Meet Nicolas Santiago, STEM diversity advocate and future physicist

Jessica Peterson
January 12, 2017

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science recently recognized Nicolas Santiago, a senior physics student at DePaul, at the National Diversity in STEM Conference in Long Beach, California. SACNAS honored him with a 2016 Student Presentation Award for his research entitled, "Chinese Archeomagnetism."  

Santiago's research explored the earth's ancient magnetic field, which protects its inhabitants from solar and other cosmic radiation.

"Scientists know the earth's magnetic field changes over time, but until we did this research, there was no established, accurate way to measure the ancient magnetic field," Santiago says.

By heating shards of ancient Chinese pottery and measuring the magnetic field of its particles as it cooled, the scientists were able to open a window to the past.

"All materials used for this procedure had grains containing magnetic particles. We were able to determine that the magnetic field of the particles in the pottery reflect the earth's magnetic field at the time the pottery was fired," Santiago says.

By understanding how the earth's magnetic field has changed over time, scientists can apply this method to possibly predict what will happen to the geo magnetic field in the future.

Fueled by a supportive grandfather who raised him on the south side of Chicago, Santiago's interest in science developed early in his youth.

"I wasn't raised in a good neighborhood, and few people around me believed that I could actually accomplish anything," Santiago says. "But I was always curious and wanted to know about the world around me, so I excelled at science."

After his grandfather passed away when he was 15 years old, Santiago moved in with a cousin. From that point forward, Santiago worked in order to pay rent and other bills. At the age of 20, he worked three jobs to make ends meet. On his way home from work on Christmas Eve, he was hit by a car and suffered serious injuries that kept him in the hospital for four months. The accident was a true turning point for Santiago.

"When I received a settlement after my accident, I decided to go to Japan with a friend as soon as I was well enough," says Santiago, who started studying Japanese culture when he was a teenager.

Santiago's six-month stay in Japan set him on his current course and fulfilled a lifelong dream.

"I saw more of what was possible in life, and that there wasn't one right path to pursue," he says." 

When he returned to the U.S., he studied for a certificate in polysomnography - sleep studies, and then worked full-time while he attended community college. When he began applying to four-year colleges, he emailed chairs of the physics departments with questions about their programs. Jesus Pando, chair of DePaul's physics department, was the only one to personally respond to Santiago and offered to meet with him.

"Professor Pando is why I came to DePaul," Santiago says.

Once here, Pando became Santiago's mentor, and urged him to get involved with SACNAS, as well as the Society of Physics Students at DePaul. Santiago is now president of SACNAS and vice president of the Society of Physics Students. As president of SACNAS, he has transformed the organization to be more inclusive of women, and established a women of STEM program. Now, half of the organization's executive board is women, whereas it was 90 percent male in the past.

For Santiago, one of the benefits of scientific research is collaborating with physicists at other universities. He conducted the Chinese archeomagnetic research, for example, with colleagues from the University of California-San Diego. He is currently working with a faculty member at the University of California-Irvine to study superfast laser plasma. He is well on his way to achieving his long term goal - obtaining a doctorate in physics.