Building Towers

Fellowship Program Brings Catalan Engineering Students to the Samueli School

March 6, 2013 - The people of Catalonia, Spain, have a centuries-old cultural tradition of building human towers, or castells (castles). Usually seen at festivals or competitions, the castellers climb up each other and stand on their countrymen’s shoulders to construct a tower that can reach 10-human-stories high, often with a child on top. A crowd surrounds them, providing the safety net.

Successful engineer and Catalan native Peter J. Balsells is creating another sort of human tower, one of opportunity, right here at UC Irvine. In 1995, he endowed the Balsells-Generalitat Fellowship program in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering. Since then, nearly 100 of the most talented young engineers and scientists from Catalonia have come to UCI to pursue graduate studies and conduct research in engineering.  

“I really had to struggle, so I wanted to help others get the best education possible,” says Balsells who overcame great hardship while growing up in Spain during the oppressive Franco regime. His aunt provided him with a unique opportunity to pursue an engineering education in the U.S. He went on to excel in his studies and subsequent career. Today, Balsells is a successful engineer who holds 120 patents worldwide and is founder and chairman of Bal Seal Engineering.

Roger Rangel, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and Balsells Fellowship Program director, believes it is the most successful fellowship program at the university. “We host about 20 students a year, all highly qualified,” Rangel explains. “These fellows conduct research, publish papers and help obtain grant funds. It’s a very competitive program that receives additional support from the Catalan government.”

Eight new students arrive each fall for a one- or two-year fellowship. A third of them stays and pursues doctoral degrees. The Catalans already here help orient the newest arrivals, all building upon the foundation established by Balsells.

David Escofet Martin is among this year’s group of fellows. He is working on a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering and conducting research that involves laser diagnostic techniques and fluid mechanics.  He’s also an excellent chess player and holds the title of Catalan Chess Master. Since moving to California, he’s learned to surf, leaving less time for chess. But what he misses most about his home country is the food. “I especially miss the Pernil Salat,” he explains, about the traditional specialty of dry-cured Spanish ham that he often ate with bread at his home in Rubi, Spain.

Alba Alfonso Garcia is in her second year at the Samueli School. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering and conducts research in biomedical photonics and bio-imaging. “I like the research opportunities at UCI,” she says. “In Europe there is more specialization. Here, there are more resources and collaboration; it is enriching and mind-opening.”

Sergio de Miguel, one of the first Balsells Fellows in 1996, says the experience was a cornerstone in his career. After earning a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, de Miguel went to work for Honeywell in Arizona and in France, where he met his future wife. He returned to Catalonia to help with the family business and today is general manager and co-owner of Gometrics, a leading instrumentation and calibration equipment services company.

Many of the fellows have gone on to careers in business, government, research and academia in the U.S., back home in Spain and in other places in Europe and around the world. They are at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Broadcom, Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, as well as the Bal Seal Engineering Company right here in Orange County, and are as far away as China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

“For me, the Balsells Fellowship was a door to a more interesting career,” says Alba Perez Gracia, a Balsells Fellow from 1997. “I was a bored engineer working in the automotive industry in Spain, and today I am a university professor in the U.S. working in robotics.” Perez Gracia is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Idaho State University.

Through his initial endowment, Balsells has provided the shoulders for many of his countrymen and women to stand on. His castle has benefited the Samueli School as well as Catalonia.

-Lori Brandt