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By Nikki Cabus

Break Through Tech at FIU places 25 interns at American Express

Read Time 3 Minutes

Barbarella Castillo graduated from a private university shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had plans to pursue medical school but, like the rest of the world, she put those on hold. After re-evaluating her options, she decided to pursue her interest in computing and enrolled in the Knight Foundation School of Computing and Information Sciences at FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing. 

“It was an excellent decision,” says Castillo, who in 2023 graduated from FIU with a second bachelor’s degree and a full-time job waiting for her at American Express. She landed the position with the help of a unique three-week internship facilitated by Break Through Tech Miami.

American Express Vice President of Technology Donna Peters, who hosted some of the interns, says partnering with programs like Break Through Tech, which is designed to increase female employment in technology, helps support American Express’s goal of embracing diversity to fuel creativity and innovation.

“We firmly believe that innovation thrives on diverse skillsets, backgrounds, and experiences,” says Peters. “What is most satisfying for me is witnessing the “aha” moments when the pieces of the puzzle come together, and student learnings come to life.”

“Sprinternships,” as they are called, are micro-internships designed to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Unlike traditional internships, they don’t require students to ace a technical interview as a prerequisite. This removes one of the most common stumbling blocks for students attempting to enter the workforce, says Director of Break Through Tech Miami Nimmi Arunachalam.

“Hiring managers can get a better sense for a student’s long-term potential by seeing them perform in a natural environment rather than in a hypothetical, problem-solving scenario in front of a whiteboard, like what is typically presented in a traditional tech interview,” Arunachalam said. “Evaluating students in an organic setting, where they work on a team and solve a challenging project, could be a better way of predicting future performance and fit.”

Twenty-five students participating in the inaugural cohort received either a job offer or an internship offer from American Express.

Posted with permission from Break Through Tech Miami

By Nikki Cabus

FIU & FAU student duo wins $10K to develop wearable tech

Read Time 4 Minutes

South Florida students Laura Garcia (FIU) and friend Juan Fortich (FAU) win $10k to develop their wearable technology. 

The new company using sensor technology to help athletes perform better won the first prize in the 15th annual FAU Business Pitch Competition. The company develops small wearable pods that allow athletes to be healthier and maximize performance by improving their form in real time.

Laura is a health and fitness buff and was left frustrated as she trained for her first half-marathon in Yosemite.

“On top of spending months working on my physical endurance, I had to ensure my form was correct and my technique was on point to avoid any injuries,” says the computer engineering student, who is also a member of the FIU Honors College and Startup FIU. “It was during this grueling experience that I realized there had to be a better and more effective way to train,” Laura continued.

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and Garcia’s months of physical training gave birth to the idea for DashOne.

Wanting to translate the challenges she faced during her marathon training into a creative solution, Garcia and Fortich doubled-down on their idea for wearable tech and began conducting market research to learn more about her target audience’s needs.

Garcia credits her time spent at StartUP FIU, the university’s dedicated innovation hub, with instilling a foundational knowledge of what entrepreneurship is all about. That consequently inspired her as she mulled her senior class project, a requirement for all College of Engineering seniors.

Garcia is quoted on the Startup FIU site stating, “What I like best about StartUP FIU is that it allows me to be surrounded by an amazing community of ambitious, talented and brilliant people that are passionate about being changemakers in the world regardless of industry or major. StartUP FIU has also taught me the value of seeking and discovering new insights when approaching complex problems.”

“Determined, creative and tech-savvy, Lara is emblematic of the future-ready student StartUP FIU produces,” says Emily Gresham, Assistant Vice President of Research, Innovation and Economic Development and a Co-Founder of StartUP FIU. “Our experiential programming, dynamic learning communities and dedicated mentorship prepares students for success after graduation, and arms them with the self-confidence, skills and knowledge to help them excel.”

Laura partnered with her friend and Florida Atlantic University  student, Juan Fortich, to build DashOne. The pair’s prototype device has two components: a wearable sensor that can attach to different parts of the body, such as the torso, knees or ankles, and a mobile app that tracks and analyzes a workout in real time.

