Podcast: Optimization and Optimism with Aurora Munguía López

Do you remember who first sparked your interest in science? In this episode, we sit down with Aurora Munguía López, postdoctoral researcher in Zavalab in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UW-Madison. Aurora takes us on a journey through her career in science, starting with the professor who first sparked her interest in chemical engineering. She discusses her work in optimization research and how it led her to focus on finding ways to optimize systems for the benefit of the environment, economy, and people. Throughout her journey, Aurora emphasizes the importance of representation and optimism in science and shares her thoughts on the role they played in her success.

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Scalable Systems Laboratory (Zavalab)
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Michelle Chung: Hey, Meg, do you remember who sparked your interest in science?

Meg Riker: In high school, I was a part of a robotics team, which, looking back, sounds extremely nerdy. And it was really nerdy. And I remember on that team I was at that time, mostly men and young guys. But there were two young women who I became friends with on that team who I really respected and like. Looking back, they definitely had a huge impact on my ability to believe that I could do what they kind of showed in when I was in high school.

Who sparked your interest in science?

Michelle Chung: So my sisters are like five and six years older than me, so I've seen them go through the circuit of college and exploring where their skills and interests lie, and they both found their interests in STEM. I saw my sisters be so awesome and that inspired me and gave me the courage to pursue science myself. Representation matters and representation played a really big part in our next guests success, Aurora Munguía López, who is a postdoc in Victor Zavala’s lab. She saw a young woman professor when she was in high school, and that was really the catalyst for her entire career. She talks about how we can broaden representation in STEM for awesome research and optimization. She was so awesome to talk to and I'm excited for everyone to listen in.

Meg Riker: All right, let's get into it. From the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. I'm Meg.

Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle.

Meg Riker: And you're listening to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women in energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW–Madison campus and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. Let's get into it with Aurora Munguía López


Aurora Munguía López: My name is Aurora, and my pronouns are she and her. I hold a Ph.D. in chemical engineering with a focus on process systems engineering. And currently I work as a postdoctoral research associate at UW Madison in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Specifically, I work in the Scalable Systems Lab that is also known or called the Zavalab, which is led by Professor Victor Zavala.

Michelle Chung: Could you explain what process systems engineering is?

Aurora Munguía López: Sure. Yeah. So process systems engineering–what we do is that we use different tools such as optimization and more willing to design and analyze complex systems. So also what we try to do is to integrate different areas such as economic, environmental and social area, to identify optimal designs. So particularly here, there are many applications like different chemical processes or chemical systems, but I am really interested in sustainability applications.

Michelle Chung: And looking at your background, I looked at a recent paper analyzing the optimization of the STRAP process. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Aurora Munguía López: Yeah, sure. This STRAP process, well STRAP means solvent, targeted, recovery and precipitation strategy. So this is one of the technologies that is being developed at the CUWP Center that stands for Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics. So this center is funded by the Department of Energy. And a lot of people in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering we are working on that is our multidisciplinary team also.

There are some industries involved and we're here. It's, I think, really interesting because we have people that do experiments, but we also have people that do molecular simulation. And so like my group, people that do the systems analysis. So here we are trying to identify new technologies to help recycled plastics that are not currently recycled. And a strep is a technology that does that.

So, for example, for food packaging, there is a plastic that is widely used that is called multilayer films. So we can see these films like, oh, there's just a little thin, transparent plastic film, but it is actually made of different polymers. So it's not easy to recycle. So we are trying these solving based strategies to recycle this plastic and hopefully try to reduce resource consumption and of course help improve metrics such as climate change impact or energy use.

Michelle Chung: So these plastics that are made up of a bunch of different kinds of polymers, is that process trying to separate the different polymers?

Aurora Munguía López: Yes, that is pretty much what what we are trying to do that. So this process selectively dissolves a target polymer. Then they precipitate this polymer and separate it and then repeat this step several times. But of course, there are a lot of complex things involved there, like, oh, what solvent should we use? At what temperature, How much time should we leave the plastic with with the solvent?

And so many things that are involved there that we are trying to help with that like all the different teams are trying to collaborate, which I really like because we get different points of view.

Michelle Chung: With everything that's going on with your research. What excites you the most?

Aurora Munguía López: Oh well, you get to say many things, right? Of course. But if I have to choose one, I will say that this area of process systems engineering is just very exciting to me because I really like to see how we can integrate these different aspects, like combine economics and environmental performance and try to find tradeoffs between these subjects because of course, to enable sustainability, we need to consider all of these aspects, right?

