A biweekly publication for faculty and staff

Instructional Labs Manager Helps Further Research Efforts

May 21, 2015

Sergio Pineda, far right, is pictured with others who manage instructional laboratories in the School of Engineering.As the instructional laboratories manager for the School of Engineering, Sergio Pineda’s job is to oversee the labs students use.

Pineda and his colleague, lab coordinator Salvador Diaz, are tasked with making sure the school’s instructional laboratories are stocked with the materials, tools and equipment students and faculty members need to conduct experiments, test theories and make new discoveries.

“We take care of most of the details related to the labs for the instructors, so they can concentrate on their research,” Pineda said. “The main activity they have on their minds is their research. That’s why they’re here. We help them by taking care of details in the labs and by doing so, that’s one less thing they have to think about.”

Because there’s so much to do, Pineda hires student workers to help him and Diaz with tasks that keep the instructional labs running smoothly. That includes training students on how to use lab equipment and machinery.

During the past three years, Pineda trained 36 students, or about six each semester. He also trains graduate students and postdocs so they can assist instructors with classroom lab instruction in addition to their research.

“Although we manage instructional labs, some of the equipment can also be used in research,” he said. “In the specialized labs we take care of, they can be used for upper-division and more advanced classes.”

Student Training Contributes to Research

While Pineda, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, might not be conducting his own research, the work he does — especially in training students — is having an impact on the research happening at UC Merced.

“In research, people are always needed to assist with the work, and faculty members are always looking for good students,” he said.

Many of the students Pineda has trained have gone on to work for professors in their research labs. With Pineda’s engineering background, he has helped train students in areas that involve fluid mechanics and heat transfer.

Faculty members and the school’s leadership are well aware of the effect Pineda’s training is having on research and students. When the students become so knowledgeable that faculty members hire them, it makes Pineda proud.

“I’ve had different faculty members approach me about students I’ve trained and they’ve said, ‘That guy is good,’” he said. “It’s nice to see those students get hired by faculty. The training gives the students valuable experience.”

Efforts Save Time and Money

Training students to use the instructional lab equipment has also directly affected research. School of Engineering Professor Anand Subramaniam, who joined the campus last October, shared a recent example in which Pineda helped his graduate student use the laser cutter in the Rapid Prototyping Lab to build a diffusion chamber out of sheets of acrylic. 

Subramaniam's research includes developing new kinds of biologically-inspired materials for use in biophysical and biomedical applications. 

“My research is highly multidisciplinary and requires creative experimentation to test multiple hypotheses. This often means that we need to move from concept to design very rapidly,” Subramaniam said. “With (Pineda's) help, I managed to implement this vision and tested multiple designs for a diffusion chamber within the span of days.”

Using the laser cutter to create the diffusion chamber saved Subramaniam time and money as it took only two days to create the chamber.

“(Pineda’s) work ethic is above and beyond what I expected,” Subramaniam said. “Not only does he run the labs very well, but on top of that, he helps faculty members with their research. With Pineda's help, my student could get back to working on his research problem and not wait for weeks for a chamber to be built.”

While the academic year is over, Pineda still has plenty of work to keep him and his team busy. They will spend the summer preparing instructional labs for the next school year while also managing them for use this summer.

“We’ll have more than 200 students using the labs this summer,” Pineda said. “Previously, we never had more than 60 students. But now we have more students and more classes. We don’t have time to rest, but it will be an interesting summer.”

This story is part of an occasional series, Research: A Collaborative Effort. The stories illustrate the joint effort it takes to conduct research at UC Merced. If you have a story or anecdote that highlights how you or a colleague contributes to the campus's research enterprise, please email University Communications.