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Juan Santiago: “For me, engineering was a haven.”

The son of Cuban emigre parents, who arrived in the U.S. with only the clothes on their backs, Mechanical Engineering Professor Juan Santiago describes his path to Stanford.

Juan Santiago: “For me, engineering was a haven.”

March 11, 2021
Juan Santiago wearing a blue collared shirt and posing on a balcony with the Stanford campus in the background

Juan Santiago | Photo by Rod Searcey

Juan G. Santiago’s parents fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1961 with the clothes on their backs, as airport guards robbed them of their personal possessions as a sendoff.

Miami welcomed the young couple with apartment-for-rent listings posted alongside signs saying “No Dogs, No Cubans.” Seeking a place in the land of opportunity, they moved first to Chicago, then to Puerto Rico, where Santiago was born, before returning to Miami, where he studied martial arts and worked odd jobs as a teen and in college. Today, as the first in his family to pursue a career in STEM, Santiago is the Charles Lee Powell Foundation Professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford, doing research that includes developing technologies for DNA and RNA detection, and for extracting the salt from brackish water to make it drinkable.

As director of the Stanford Microfluidics Laboratory, the professor of mechanical engineering and his colleagues develop “lab on a chip” technologies that isolate and identify the genetic indicators for cancer or pathogens. They recently unveiled a new on-chip rapid response test for the novel coronavirus. An inventor with 60 patents, 32 of which are licensed, Santiago recently became editor-in-chief of FLOW, a new journal dedicated to the applications of fluid mechanics. When mentoring students, some of whom, like him, are first-gen, he stresses that STEM is a meritocracy. “If you work hard, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you know,” he says, adding, “for me, engineering was a haven.”

Fleeing Castro’s Cuba

Armed guards stand beside Juan Santiago's parents at their wedding as they pose with their family

Armed guards at Santiago’s parents’ wedding | Courtesy

My parents were married in 1960, one year after the Cuban Revolution, when anyone refusing to submit to the brutality of a socialist state was in danger. Show trials were held in giant stadiums and executions were broadcast on TV. In a picture of my parents’ wedding, you can see armed communist guards in the background to witness the exchange of vows. My parents wanted to leave but Castro did not want anyone with technical skills to leave the country. My dad did not have a college degree, but he was a skilled technician who installed microwave antennas. My mom held a two-year teaching certificate. Fortunately, my father managed to forge papers and, in 1961, my parents were able to get on a plane to Jamaica where, after some additional challenges, they arrived in Miami. They were not able to find a place to live, so they went to Chicago and shared a small apartment with other refugees: seven relatives including my pregnant mother. My parents ate Spam from the Red Cross and wore used clothes.

My older sister was born in a Chicago free hospital. After a couple of years, they moved to Puerto Rico, where my older brother and I were born. I was 8 when we moved back to Miami and it was then that I started to learn to speak English. My parents took all kinds of hard jobs. My father, for a time, was a janitor cleaning out trailer homes when people’s leases were up. Over the years, he worked at a collection agency, polishing eyeglasses, selling house alarms, inspecting occupational licenses for the city, and selling and/or repairing TVs, radios, and TV antennas. My mom soldered boat antennas, washed clothes, cleaned houses, worked for-hire sewing, taught Spanish at a small private elementary school, and sold encyclopedias, as well as Tupperware and Avon products, door-to-door. She couldn’t speak English, but she found opportunities. The various apartments, housing units, and houses in which I grew up were very small, but they were filled with love and laughter.

Fighting for his place

I had all kinds of jobs growing up. I cut grass, delivered newspapers, delivered phone books, and bagged groceries at Publix. Starting at about 13, my siblings and I were very self-reliant. If I wanted a pair of wrestling shoes, I bought them for myself. I was an average student in high school, in part because I was working in jobs and practicing and competing in karate, kickboxing, boxing, wrestling, kung fu, and jiujitsu. I held a black belt in one of these, was a paid instructor in two of them, and was captain of my high school wrestling team, but I only became serious about grades in the last two months of high school. I remember helping my father dig a sewer line when we were adding a second bathroom to our little house. “Do you like digging this ditch?” he asked. “If you don’t, you need to go to college, or you will do this type of work the rest of your life.”