Well, so recently I'm just looking into trying to incorporate this social analysis in this type of systems. So I think that is also something important to consider. And just now in this project with the Plastics is for me, it's really exciting to see that, oh well, my work can help just a little bit, right, to enable sustainable systems and health to probably have a better world.

Michelle Chung: And when you say social analysis, what do you mean by that?

Aurora Munguía López: Yeah. So actually, this is not easy, right, to quantify the social impact of a process or of a system, because for instance, for the economic and environmental performance, we have already a lot of metrics available but from the social analysis that there have been some efforts recently both particularly I have looked into something called fairness schemes.

So here we analyze how we can allocate resources between different stakeholders. By resources. This could be just profits, right? Money, revenues, but also it could be some natural resources. For instance, water. I was working like a few years ago about a project where we wanted to find the optimal and fair allocation of water between different crops in agriculture.

So that is something that I have been looking into and I also want to integrate that part now in this plastics recycling project.

Michelle Chung: So with the social analysis part, is it looking at things like kind of through a justice lens?

Aurora Munguía López: Yes. Yes. We are trying also to look into that. Well, in optimization, it's very common to have this objective function that is maximize the profits or maximize the revenue. And we only look into that. And I mean, of course, that is very important, right? Because if it is not economically viable, we are not going to do it. But also, I think that we need to consider how are we going to allocate those profits between the different stakeholders involved because, well, particularly in waste management in general, like not only plastics, there are many stakeholders involved and we need to consider all that since the people that collect the waste and the people that are generating the waste and then if we process that waste, generate products also how are we going to consider all that supply chain?

Michelle Chung: Where did you first get your interest in modeling optimization? Sustainability? I know that's a huge topic. Did you know that what you're doing now is what you always wanted to do?

Aurora Munguía López: Sure it is. Well, I don't know if I always knew exactly this right, or like something like that. Like a general idea. So. Well, first, my interest in chemical engineering. It started back in high school where I met a teacher that was a chemical engineer, and he used to tell us about stories about that and all the career pathways that one could have as a chemical engineer.

And he told us about these all like you can work also like in sustainability problems and things like that. And he was like, Oh, okay, that sounds cool, right? But then during my undergrad, I also was doing research in different areas because I wasn't sure like, Oh, what I really want to do. So I explored different groups and at the end I found a group that was doing optimization and modeling and I was like, Wow, this is great.

Really, I really like this. I definitely want to to continue doing this. And then in my Ph.D., I started working on sustainability applications, like my very first paper was trying to address also something like that. So at the end everything came together and I just knew, Oh, this is what I want to do.

Michelle Chung: What specific about optimization was like, it clicked for you, Like that was what you were really interested in.

Aurora Munguía López: The first time I heard the professor talking about that, it was like the typical example. If you think about it, you are always using optimization, right? Because when you take your car to go to your work from your house to work or something like that, you you are thinking, Oh, should I take this street or should I take this order?

What is going to take me less time? What is the optimal path for me to get the work? And I was like, Well, yes, it is true. It's something that we do everyday. But there was still some examples. But then he shows us a how we can do different things with that, like analyze complex systems and find tradeoffs and identify optimal solutions that are not obvious, like at the first glance.

So I just loved that. And I thought, Wow, I think this can be very useful for many different things. So I really like I think the most that I like is the tradeoffs that you can find between different objectives using optimization techniques.

Michelle Chung: Can you talk a little bit about your path to UW–Madison?

Aurora Munguía López: Sure. So it all started back in 2018. So in that year I was studying my Ph.D. in Mexico, where I am originally from, and then an opportunity to come to UW–Madison as a visiting scholar came up. So I thought, Oh, well, this is great. Let's let's the way it's right. So I came to Madison and I joined this lab where I was working with Professor Victor Zavala.

That is who I am working with right now. And I was here for a year and after that I went back to Mexico to finish my Ph.D. and graduate. And when they graduated I was like, okay, I know I want to stay in academia. So I started to look for postdoc positions and I was looking everywhere. And then I saw Professor Zavala in a conference and I just asked him and he said, You know what, Actually, I have an open position right now in my lab.

And I was like, Oh, wow, this is nice. So we talk about it. He told me about the project that that he had at that moment and so on, and he gave me the opportunity to join again his lab.