“Our goal is to reach competitive runners looking for real-time feedback on their stride, technique and form,” said Laura. “Most injuries happen due to poor form and running posture,” she explains. “While other devices focus on output and biometrics, such as a person’s stride or pressure when hitting the pavement, DashOne homes in on a runner’s form, which is critical to achieving peak performance.”

Garcia and Fortich started to develop the prototype in January 2023. Fortich was able to get the duo entered into Florida Atlantic University’s Business Pitch Competition where they won first place – and a $10,000 prize.

The annual FAU Business Pitch (formerly Plan) Competition is hosted by the College of Business, Adams Center for Entrepreneurship with support from local partners and sponsors. The competition encourages FAU students, faculty, staff and recent graduates to pitch their game-changing idea for a chance to fund their new ventures.

Along with prize money, teams compete for legal and business services, preferred access into the FAU Tech Runway Venture Program and the opportunity to present their business pitch to local angel, venture capital groups and more. Competitors have the opportunity to meet and network with successful entrepreneurs. Resources are provided to aid students in the creation and implementation of their businesses. Students will gain valuable skills and experiences to be successful.

“This year, the competition was the largest and best we’ve hosted,” said Kevin Cox, Ph.D., associate director of the Adams Center. “We expanded the finalists, given the large number of high-quality applications. The judges agreed that the competitors and pitches were excellent, making it especially difficult to select the winners.”

Named in recognition of Florida Atlantic University graduate and serial entrepreneur Scott H. Adams, the Adams Center for Entrepreneurship brings students, faculty and the community together to fuel the innovation needed to create new venture opportunities in the ever-changing global marketplace.  The mission of the Adams Center for Entrepreneurship at the DeSantis Pavilion is to create and educate entrepreneurial leaders who find sustainable solutions to economic and social problems. The goal of the Adams Center is to prepare FAU students in business, science, engineering, and all disciplines who are looking to become entrepreneurs through business ownership or through venturing.

Additionally, they have raised $5,000 by participating in the Blackstone Launchpad Fellowship, hosted by FIU’s Pino Entrepreneurship Center. The dynamic duo also competed in the semifinals of Draper Competition for Collegiate Women Entrepreneurs, one of the largest collegiate entrepreneurship competitions in the nation.

Garcia and Fortich plan to continue perfecting the prototype so DashOne can start raise enough capital to bring the unique device to market.

“DashOne has allowed me to step into rooms that I never expected to be in, connect with and inspire other students to pursue their own passions through entrepreneurship, and make the most out of FIU’s diverse resources and network before graduation,” Garcia says. “For that, I’m incredibly grateful.”

Click here to learn more about the other pitch competition winners and their companies. 

By Nikki Cabus

StartUP FIU Students Develop Innovative Strategies to Tackle Healthcare Disparities for Pharmaceutical Giant GSK

Read Time 5 Minutes

StartUP FIU, the innovation hub at Florida International University, partnered with GSK, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, established a hands-on, multi-disciplinary experience that inspired students to develop new and creative solutions to dismantle health disparities in minority communities.

In addition to being part of a nation-wide effort to improve health outcomes for minority communities and making a positive impact in the medical field, students selected for the program received corporate internship credits, the experience of learning from leaders and experts in the healthcare industry, and earning $1,000 for their efforts.

Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to equity and access, the 12-week GSK Innovation Challenge had a goal of honoring the legacy of this great man by igniting in a new generation the desire to fight for justice in the healthcare sphere. Reflecting the values of Dr. King, GSK is focused on the social determinants of health and is working to ensure high-quality, inclusive healthcare services and education is accessible to all. GSK is a global biopharma company with a purpose to unite science, technology, and talent to get ahead of disease together.

This experiential, hands-on challenge leveraged the lived experiences and diverse backgrounds of 34 FIU undergraduate students, 96% of whom hail from minority communities. Students with Hispanic, African American and Asian backgrounds are often able to offer personal perspectives into health disparities. In this case, the program addressed the low rates of vaccines in marginalized communities.

