Aspiring engineer designs new machines, boosts other students’ dreams

Jose Ayala Garcia is a Princeton engineering student with a passion for designing and improving machines — and helping others follow in his footsteps.

Jose Ayala Garcia Courtesy of National Youth Science Camp

A senior concentrating in mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE), Ayala Garcia grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and is a first-generation college student. He has served as co-secretary and co-president of the Princeton chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and is an advising fellow with Matriculate, which helps high-achieving, low-income high school students apply to college.

Ayala Garcia is beginning a senior project focused on biomaterials, and would like to work “at the intersection between hardware, software and mechanical design.”

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, Ayala Garcia recently spoke about his path to Princeton, his work with Matriculate, and his internships in the fields of solar power, semiconductors, and ice cream manufacturing.

What was your pathway to studying engineering at Princeton?

I’ve always been interested in math and science, so when I found out about engineering in middle school, I thought it was the perfect intersection of the two. I’ve always loved to do things that are hands-on, too. I felt like I had found what I wanted to do, and that led me to take engineering courses in high school.

I’m a first-gen student, so applying to college involved a lot of research for me. My parents couldn’t really help me, but I was lucky to have some past seniors give me advice, and some guidance from teachers.

One thing that really attracted me to Princeton was the motto — “in the service of humanity.” I’ve always tried to give back and help others, especially on this journey to college. I applied to Princeton through QuestBridge, which is a program that helps first-generation and low-income students apply to top colleges.

It was a big change coming from a public school in Iowa to a private institution like Princeton — a big adjustment in terms of academics, especially during the first year, getting used to the Princeton workload and balancing out my activities. One of the first groups I joined was SHPE. Being able to go to those initial meetings and get advice from upperclassmen was valuable. I was also able to go to the SHPE National Conference, which was useful in terms of connecting with other students and recruiters from industry.

What attracted you to mechanical and aerospace engineering?

The U.S. has been a world leader in aerospace, and growing up I always thought it would be cool to be able to help humans get back to the moon, and eventually to Mars. But what really piqued my interest in MAE is the fact that mechanical engineering is so broad. You learn about fluids, controls and dynamics, and you also have civil engineering aspects like structures and statics. We’re all required to take [computer science] classes, and that’s something that’s also piqued my interest. And we have some hardware components, like the microprocessors course I took with [Professor Michael Littman]. I like the idea that I can do so many different things with the MAE concentration.

Besides your leadership in SHPE, what are some of your activities outside of your academic work?

I’ve always loved music, and I’ve been playing the saxophone since fifth grade. It’s one of my stress relievers. Back before COVID, I used to be in the Princeton University Wind Ensemble.

I’ve been a Matriculate advising fellow for the past three years, and it’s a very rewarding process helping students like me — maybe their parents didn’t go to college, and they don’t have a lot of people to go to for help when it comes to their applications.

One of my [advisees] from my sophomore year group is now a sophomore MAE concentrator at Princeton, and one of my students from last year is at UPenn studying chemical engineering. Princeton was one of the founding schools that partnered with Matriculate to provide these services to students, and Matriculate advisors are all college students who have gone through a training process.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be reselected twice. Even after Princeton, I hope to be able to continue helping students apply to college. I have my own siblings to help, too — I’m the oldest of four, and the next oldest is currently applying to colleges, so my experiences with Matriculate are going to help me help her as much as possible.

Can you talk about the internships you’ve done during your time at Princeton?

Between my freshman and sophomore year, through the Princeton Environmental Institute [now the High Meadows Environmental Institute] I was able to do an engineering internship with a startup called BoxPower.

It was founded by a Princeton alum, and it’s a solar microgrid company. The microgrids are huge shipping containers — they have all the batteries, inverters, transformers — everything you need for a standalone solar-powered system. When you put solar panels on a house it usually isn’t standalone, since you need transformers and all these other mechanisms, but this microgrid is self-reliant, so if the power goes down your house is still able to be up and running.

I was able to help [BoxPower] develop a more residential version. The bigger community version has 48 solar panels, but this one was nine solar panels. I did a lot of designing for that project, which I hadn’t had much chance to do before that.

Between my sophomore and junior year — the first COVID summer — I was fortunate to land an internship at Wells Enterprises, which is one of the biggest ice cream manufacturers in the U.S. and is very close to my hometown. Even though a lot of internships were cancelled and a lot of them were virtual that year, I was able to go in person most days and work with the mechanical design team. Doing projects with their ice cream machines that generate all these products every day … as someone who loves ice cream and grew up eating this ice cream, it was cool being able to help with those machines.

This past summer I worked at a company called KLA, a company that develops semiconductor-related equipment. I was able to work on machines that are used to inspect semiconductors and make sure they’re up to code and don’t have any impurities that will affect their use. Especially in these days with chip shortages, you want to make sure that you’re able to use as much of the product as possible.