Michelle Chung: In there. You you mentioned that you wanted to stay in academia after your PhD, you knew that was what you wanted to do. How did you know that that that was the path for you? Maybe like not industry.

Aurora Munguía López: Right? Yes that. That's a very good question. So I think for me it was a bit easier because since high school I knew that I wanted to do something like this because at some point I wasn't sure. But then after my PhD I was sure. Well yes, in high school, I saw a professor, a female professor, and she was doing research in chemical engineering in a different area where it was chemical engineering.

So at that moment I thought, Wow, this is great. I want to do that with my life. So after that, I went through to study my bachelor's master's Ph.D. and soon. But then all my experiences in my Masters and my Ph.D. and my advisors realized that they have been so great. So all these experiences just make me more sure that I wanted to stay in academia.

I was very lucky to see that professor, right? Because if I hadn't seen her, I don't know if I being here today.

Michelle Chung: So you were a visiting scholar in the Zavalab before you finished your pHD, and then you went and you talked to Victor Zavala about, like maybe a position in his lab. What about your experience as a visiting scholar made you think like, Madison is where I want to go for my postdoc, I want to stay here.

Aurora Munguía López: Well, I will say everything. No, but well, first, the city, I think, is a very nice city, I like a small cities. And also I really enjoy nature. So here, of course, with the lakes and all that, this is perfect for me and talking about the lab. Professor Zavala Well, first the working environment in the lab is very nice.

I really enjoyed it. Like the first time that I was here. And also now everyone is so welcoming and always willing to help and well, Professor Zavala, he's a fantastic mentor. He also always is teaching me new things, always trying to help, and I feel like I keep learning from him like every day, every time we have meetings and discussions.

So this is everything. I wanted to go back just for everything, and I'm really glad that I was able to to come back.

Michelle Chung: So now, as a postdoc, you also serve as the diversity officer. What is that experience like?

Aurora Munguía López: But so I have to tell you, this is a new experience for me. So I am still learning how to serve better in this role. But I try to to do my best, right? So some of the things that we do is that we have a periodic meetings with the other diversity officers of the other labs because every lab has one or two diversity officers in in our department.

So in these meetings we discuss ideas and plans to improve our outreach. So we are currently actually working on that, on how to better communicate the available resources and share also experiences with all the students and the staff in the department. So a will, for instance, I would like to mention some of the available resources the University offers a lot of the courses that are available for everyone currently.

I'm taking one of those that I find really interesting. Also, last year I took a course by the AICHE that is the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and it was also a DEI course, it was a very, very enriching experience for me. I think like everyone should take these courses, we can always learn something new. And another thing is that as part of the AICHE. I attended last year to a conference and there I presented my research and everything.

But also they have many the resources, so I was able to attend Latinx Forum. So in these forums a lot of people shared their experiences and a lot of people that look like me, right? So this was it really inspiring for me to listen to their experiences and all the challenges that they have faced, but at the end how everything has worked out.

So I think that is something also that that we should do, like I think we are doing right now, sharing our experiences and always just trying to help everyone to feel welcome. There is always something that I try to do.

Michelle Chung: I like how you mentioned this forum where it's a safe space for people to share their experiences. I feel like that's especially important. No one is owed sharing their experiences, but when it's in an environment where you know people are listening, then then it's easy to and then everyone benefits from sharing your experiences.

Aurora Munguía López: Exactly.

Michelle Chung: You've mentioned Professor Zavala as one of your mentors in your journey and this female professor that you saw in high school. I'm wondering, did you have any other mentors? What were the big things that your mentors did for you along the way?

Aurora Munguía López: Sure. Yes. So I have been very, very fortunate to have a lot of great mentors. And I must say that without them, I wouldn't be where I am right now. I should mention that I was a first generation college and graduate student. So back at home, you know, my family was very supportive all the time. They were like, Oh, yes, you should study wherever you want, whatever makes you happy.

But that was it. So at some point I was like, Will I like a lot of things, right, what should what I do. So first these female professor in high school and also I had another teacher in high school that introduced me to chemical engineering. I will say they were both my first mentors that helped me just to see, Oh, chemical engineering.

