Get to know our members: Yvonne Diaz, salsa fiend and polymer whiz kid

Get to know our members: Yvonne Diaz, salsa fiend and polymer whiz kid

Yvonne J. Diaz, salsa fiend and polymer whiz kid.

While the beautiful Santa Barbara weather is a crucial player in the allure of UCSB, the people are its truly distinguishing attribute.  I had the chance to get to know Yvonne Diaz, a 2nd year graduate student in the Chemistry/Biochemistry and Materials Departments, the 2016 Advertising Chair for the GSDS Speaker Series, and the 2017 Student Contact for GSDS Outreach. Before coming to Santa Barbara, Yvonne earned her B.S. in Chemistry from California State University Northridge and concurrently worked at Edwards Air Force Research Laboratory in a five-year internship. She was a recipient of the 2015 UCSB Doctoral Scholars Fellowship and is currently an NSF Graduate Research Fellow.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Southern California. In particular, I grew up in the Antelope Valley, which is in the middle of the desert about an hour north of Los Angeles.

What kind of music do you like? What are some of your hobbies? What do you do to relax?

My favorite type of music would have to be Latin music. I grew up with it and it’s great to dance to! I really like to dance. In particular, salsa, bachata, swing, and two-step. They have different social clubs around here where they have events. There’s usually dance lessons beforehand and then open dance afterward. Even if you don’t know how to dance people tend to be very accepting. If you are just practicing the couple of moves you learned in the lesson, people are supportive. Spending time with my family and friends helps me relax as well as reading a good book (not a textbook). My first was and will always be Harry Potter. I can’t help it. What is there not to like? There’s magic and excitement. I like fiction because it can take you out of reality.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

Enjoying a ride on the jet-ski at Lake Havasu.

Most people are surprised to hear that I have been sky diving and that jet skiing is one of my absolute favorite things to do (see photos). I often go jet skiing in the Lake Havasu reservoir.

What is your most memorable non-academic experience? Academic experience?

My most memorable non-academic experience would have to be a family trip to Guatemala. I was able to learn more about my culture, improve my Spanish, and visit this beautiful country that was unlike anything I had seen before. My extended family basically took us on personal tours, and we got to stay in their homes so we didn’t have to worry about housing. It was an incredible experience.

I think my most memorable academic experience would have to be when I was published as an author in a chemistry book chapter. It was about two years after I started doing research in undergrad. I just remember it was the coolest feeling ever to know that the research I had done was in a book with my name on it. We were working with superhydrophobic and superoleophobic materials (meaning they don’t like water or oil). When I came into the project they had a standalone compound known as POSS. My research was trying to functionalize it to get it into polymers to make materials more robust.1,2 So you could think about making water and oil repellent coatings for phones, or clothing for military applications. The original compound couldn’t be attached to any surfaces. After we were able to functionalize it we could start to look into attaching it to a polymer or fabric.


Striking a pose while zip-lining.

What is your research and how did you decide to do this?

I do research in the labs of Profs. Javier Read de Alaniz and Craig J. Hawker. Specifically, I make light responsive materials that can be used in various applications such as food spoilage sensors, thermal sensors, and drug delivery.3 My research is a cross between organic chemistry and materials. I liked both areas of science, and I wanted a project that could bring together organic synthesis with useful materials applications.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Being the first member in my family to pursue a Ph.D. degree. My mom is a credentials technician for an elementary school district, and my dad is a manager at Deluxe Computer Corporation, a computer component supply company. I have two younger siblings. My family doesn’t really understand what it is to be in grad school, but at the same time they are impressed and extremely supportive of me. When I talk to them about it, they either think I am still in school or have a job. They don’t understand that it’s a little bit of both. Most of the time I tell my extended family I work at the school in a chemistry lab as a researcher.

What do you hope to be doing in 10 years?


Keeping it casual with some tandem sky-diving.

In 10 years I hope to be finished with my Ph.D., working in an industry job doing chemistry research, and starting a family. Wherever I end up, however, I want to continue with outreach activities, especially trying to encourage more young women and other minorities to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). All of my mentors throughout the years have played a huge part in my successes and my decision to come to grad school, and I hope to be that kind of mentor for many other upcoming scientists.

What do you wish you knew before you started grad school and what advice do you have for incoming students?

Grad school is a difficult and challenging journey. It will push you to your limits both mentally and physically, but it will be worth it. Do your homework on the advisor and the group you want to join because your research can change a million times but the environment you are in can either make this journey easier or more challenging.

To read more about work that Yvonne has contributed to, see below.

(1)         Ramirez, S. M.; Diaz, Y. J.; Campos, R.; Stone, R. L.; Haddad, T. S.; Mabry, J. M. Incompletely condensed fluoroalkyl silsesquioxanes and derivatives: Precursors for low surface energy materials. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2011, 133 (50), 20084–20087 DOI: 10.1021/ja208506v.

(2)         Ramirez, S. M.; Diaz, Y. J.; Sahagun, C. M.; Duff, M. W.; Lawal, O. B.; Iacono, S. T.; Mabry, J. M. Reversible addition–fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) copolymerization of fluoroalkyl polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane (F-POSS) macromers. Polym. Chem. 2013, 4, 2230–2234 DOI: 10.1039/c3py00018d.

(3)         Hemmer, J. R.; Poelma, S. O.; Treat, N.; Page, Z. A.; Dolinski, N.; Diaz, Y. J.; Tomlinson, W.; Clark, K. D.; Hooper, J. P.; Hawker, C. J.; et al. Tunable Visible and Near Infrared Photoswitches. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, 138, 13960–13966 DOI: 10.1021/jacs.6b07434.