Simulating Complex Systems

March 04, 2023

Through research on polymers and liquid crystals, Gabriel Vega Bellido is using simulations to validate experimental models. 

Starting a Ph.D. program can be challenging at the best of times. For Gabriel Vega Bellido, who grew up in the Puerto Rican countryside and came to Penn Engineering during the pandemic, it was also a bit of a culture shock. 

But he gradually made connections, got involved and even came to appreciate the charms of big-city living. Today, as a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering, Vega Bellido is enjoying his experience and working on research that he cares about.

Here, Vega Bellido talks about his work with polymers and his overall experience at Penn Engineering. 

How did you choose Penn Engineering? 

As an undergraduate, I spent every summer doing research at different universities as part of the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) program. For my fourth REU, I worked with a professor in materials science at Penn, and it was easily my favorite experience. I really liked the work I was doing and the people I was working with, so I decided to apply to be in that same lab once I graduated. 

What has your experience been like at Penn Engineering? 

To be honest, the first year was pretty difficult. I was moving to what felt like a new country, with a completely different culture and completely different weather. And it was hard to make friends, because I came in during the pandemic, when most in-person activities weren’t allowed. 

But then one of the professors decided to teach the thermodynamics class in person, so we all went to campus for that class. I really appreciated that, because that’s how I connected with the person who is to this day my best friend at Penn. 

Now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted, what’s the community like at Penn? 

There are so many different groups. I’m part of the Fontaine Fellowship group, which provides support to minority students and to students who are not used to being in an Ivy League university. I also connected with a group of Puerto Rican students. None of them are in engineering, but it’s nice to have people to talk to in Spanish. 

And I’m continuously amazed by the people here. They’re extremely hardworking and smart, but also kind, hilarious, fun people. They make me want to do better. It feels like we’re all trying to do this big thing and we’re helping each other out along the way.

What’s your research about?

I specialize in setting up simulations of certain systems following a particular physical model. Right now, I’m working with systems of polymers and liquid crystals. The idea is to create simulations of very complicated systems—such as having polymers cross-linked to liquid crystals and then having the liquid crystals interact with each other in some way. There are no simulations of this kind of thing yet. 

So if I can make this system and make it have the behavior that it has shown in experimental studies, that validates our model, and we can use it to study more interesting systems. And step by step we get a better understanding of what’s going on.

What do you see yourself doing once you’ve finished your degree? 

I came in with the idea of going back to Puerto Rico to be a professor, but I don’t have a strict plan. My main goal is to understand life and the universe a little bit better, and science gives us very good tools for that. But my secondary goal is to make the world a better place. I have been given a very privileged position in life, thanks to my parents’ and grandparents’ hard work, and I would like to leverage that into something that has a positive impact. 

How is Penn preparing you for your future?

The resources here are amazing. Anything you want to learn, you can learn it here. And if there’s something that you want to do, there’s probably a system in place to help you do it. And there’s more than enough really talented people willing to help.