Wow, This is a great path for me. That was like my first little push, I will say. And then of course, in my undergrad, all the research experiences that I had and eventually the research group which led me to choose process systems engineering as a research area, there was also an amazing mentor. And then in my Ph.D., of course, I'm very grateful with my Ph.D. advisors and now with my postdoc advisor, because, you know, I have learned a lot from them.

They showed me how to see and address problems in a very different way. And for that I will always be grateful of course, they are now just like role models for me, and I'm really, really happy. I'm fortunate that I have had all these amazing mentors.

Michelle Chung: It's cool that your mentors now, they're now your role models and I can relate to you. I'm also, you know, first generation college student. And if it really wasn't for like people that I could ask outside of my family, then it's like I wouldn't know anything.

Aurora Munguía López: Yeah, this is I think that's very important now that you mention it, that we should reach out to people, right? If we just have questions or something, just go and ask. And there is a lot of people always that want to help.

Michelle Chung: Yeah, that's so important. I know if someone maybe younger than me asked like, Oh, like, how did you do this? Or something like that? I am so ready to help.

Aurora Munguía López: Exactly like you want to, right?

Michelle Chung: Yeah. People love feeling like they, they helped someone.

Aurora Munguía López: Exactly.

Michelle Chung: This podcast is called Propelling Women in Power. Can you think of any specific moment or decision that was an integral part of you finding your power?

Aurora Munguía López: I will say back in 2018, when I first came to UW–Madison. At that point, I was facing many challenges, right? I was just moving to a different country, being away from my family and also trying to address new research questions. So that was a hard moment for me. And there was one moment that I thought, you know what, I think I, I cannot do this.

I was surrounded by so many talented researchers, and I just feel that I wasn't enough to be honest. It was hard for me. But then one day I was like, I need to remind myself that I really want this path. So I reminded myself how much I wanted to follow the academia path. And I just tried to do my best and keep working and keep staying positive.

And I did. Everything worked out. Everything went well.

Michelle Chung: In that moment where you were questioning yourself, maybe comparing yourself to others, you kind of just let your optimism guide you out of that, like, darker place.

Aurora Munguía López: Exactly. Yes. Yes, you're completely right. And that is something that still I do some days. Right, that they're not very good days. I just remind myself, okay, you can do this and just keep working and everything is going to work out and stay positive. Go Right.

Michelle Chung: Right. Yeah. There's like an element of just remembering that you can trust yourself.

Aurora Munguía López: Exactly.

Michelle Chung: What obstacles have you faced on your career path? And I know your experience as a woman in STEM and engineering has been a challenge. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Aurora Munguía López: I think an obstacle that I have faced and that many women in in STEM and I get emails or have faced is the lack of representation, right? So sometimes it's hard to see only male professors because you just look around and you see amazing researchers, but they are all male researchers or male professors. And then it makes you wonder right why aren’t there are a lot of women in this position, and it makes you wonder. So that means that I cannot be in that position or what's going on there. But I think that the good thing about this is that these these, of course, have been improving in the last few years. I will say this was more common when I was starting my undergrad.

And so I think that another challenge is to have, as will only male colleagues, because then of course they are great, but sometimes do you don't feel the same way as you are talking to a female colleague or something like that. But I must say that in my experience I have had a lot of male colleagues, but all of them have been a very kind and very supportive.

So I have always feel welcome and comfortable so that that is something great.

Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. I like that you mention that even if everyone you know is is a great person, there's still just an element missing of, like, that shared experience. Like, you're also a woman in my field and have experience this, like, imposter syndrome of, like, being surrounded by men and feeling like you might not belong.

Aurora Munguía López: Exactly. Yes. Yes that’s a good point.

Michelle Chung: Along with the challenges that imposter syndrome that you feel that come with being a woman in STEM. I know that you've also faced some challenges with being from a different country and moving to another country. Can you talk about that journey?

Aurora Munguía López: Yes, thats, that's a great question. So yes like on top of that, you have also only that. And there are many challenges that you need to face just when you go away from home. Right? To a different state. But then of course, if you go to a different country, there are a lot of things like everything is different, the culture, the food, everything, But also I will say, is a very enriching experience.

So at the beginning it’s hard. But then once you adapt and start learning about all the new things that you have, there is something great. I think it has helped me to grow and becoming someone better.

Michelle Chung: Do you have any support networks or coping strategies that you might lean on when you're you're facing those hard challenges of maybe you're not feeling enough work is getting hard, right?

