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Laura Montoya: Loves The Magic Of Chemistry

SOCORRO, N.M. April 30, 2012 – Laura Montoya is a rare sophomore who is being named a Macey Scholar for her junior year. She worked at Sandia National Laboratory two summers – before entering school at Tech – and again during the 2011 summer in the Research Experience for Undergraduate program in conjunction with the University of New Mexico. She is also the president of the New Mexico Tech student chapter of the American Chemical Society, also known as the Chemistry Club.

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Laura Montoya has been doing research in explosives and projectiles since middle school. 


Montoya fell in love with chemistry in high school and soon found that explosives were pretty cool too.

“I got to my first chemistry lab and it was magical that you can mix two liquids and you get a solid,” she said. “It doesn’t intuitively make sense … Now, I say ‘I can’t do card tricks, but I can do chemistry’.”

She gravitated toward the engineering side of chemistry because she loves the application and solving problems.

As a middle school student, she did a Science Fair project that tested different building materials and how well they can stop projectiles.

“My parents told me, ‘Don’t do it [pyrotechnics].’ So, of course, I was drawn to it,” she said. “This was post-9/11 and I was hearing about the terrible circumstances for civilians living in places like Afghanistan. I was trying to find cheap building materials that could stop bullets.”

So, she tested a variety of plywood, sheet metal, and sand.

“I found that a couple of inches of sand will really stop projectiles that will blow through 10 plus pieces of plywood,” she said. “That’s how I got interested in the ballistics side of engineering.”

Her early experiences in Science Fair opened her eyes to both New Mexico Tech and the research possibilities available to students.

“I first came here as a little middle schooler and didn’t really know what I was doing but I had success and met people who were encouraging,” she said. “I did low-level impact studies and I saw the excitement of the EMRTC judges and I could feel their enthusiasm.”

Those experiences lead her into the Chemical Engineering Department.

She now actively seeks to engage youngsters in chemistry through outreach activities. She has done demonstrations for local second graders and hopes to catch them before they get turned off of science.

“I want them to see that people go to college for this and they can too,” she said. “I want to see them before they make up their mind that they don’t like spinach … or science.”

Dr. Bernadette Hernandez-Sanchez of Sandia National Laboratory supported Montoya’s nomination to the Macey Scholar program, saying that she is eager, tenacious and diligent.

“Over the last seven years, I have worked with over 30 students,” wrote Hernandez-Sanchez, who earned her undergraduate degree at Tech in 1999. “Among them, Laura stands out because of her enthusiasm towards working in a chemistry laboratory.”

Hernandez-Sanchez emphasized that Montoya has consistently volunteered her time toward outreach efforts with youngsters. Montoya assisted with the National Youth Sports Program demonstration in nanotechnology and chemistry. She also participated in the CSI: Dognapping workshop, sponsored by Sandia, which targeted third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

“It is special to see a student willing to dedicate not only her own time to pursing her career, but to also help others,” Hernandez-Sanchez said. “Laura truly goes above and beyond while maintaining a strong academic record for herself.”

Montoya also has spearheaded the Chemistry Club’s semi-annual offering of ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. Club members make 10 gallons of ice cream during 49ers and during Spring Fling. Each mixing bowl full – about a gallon – is done in less than three minutes after introducing liquid nitrogen.

She also works as a Teaching Assistant for the Introduction to Pyrotechnics Lab, which she calls the best job around.

Her latest job at Sandia – with Hernandez-Sanchez – was to study potential nano-materials to prevent the corrosion of hydrokinetic energy turbines. She synthesized novel nano-materials, affixed the materials to metal coupons, and analyzed their electrochemical properties. She presented her research during the undergraduate poster session at the national American Chemical Society conference in August 2011.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech