelors and masters at the University of Arizona (UA). He is expected to complete his doctorate at NAU in December 2023 with an offer to work for the Department of Defense starting January 2024. All of this began with an elective in Astronomy that he took on a whim. Little did he know then that it would change his way of thinking and shatter assumptions about his abilities and what he could achieve.

As a stubborn, musically inclined teen he did not envision one day joining the rarefied field of material science. Even as trust and engagement of Hispanic Americans with sciences is growing (PEW Research, 2022), few go on to complete doctorate degrees and fewer still in Physics (American Institute of Physics). This reality is not lost on Jorge. He works at the Center for Material Interfaces in Research and Applications, NAU or ¡MIRA! which in Spanish means ‘to look.’ As a researcher, Jorge is not just looking at material interfaces but continuously engaged in promoting opportunities for underrepresented minorities in science.

The seed for this long journey was planted at Pima rather tentatively. Jorge's father, the only college graduate in his generation of the family, and mother persisted in their push for higher education. He obliged but on his own terms, enrolling as a music major at Pima. Reflecting on this time, Jorge is glad his parents pushed him because he discovered STEM, especially physics and math, in Tony Nottke’s astronomy class. He was riveted by the subject matter and Nottke’s passion for the subject. So much so that he found himself asking Nottke how much math he would need to succeed. Nottke’s advice still resonates with Jorge who recollects, “it’s very much like climbing a ladder; doesn’t matter how many rungs there are. You keep going and once you’ve gotten to a certain place the ones before don’t seem daunting anymore.” While the switch to STEM was uncomfortable and challenging, Jorge remained stubborn as he often characterizes himself, and persevered.

Sometimes we might hear from people that STEM is hard, math is hard, physics is hard – don’t be afraid. It’s worth it.~ Jorge Muñoz

Pima was also able to offer more than just a path in STEM. College proved to be culturally enriching, equipped him with real world skills, and widened his horizons. The diverse student body made him feel welcome and he explored everything he could, from lessons in Italian to small engine maintenance, swim classes, music and excel. In 2008 Jorge began working with the Learning Centers that provide free tutoring to all students at Pima. Along with assisting other students, tutor trainings helped him enhance his study and time management skills. He continued working as a tutor and subject specialist while pursuing his bachelors and masters at UA. He finds mentoring immensely fulfilling and continues to do so remotely for another college.

Apart from institutional resources, Jorge believes faculty who recognized his potential and provided timely encouragement and support have been pivotal in shaping his career. Anthony Pitucco and Wayne Hacker supervised his independent study in physics and math, respectively. “It might have been enough without it, but it definitely made me competitive, and it made me realize that I could rise to the expectations,” he said.

Jorge Munoz looks over lab items
Image provided by Northern Arizona University

Jorge put himself in an uncomfortable spot when he broke out of his shell and switched from music to STEM. He credits his success to the stubbornness he inherited from his father and the nurturing environment Pima faculty and staff provided. His hope is that more students will pursue their ambitions and take paths, however unconventional, to find academic and professional success.

For any student, especially from a minority community, considering sciences he says, “Don’t let what others say about STEM or science in general stop you from trying. STEM – four letters that encompass very broad worlds where we can learn how to creatively apply ourselves and our experiences. And sometimes we might hear from people that stem is hard, math is hard, physics is hard – don’t be afraid. It’s worth it.”

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