Aurora Munguía López: So that's a great question. And I think it's very important to talk about and it's something that definitely everyone should have, right? Because it is essential for the general well-being. So what I do or what works for me is that I will say first part of my support network are my colleagues, because they are experiencing similar things to me, right?

So we can talk about it and discuss that is just so helpful. And also my advisor, he's part of this network as well because he's very supportive of and he's always available to talk like not only about research, like if you need to talk about something else, he's there and he cares a lot about well-being. And as a coping strategy, I will say just lean in on my family and my partner.

They are always supporting me. So that is essential and I'm always grateful for that. And also just doing something outside work, right? Like just go for a walk, go for a run that is key and that changes everything.

Michelle Chung: Knowing all of what you know now, your whole journey, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Aurora Munguía López: Right? So that's a great question and I think I will give you the common answer. Fortunately, that is just like, don't worry, right. But, it’s true because sometimes we worry just too much and keep working and not worry too much. So I will add that right. I will say to my younger self that like, just don't worry, but keep working hard.

Michelle Chung: Yes. So the lack of representation obviously is a huge challenge facing STEM fields. And you you talked about how important it was for you to see that female professor and that's kind of set you on your path. Now. What other challenges do you see for women in STEM?

Aurora Munguía López: You are right, Like besides the representation, there are many other challenges and one of them that I will I have talked about this with other colleagues and also from my experience I've seen that is sometimes we as women don't think that are enough, and sometimes we are just afraid to share our ideas or propose something new. So even if everyone in a room like we are having a meeting and everyone in the room is nice and welcoming, sometimes women just don't express their ideas.

So I think that we need to work on that, to be confident of ourselves and keep fostering this collaborative environment where male colleagues, female colleagues, like everyone, can be there and everyone can feel free to express their ideas and propose new things and just keep working on that like I remain that actually true to myself every day.

Michelle Chung: What changes would you like to see to make STEM more equitable?

Aurora Munguía López: I think we can start by supporting each other, right? Like minorities or different communities. Just try to help and support each other. And that is something that I try to do. For instance, every time that I meet another person from a minority group. Well, the first thing is that I'm happy like they are trying to join STEM or to join academia and just follow their dreams and I always tried to be supportive with them and help them out.

Or, you know what? If I can answer any question, please let me know. And things like that, because I have a lot of people that have helped me. So I think trying to build this community where we can trust and help each others, that can definitely help make STEM more equitable.

Michelle Chung: Yeah, Starting from the ground up. What advice do you have for young women in STEM that want to enter your field?

Aurora Munguía López: I think it goes back to be confident in yourself. I will say you should trust your skills and just go for it. And like from my experience, even one day you feel like you are not enough or you are not good for doing this, then you should seek advice and reach out to other women with more experience. Because as we were talking about earlier, there are always a lot of people that want to help each other.

We just need to ask for it and we can find help somewhere.


Meg Riker: What stood out to you about your conversation with Aurora?

Michelle Chung: The big thing that stood out to me with my conversation goes back to what we were talking about, introducing this episode. That representation remains a huge obstacle facing women in STEM. In Aurora's story, seeing that one professor really was what set her on her path. And if she hadn't seen that one professor, who knows if she would have gone down this path.

Meg Riker: I think it's always really encouraging to hear that people have had this type of experience like they've seen people who look like them doing the job that they want to do.

Michelle Chung: And then the last thing that really stood out to me was Aurora is the diversity chair for her lab, and she mentioned that in her department, every lab is highly encouraged to have a diversity chair. They recently incorporated that into their diversity equity and inclusion structure, and I thought that was a great example of building this work into the structures that exist. To have a lab in chemical and biological engineering, it is the norm to have a diversity officer that's integrating those values into all the work that they do. And having like someone dedicated to it I think is really important. And that's not like an afterthought like it often is. Aurora was awesome. She's an example for the rest of us and she was just so optimistic.

Meg Riker: Yeah.

Michelle Chung: And I think we can all use a little bit more optimism and that's our show. Thank you again to Aurora Munguía López. And thanks to all of you listening in. Please subscribe, rate, review and share this podcast with a friend.

Meg Riker: You can find the Wisconsin Energy Institute at Energy.wisc.edu and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at glbrc.org

Michelle Chung: We'll see you next time on Propelling Women in Power. What is your superpower?

Aurora Munguía López: I always try to be optimistic because when things don't go well, I just try to keep moving forward.