The Fulbright Scholars

January 13, 2020

Moises Velasco Lozano and Eduardo Maldonado Cruz both grew up in rural regions in the southern part of Mexico near the Pacific Ocean. Not being known for its oil and gas production, the journey to petroleum engineering was unlikely for both Velasco and Maldonado particularly since they did not know each other until college. With a deep passion for learning and a drive to succeed as well as some chance encounters along the way, Velasco and Maldonado were led to each pursue a doctoral degree in petroleum engineering in the Hildebrand Department as prestigious Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholars.

The Early Years

Living in small cities of Oaxaca in Mexico, Velasco and Maldonado were raised with only the necessities like water and electricity - they did not have access to supermarkets or universities. For Maldonado, being raised in a town of only about 200 people with extreme poverty, he said he quickly learned about what was important in life.

“Being close to family and traditions are what matter most,” Maldonado said.  “You do not have many opportunities, but you do your best in everything and always try to be better. That philosophy was the premise for all my future decisions.”

Velasco did not have a clear path to receiving a college degree as neither of his parents received advanced degrees. They were both committed to growing crops on the farm. “Despite not having the higher education experience, my parents always supported my studies and wanted to give me that opportunity,” Velasco said. “I get my work ethic and drive to be successful from them.”

Maldonado was fortunate to have his mom and dad be his elementary school teachers - they taught him to read at an early age. Maldonado describes attending elementary school as “magic.” He spent many hours in the school library immersed in books on technology. One day, while in the library, he clearly remembers spotting a petroleum engineering book on the shelf.

(l to r: Eduardo Maldonado Cruz and Moises Velasco Lozano)

“The images in the book were impressive because I never imagined a platform could exist in the middle of the sea,” Maldonado said. “Beyond seeing astronauts in space, an offshore rig was the coolest thing I had ever seen – at that moment I fell in love with technology and the environment.”

Velasco discovered petroleum engineering in a less traditional place – the soccer field. He attended a soccer match in his hometown and began talking with a man on the sidelines who worked as a chemist for an oil and gas company in Mexico. This immediately sparked Velasco’s interest so he began an online investigation into the energy field.

“I discovered that Mexico is an important oil country and I found out how we play a strong role in researching petroleum engineering,” Velasco said. “The professionals in this discipline are doing something risky, but also rewarding. I loved that the topic included a lot of math too as that is my favorite subject.”

Despite years of not being able to attend classes due to teacher strikes, Maldonado made a commitment to himself to continue reading and studying. By the time he entered high school he knew he wanted to study either engineering or earth sciences. While in high school he spent a lot of time looking at potential majors and his interests led him to petroleum engineering.

“I remember specifically reading about the petroleum engineering major and I thought ‘yes this is definitely for me,’” Maldonado said. “I also recall watching the movie “Armageddon” as a kid and being inspired by the drillers – I later learned that the story is not too accurate, but it was exciting when I was younger.”

Both Maldonado and Velasco set their sights on attending the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the highest-rated university in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. Maldonado knew he had significant work to do since he did not have a strong educational background. He asked two of his high school teachers for their support and they agreed. He would go to their offices and practice calculus for two to three hours after school each day. With persistence, they were both accepted into UNAM’s petroleum engineering program.

When Maldonado and Velasco first arrived in Mexico City, they did not know each other. They eventually met within their program, but said they were not friends at first. Then an opportunity to participate in a contest sponsored by Schlumberger came up and they figured they were stronger together. Maldonado and Velasco were right – their team took first place in the competition.

“Working together on this project solidified our passion for petroleum engineering,” Maldonado said. “That win was a big motivator for us to continue our studies and it was important for our overall development.”

The Fulbright Experience

After graduating UNAM with BS and MS degrees in petroleum engineering, both Maldonado and Velasco went to work for private companies in the oil and gas sector for about two years before coming to the realization that they wanted to take the next step in furthering their education – pursuing a PhD. Both Velasco and Maldonado applied for the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship in Mexico, which is given to a select number of students each year to participate in an international exchange program to pursue a graduate degree.

In 2018, Maldonado and Velasco both received the scholarship; they were the only two majoring in petroleum engineering. With the scholarship in hand, which covers all college costs, they applied and were accepted into six petroleum engineering programs across the United States. They both chose to be Longhorns due to the program’s No. 1 ranking. With the UT PGE graduate population representing more than 20 countries, the program flourishes beyond its academic and research accolades – it also teaches students how to become compassionate global citizens.

“Fulbright is an amazing program that promotes the academic and cultural exchange between nations,” Velasco said. “I am lucky to be part of a small group of people who have the chance to go abroad and to share my culture and learn new things. I questioned if I was the perfect person to do it and thought ‘what if I fail, what if the language barrier is too high,’ but in the end I realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I had to take it.”

Velasco and Maldonado began attending UT PGE in the fall of 2018. Velasco is currently conducting reservoir simulation research with his supervisor, Dr. Matt Balhoff, and Maldonado is also working on data analytics and machine learning with Dr. Michael Pyrcz. They plan to finalize their specific research topic over the next year. So far, the UT PGE academic experience has been positive for both Velasco and Maldonado.

“In addition to our supervisors, it is amazing that I get to work with professors like Drs. Pope and Lake - they are transmitting their wealth of knowledge to us through classes and research and are always happy to meet with us,” Velasco said. “We also have great facilities to run our experiments and UT PGE has a demanding, but good, academic program.”

Post-graduation, Velasco’s goal is to become a post-doctoral candidate and then eventually he wants to return to Mexico to become a professor in order to teach the next generation of engineers. Maldonado plans to continue seeing the world through the global industry.

“I want to work for an international company that will allow me to grow in my career, but I also want to support my home country by providing them with ideas on energy sustainability,” Maldonado said. “I want to support the energy development of my country.”