Santiago during a wrestling match

Santiago (top) was captain of his high school wrestling team | Courtesy

My dad was very smart. He regretted that he hadn’t gone to college, and he completed a series of mail-order college courses and eventually earned an associate’s degree in electronics from DeVry Technical Institute. Eventually, he landed a better paying job making and testing prototypes for engineers at Cordis Inc., a medical device company. At about the same time, my mom landed a better paying job as a mail sorter for the U.S. Post Office. Looking back, my parents gifted me something precious, which I leveraged to succeed in my career. They taught me the value of lifelong learning, hard work, and self-reliance. I graduated high school four days after turning 17 and enrolled at Florida International University (FIU), a university four blocks from our house. That’s when I really flipped a switch and channeled all my competitive energy into the study of engineering.

Facing challenges in college

My undergraduate college years were the hardest for me, a continuous panic. Academically, I had a lot of catching up to do and I also didn’t know if I’d have enough money for rent and tuition. My father died just after I moved from FIU to the University of Florida in Gainesville. In the summers, I took a class or two back in Miami and worked. During college, I worked as a movie theater attendant and cleaner, a worker at an airplane parts warehouse, a box car loader at UPS, a maker and deliverer of Domino’s Pizza, a store clerk at Kay Bee Toys, a karate instructor, a stagehand at a Spanish-channel TV show called Sabado Gigante, and a liquor store clerk in Little Havana. During the academic months, I also tutored students at the University of Florida.

Juan Santiago, in a cap and gown and sitting with peers, blowing bubbles during a graduation ceremony

Blowing bubbles at graduate school graduation | Courtesy

I also performed research as an undergrad, which I am proud to say was rare at the time in that department. I was extremely competitive and tried to score the top grade in every class. I came up with a system for studying, which I used through my PhD and still share with students. I’d take copious notes in class, and condense these into very concise outlines, fitting about three lectures onto one page. I would then use that outline and nothing else to complete all homework and sample tests. If I failed, I told myself that I was weak and my outline was weak. If I revised the outline and succeeded, then I was strong and my outline was strong. It worked.

Despite the financial stress, I graduated first in my class. After college, I went to graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was ranked third in the nation for mechanical engineering. Compared to my undergraduate years, graduate school was a great pleasure. The only difficult part was explaining to my family why I turned down well-paying offers from industry to earn much less than my friends in Miami who, by now, were police officers, tradesmen, and high school teachers. From my perspective, I had fellowships and they were paying me to learn and conduct research! They even gave me health insurance, a lab, office space, and tools. I designed and built wind tunnels and assembled imaging and laser systems for research in rocket propulsion. I loved it. I completed my master’s degree in high-speed combustion and my PhD degree in supersonic air flow and mixing. I also met my lovely wife, Michelle, at Illinois. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities I received from UIUC.

From industry to academia

After earning my doctorate, I went to work at The Aerospace Corp., which is essentially the technical arm of the Defense Department’s space program. For example, the Air Force’s budget for launch vehicles and satellites alone was 10 times larger than NASA’s entire budget. I worked on several rocket and satellite systems. As exciting as it was, as a young engineer, I felt that I was just a small part of a giant $300 million satellite program. I didn’t feel ownership of the work and I decided to change fields. At the time, microfluidics was fairly new with lots of opportunities for invention by young researchers. I read papers on micro-scale physics and biochemistry and even performed microfluidics experiments in my spare time (at a lab in Aerospace).

Soon after, I took a 60% pay cut and returned to the University of Illinois on a postdoctoral fellowship to work on microfluidic chips for DNA analysis. These chips have microchannels narrower than a human hair and are used to manipulate and analyze biological samples. I came to Stanford as a faculty member in 1998. Much of our work at the Stanford Microfluidics Lab involves electrokinetic devices that use electrical fields to pump and mix liquids and to move, react, and isolate target molecules or cells and to detect specific molecular sequences of DNA or RNA. We recently published a microfluidic device that can be used to identify the RNA of the virus that causes COVID-19 within 30 minutes of introducing a raw nasal swab sample. Another part of my work is in capacitive deionization, where we develop systems to remove salt and other toxins from brackish water to make it drinkable.

Lessons from life experience

I often do outreach to high school students and undergraduates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. My advice to these students is strongly influenced by my background. I never suggest they look within to find their passion or to seek a career that will not feel like work — I think this is poor advice. Instead, I give them the same advice I give my own son. I encourage them to work hard and find ways to grow in their knowledge and to grow their ability to impact the world. I advise them to look for competitive careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM fields, in my opinion, offer a more objective playing field where your background or accent or connections or heritage are not important. I tell them that respect and pride are things you earn and meaning in life is something you create.