Miguel Esparza: Disaster Relief and Resiliance

Miguel Esparza ’20

Miguel Esparza is a December 2020 graduating senior from Cypress, Texas. He attended Cypress Creek High School where he first found his passion for engineering through electives and his mother, a former Aggie, informed him on the high quality of the A&M engineering program. Miguel will be graduating with a B.S. in civil engineering, focusing on structural engineering and with a minor in Hispanic studies for community engagement. After graduation, he plans to study structural engineering in graduate school and take courses to learn how to make the built environment more resilient from disasters. He also participates in the LAUNCH Undergraduate Research Scholar thesis program. We stopped to chat with Miguel for a closer look at his research process and his plans after graduation.

What are you studying?

“I am studying Civil Engineering with a focus on Structural Engineering. I have a minor in Hispanic Studies for Community Engagement. I am an undergraduate researcher with the Urban Resilience, Networks, and Informatics Lab under Dr. Ali Mostafavi. My research area focuses on studying natural hazards and how socially vulnerable populations are impacted from disaster-induced disruptions to the built environment.”

What is your current research about? How did your project begin?

“When a natural hazard occurs, effective disaster communication can mitigate the impacts of a disaster, but ineffective disaster communication may exacerbate the impact of a disaster. Social media outlets, such as Twitter, offer the possibility of improved disaster communication because they have the potential for increased information capacity, dependability, and interactivity. Additionally, social media can be used to indicate how damaged an area is through a content-based analysis. This study performs a content based analysis by identifying the frequency of mentions a city has on social media in order to provide equal treatment during disaster recovery. Moreover, the communication needs of socially vulnerable groups, such as racial minorities and the poor, have received minimal attention despite these groups suffering the most during a crisis.”

“I became interested in disaster research when I started to participate in a campus program that highlighted the disparities of a disaster between a developed and underdeveloped community. During the program, I saw how I could use civil engineering to solve this problem. This inspired me to find disaster research at Texas A&M, and I was able to talk to the civil engineering department about my newfound interests. After a few discussions I joined the Urban Resilience Lab under Dr. Mostafavi during my junior year. I enjoyed my previous research project a lot and decided to stick with the team. After informing Dr. Mostafavi about my decision. We talked about future projects and came across using social media as means to improve disaster communication.”

Did your experiences as an undergraduate researcher impact your trajectory in college?

“Working with my research lab as an undergraduate has shaped a lot of my professional goals. One long term goal I have is to focus on blending structural engineering with the social science field to acquire a better understanding of how infrastructure disruption affects the public during a disaster. To accomplish this goal, I plan to stay with my research lab when I study structural engineering during graduate school.”

Have your career goals or post graduation hopes changed over the course of your time at A&M?

“One thing I have learned throughout college is that plans are always changing, and that is especially true with my career goals after graduation. Through my involvement with organizations that focused on international issues, one goal that I formulated sophomore year was using engineering principles to improve disaster management from an international perspective. I found amazing graduate programs that have research programs and courses focused on using engineering to develop international communities. I was so set on applying to one of these programs after graduation, but I knew I would need experience in this area of research. This motivated me to find opportunities similar to that area of research, which is how I found about the Urban Resilience Lab at Texas A&M.  Throughout my involvement with this lab, I found out ways I could incorporate my main goal at Texas A&M. Once I figured that out I highly considered A&M as a top choice for my graduate studies. After weighing different options, I have decided to apply for graduate school at Texas A&M this spring.”

Who has helped you throughout this process?

“Earlier I mentioned the friends I made during freshman year, and without them I would not have gotten involved in research. However, the professors and Ph.D. Mentors I worked with have helped me develop as a researcher. Sophomore year I worked with Dr. Zachary Grasley and his Ph.D. Student, Aishwarya Baranikumar. Working under Dr. Grasley confirmed my passion for research. Eventually I found a topic that I could form a career out of during my junior year, and joined the Urban Resilience Lab under Dr. Ali Mostafavi. During my time with this lab I got to work with two amazing Ph.D. Students, Amir Esmalian and Chao Fan, who taught me all the ins and outs of research such as becoming a better writer, how to communicate your research and new software. “

If you could offer some retrospective advice for incoming freshman or aspiring undergraduate researchers, what would you tell them?

“My number one advice is getting involved with an organization that has like-minded people. Freshman year, I was able to form valuable friendships with upper class men through an organization within the MSC. Through these friendships, I was able to find professional development opportunities, leadership opportunities, and I shared many precious memories with these people. One professional development opportunity that I was introduced to was research. I saw all of the amazing work that my friend did for research, and I was so inspired to get involved. My friends motivated me to find research opportunities during the summer of my freshman year. Research has been a big part of my college career, and it would not have been without the guidance of the friends I made freshman year.”

Learn more about the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) thesis program at https://launch.tamu.edu/UGR/URS