Engineering dreams

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Marika Agnello and E.J. Castillo leave a legacy of scholarship, service and on-campus involvement

Engineers are dreamers who want to make a difference in the world.

Sometimes their dreams stretch across continents. Sometimes they reach beyond the stars.

For graduating College of Engineering majors Euver Joaquin (“E.J.”) Castillo and Marika Agnello, those dreams began early in life and survived a few detours along the way.

In 1996, then-seven-year-old Castillo was already fascinated with the way things worked and dreamed of leaving his native Dominican Republic to reunite with relatives in the United States. Those dreams were delayed, but never lost. After a 13-year wait, Castillo and his mother finally secured the visas that allowed them to come to the United States in January 2009.

Castillo had prepared for the day when he could follow his dream. In high school, he enrolled in the most challenging technical school in the Dominican Republic so he would be prepared for the academic rigors of engineering.

“I came to the United States with a pretty solid technical background,” he said. “I did not know where I was going to end up, but I definitely knew I was passionate - at the time – about internal combustion engines. But, in general, I just fell in love with the elegance of power generation systems.”

Castillo was “ready to hit the ground, running” to pursue his degree, but he faced an immediate hurdle: unfamiliarity with the language of his newly adopted country.

He enrolled in an accelerated English program on Rowan’s Camden campus and attacked the course with his customary zeal, completing three semesters of work in just over two semesters.

Following that, Castillo enrolled as a student at Rowan at Camden, earning a 4.0 grade point average in the courses he needed to transfer into the mechanical engineering program. While a Rowan at Camden student, he launched a tutoring program that has since expanded to cover a number of subjects related to math and science. He continues to serve as a tutor there while also supporting organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the New Jersey Tree Foundation, Rowan’s Intensive English Language Program and the University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Castillo’s student research reflects his fascination with power generation systems. He was part of student teams involved with drivetrain and heat transfer research programs funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense.  He also conducted tension testing of designs that could pave the way to lighter, more fuel efficient aircraft and developed a biomedical testing protocol for metallic forearm implants. His forearm implant research could lead to implants that are better integrated into the bone and more reliable over time.  

While Castillo’s pursuits may have been a bit more grounded, Agnello, of Washington Township, was star-struck.

“The first time I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface, I was inspired,” she said. “I was seven years old, watching a recording that my parents had and I thought it was amazing that a human being could actually go to the moon.”

As a high school student who wanted to be a teacher, Agnello had planned to attend Rowan to major in elementary education. That changed after she visited the Rowan campus during her senior year.

“I really loved chemistry, and when I visited Rowan, I talked to some people in the engineering building and it sounded like something I could try,” she said.

The inspiration of the lunar landing combined with Agnello’s love of chemistry led her to some remarkable achievements as a chemical engineering major at Rowan. 

She conducted materials and energy-related research geared toward improving aerospace travel and secured NASA Space Grant Consortium funding to investigate ways to harness heat from a chemical reaction to produce the energy for portable electronic devices.

Last summer, Agnello interned at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio, researching the polymer-based aerogel innovations used for spacesuit insulation and which could also be used for aerospace antennas. Her research was more than an academic exercise.

“I was thrilled to have contributed to the mission of NASA and realized my impact when I saw my research on display at the Great Lakes Science Museum,” she said.  

Back down to earth on the Glassboro campus, Marika served as president of the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Student Organization Executive Board, launching a mentoring program for incoming first-year Honors students and initiating a service project to build a community garden with the Glassboro Community Family Center.

Both Agnello and Castillo have been heavily involved with the Rowan chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Two years ago, Agnello authored a grant that earned EWB $4,500 to implement biosand filters in a community in El Salvador that did not previously have local access to clean water.

This past spring, Castillo returned to the Dominican Republic with an EWB  group that will develop a project to bring clean water to Valle Verde, a poor, rural community that must rely on water delivered by trucks every seven to 15 days.

“Over the past half decade, I have experienced the benefits and comforts of life in a developed country,” Castillo said. “The trip showed me how fortunate I have been. My parents are from communities very similar to Valle Verde and the fact that I have had the opportunity to better myself and see the world differently makes me feel extremely privileged.”

Following graduation, Castillo will take a position with PSE&G’s nuclear engineering team and attend the University of Pennsylvania on weekends to earn an Executive Master’s Degree in energy sustainability and environment. 

This fall, Agnello will begin working toward her doctorate degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware. She hopes one day to return to the classroom as a college professor to help inspire the dreams of another generation of engineers.

Castillo, who is graduating summa cum laude, and Agnello, who is graduating magna cum laude, will accept their degrees during Rowan’s 89th annual undergraduate Commencement ceremony on Friday, May 16.

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