Logo: University of Southern California

The Dream Maker

Through his mentorship, Valero-Cuevas breaks down cultural barriers and provides aspiring engineers with the opportunity to reach their goals.
By: Stephanie Shimada
August 19, 2013 —

Francisco Valero-Cuevas
Step into USC Viterbi Professor Francisco Valero-Cuevas’s Brain-Body Dynamics Lab at USC, and you’ll find a neuroscientist, biomedical engineer and mechatronics engineer. In fact, the eight researchers in his lab come from very different backgrounds, from their research interests to country of origin.

Valero-Cuevas, a professor of biomedical engineering, biokinesiology and physical therapy who studies how the brain controls our bodies, has a talent for bringing students together to work towards a common goal. Such collaboration helps strengthen research by combining different skills and expertise to find solutions for the increasingly complex challenges facing medicine, science, robotics and beyond.

“He has this uncanny ability to find the links between two different people, from two very different backgrounds, and bring them together to collaborate,” Alexander Reyes, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at USC, said.

In his lab, Valero-Cuevas and his students work to design robotic systems that exhibit real human performance. His research draws from an array of disciplines, including neuroscience, biomechanics and robotics. Valero-Cuevas also works on rehabilitation and restoration tools for occupational therapy and physical therapy, including clinically useful devices that measure and strengthen the neural and muscular interactions that produce function, thereby improving hand and leg dexterity.

Valero-Cuevas was recently awarded with one of two outstanding technical achievement awards from the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards for his research and dedicated mentorship of his students, and elevated to Senior Member status in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

His ability and passion to bring students, including minority students, into the sciences extends far beyond the classroom and USC.

Every summer, Valero-Cuevas collaborates with colleagues at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to identify students with outstanding talent, drive and ambition, and bring them to USC for a summer internship program.

Valero-Cuevas personally interviews and handpicks students in whom he sees potential, inviting them to spend eight weeks as Ph.D. students in a lab that aligns with their interests at USC. If they like the program, they can apply for USC’s Ph.D. program with tuition and other related costs covered by a dedicated fellowship.

This internship program is designed to populate a collaborative agreement that Valero-Cuevas and Dean Yannis Yortsos designed and created between USC and CONACyT, The National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico, in 2010.

“This program adds a new dimension of understanding between Mexico and the U.S.,” Valero-Cuevas said.

Since the program’s inception, Valero-Cuevas has brought five to six Ph.D. students annually into USC’s Ph.D. program, with up to seven students participating in the internship program each year. This recently facilitated a university-wide agreement with Mexico, via USC’s Mexico City office, which will help bring students from Mexico into all scientific disciplines at USC.

“USC wishes and has the opportunity to be a leading partner with Latin America,” Valero-Cuevas said. “This can be accomplished through interaction, education and collaboration with some of the best institutions in Latin America.”

John Rocamora, a Ph.D. in mechatronics, is one of the star talents who Valero-Cuevas brought over through the internship program and the collaborative agreement with CONACyT, and whom he continues to mentor. Rocamora has received numerous prestigious awards at UNAM, including the Manuel Franco-Lopez award and the Gabino Barreda Medal.

“I owe Francisco for my being here [at USC] and being in grad school,” Rocamora said.

Valero-Cuevas, who grew up in Mexico City and went on to earn his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, was inspired to initiate this collaborative agreement between USC and CONACyT because he noticed that USC, Stanford, Cornell, and other prestigious universities at which he has worked, attract many international students, but much fewer from Mexico.

Valero-Cuevas hopes this program will not only help identify and support the brightest students from Mexico, but also help inform USC and the USC faculty about Mexico and its high level of science and engineering education and achievements.

Beyond his outreach efforts, Valero-Cuevas, who received the undergraduate mentoring award at the 2011 Mellon Mentoring Awards, serves as a role model in and outside the lab.

“He motivates his students,” Rocamora said. “He always motivates you to push forward, and even the ideas by themselves are so interesting and fun.”

Rocamora lauds Valero-Cuevas for his extensive knowledge and research expertise.

“He knows how to deal with every part, from the technical to the biological to the clinical,” Rocamora said.

Reyes, the USC biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, attributes Valero-Cuevas’s ability to draw students from all scientific disciplines ethnicities and countries to the professor’s infectious personality and passion for his work. Valero-Cuevas is known among his students as fun loving and inviting. He can always be found smiling and telling jokes.

During one of Valero-Cuevas’s many lab parties at his house, Reyes remembers a moment when the professor started talking about his research to a full room. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to listen.

“All of a sudden people’s heads were turning, and everyone was interested in what he is talking about,” Reyes said. “He is very captivating, very passionate about the research that he does.”