Rutgers University–Camden researcher David Salas-de La Cruz, associate professor of chemistry in the Camden College of Arts and Sciences, is keenly aware that plastics touch every facet of our lives. However, rather than profit from his knowledge of plastics, Salas-de La Cruz has made it his life’s work to replace the petroleum-based materials fueling the world economy with natural alternatives. The sustainable materials created in his research lab hold promise in reducing environmental pollutants and fighting the onset of climate change. As Rutgers–Camden celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month, Salas-de La Cruz’s career in chemistry—a field in which Hispanics comprise just 7.1% of the workforce in the United States—is a reminder of the importance of diversity and representation in laboratory science.
Salas-de La Cruz, a native of Puerto Rico, recalled regularly being the only Latino at conferences, on grant reviews, and when seeking faculty members who could serve as mentors or collaborators. Reflecting on National Hispanic Heritage Month, he said he feels he is “breaking walls little by little.”
“I am both a scientist and an engineer, and I have seen a lack of representation in both fields.”
“I am both a scientist and an engineer, and I have seen a lack of representation in both fields,” Salas-de La Cruz said. “I want to motivate more minority students to pursue STEM careers.”
Salas-de La Cruz is among Rutgers–Camden researchers developing natural substances that can be regenerated from trees, plants, biodegradable waste, algae, and grass. The materials are intended to replace common construction materials such as wood, concrete, and steel. Salas-de La Cruz’s team is producing a durable, lightweight, naturally based plastic material with sugars and softeners that can be folded and formed for architectural and manufacturing use. The project, supported by a five-year National Science Foundation grant, involves a multidisciplinary research team from Rutgers‒Camden, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Rowan University.
“These natural materials will offer an alternative to petroleum-based plastics to create new products in the pharmaceutical, manufacturing, and energy industries,” said Salas-de La Cruz, director of the Chemistry Graduate Program and member of the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology at Rutgers–Camden.
Abby Morales, a Ph.D. student born in Camden who lived her early years in Puerto Rico, has conducted research in Salas-de La Cruz’s lab since her junior year of high school, when she participated in the American Chemistry Society SEED program at Leap Academy University Charter School, founded by Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. Encouraged to aim higher, she then worked in the lab as an undergraduate and graduate chemistry student, participating in projects supported by NASA’s New Jersey Space Grant Consortium and the National Science Foundation.
“For me to get to where I am, it started out as a dream. Nonetheless, with the faculty, colleagues, and classmates who were placed in my path, I was able to make it a reality.”
“For me to get to where I am, it started out as a dream,” Morales said. “Nonetheless, with the faculty, colleagues, and classmates who were placed in my path, I was able to make it a reality.”
Morales acknowledged that her success has been significant to the entire Camden community. People who watched her grow up, or who were a part of her academic journey since grade school, now ask her to share her experiences with fellow Hispanics and first-generation college students who aspire to the same career.
“It’s wonderful that I get to do this not only for myself but for others around me,” said Morales, who hopes to work in a government lab one day. “My advice: Don’t be afraid to stand out. You will surprise yourself with how far you will get when you are determined to succeed no matter the odds.’”
And if Morales needs any encouragement herself, Salas-de La Cruz is there to show her time and again what is possible. He believes that she, too, has what it takes to be a university professor someday. Meanwhile, his message to young Hispanic students is simple: With passion and perseverance, you, too, could change beliefs and misconceptions—all while reducing the global carbon footprint.
“If you work and study hard, perhaps one day your chemistry ideas might change the world,” Salas-de La Cruz said. “You are an important member of our society, and we need you. You may never know that the key knowledge to replace our petroleum-based products is in your mind. We just need to find it.”
“My advice: Don’t be afraid to stand out. You will surprise yourself with how far you will get when you are determined to succeed no matter the odds.’”
Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis and Rutgers University–Camden invite you to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by recognizing and honoring Hispanic individuals who have made a difference in the Rutgers–Camden community and beyond.
Creative Design: Karaamat Abdullah
Photographer: Ron Downes, Jr.