Miguel Perez loved listening to his father’s on-the-job stories. An industrial engineer, his father was responsible for keeping the equipment in the plant in top running order while making sure the people operating the machines were in top condition, too. That relationship between people and machines is what inspired Miguel to pursue a higher education despite many hurdles. Against many odds, in 2005 Miguel received his PhD in Human Factors Engineering from Virginia Tech. Today, as a Research Scientist with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), he conducts paradigm-changing experiments for the government and Fortune 500 partners.
“We’re all about designing to people’s behavior, rather than just designing nifty new products,” Miguel says. “We study risky behavior, such as cell phone use while driving, and then try to solve the problem through engineering.” Recently, his team tested alert systems that will notify drivers if there’s something they might hit when backing up. “There are too many horrible instances of children being injured and killed because of blind spots in many SUV and pickup designs,” he says. “The goal of our work is to eliminate the negative impact of both intentional and unintentional driving behaviors.”
Born and raised in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Miguel has always found room to help improve people’s lives. Throughout his college career he served as a mentor to many other minority students. Since receiving a Ford Fellowship while completing his graduate work, he has participated in the Ford Foundation’s annual conferences—designed specifically for minority students who are engaged in or studying minority issues—as a mentor and panelist. “I was given a lot of encouragement by mentors and colleagues,” Miguel says.
“It’s important to give back. Besides, I love interacting one-on-one with these minority scholars.” Miguel is also an active member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), for which he serves as judge for the Formula SAE design competition, an annual contest of college teams from around the world vying to build the “best” open wheel racecar. In 1995, Miguel and his teammates built a solar car that went from Indianapolis to Golden, Colorado, on solar-charged batteries.
So who were the people who most influenced Miguel? He says that both his father and his mother, who is a retired college professor, expected nothing short of excellence, despite financial hardship, and were very involved in his and his sister’s schooling. A co-worker of his father, who completed his schooling at Virginia Tech, was also very helpful in helping Miguel avoid many pitfalls in his graduate studies. And, of course, there was the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), which provided scholarships through the last few years of his Bachelor’s degree and the start of his Masters program. “HSF was hugely important to my success,” he allows, “not only because of the financial assistance, but also because their ongoing advice opened many doors for me along the way.”
As his father and mother inspired him, Miguel hopes to encourage other minority students with this advice: “Seize every opportunity that comes along; have a back-up plan for those times when things don’t go as expected; find the balance between work and a personal life; and set priorities, but be flexible, treat them as guides, not gospel.”