“These students really rose to the challenge with compelling and creative solutions and all the program mentors deserve a big thank you for their guidance” said Maya Martinez-Davis, GSK US President. “Some of these students learned about health disparities for the first time while others brought their shared experiences. Our goal is to close the gap in underserved communities by developing the next generation of innovators. The partnership between GSK and StartUP FIU is just one of many steps towards achieving that.”

FIU’s unique status as the country’s largest Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) with more than 32,000 students who identify as Hispanic or Latino, makes it an ideal place for global companies like GSK to get ‘on the ground’ perspectives from the communities they want to serve. Educating students across campus, many from different parts of the world, StartUP FIU offers a vibrant array of diverse outlooks, life experiences and cultural values that help organizations better understand their customer base and plan for a dynamic future.

Throughout the GSK Innovation Challenge, students from a variety of majors were guided by public health and entrepreneurship mentors to delve deeper into how minority communities make health care decisions, what sources they trust, who they listen to for medical information and how their lifestyles
either facilitate or impede positive healthcare decisions.

“This unique Challenge offered our students the opportunity to creatively explore a serious population health issue and brainstorm innovative ways to drive communities towards making healthy decisions,” said Emily Gresham, Assistant Vice President for Research, Innovation and Economic Development and Co-Founder of StartUP FIU.

At the end of the 12-week GSK Innovation Challenge, seven student groups pitched their solutions for increasing vaccination rates to GSK leadership. The Pitch Day event, held Friday, April 14, showcased the creativity and novel thinking that can occur when students are empowered with the tools of innovation and supported by expert mentors in the industry.

Members of GSK leadership who came to StartUP FIU to judge the student pitches were impressed by the creativity, thoughtfulness and hard work shown by FIU students.




Winning Idea:

Collaborate with companies that have large Hispanic workforces to include at-work vaccination events and other healthcare programs to streamline the patient experience

Team Members:

Vinai Sewaliah, Akerke Parmbek, Christian Castellanos & MaAngelica Subido




Winning Idea:

Targeted advertising campaign focused on influencing mothers, who usually make healthcare decisions for the entire family.

Team Members:

Daniella Diaz, Emily Gresham, Lina Henriquez & Yasha Hasan, Chloe Posthuma-Coelho




Winning Idea:

Targeted advertising campaign focused on influencing mothers, who usually make healthcare decisions for the entire family.

Team Members:

Devin Shanahan, Owethu Phekani, Itzel Castellon, Yomaira Ayala Daboin




Winning Idea:

Work with faith-based organizations to educate congregations about shingles and prevention.

Team Members:

Aditi Mishra, Katherine Mejia




The GSK Innovation Challenge is just one example of how StartUP FIU uses hands-on, experiential learning opportunities to help students implement the core concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship towards solving real-world challenges.

“By adapting what they’ve learned in the classroom to help companies solve some of their toughest problems, students gain confidence in their skillset and learn how to think critically,” said Robert H. Hacker, Director and Co-Founder of StartUP FIU and one of the Challenge’s entrepreneurial mentors.

StartUP FIU is a university-wide innovation hub that fosters and develops entrepreneurship and innovation to help our students, researchers, and community connect, contribute to, and thrive in today’s fast-changing world. We create and run programs based on two foundational beliefs: that the skills and principles of entrepreneurship are essential to navigate and harness the opportunities of our disruptive age, and that universities can play a unique role in unlocking opportunity and unleashing potential to shape a better, more inclusive, and more innovative future.

By Nikki Cabus

Interstellar engineering; Student uses NASA-supplied simulated lunar soil to 3D print out-of-this-world housing

Read Time 4 Minutes

NASA is working to build a research base on the moon to send the first astronauts to Mars. Along the way, a new industry is coming to life: construction on surfaces beyond Earth. This is where master’s student Brandon Aguiar ’21 is launching his promising career. 

Aguiar is advancing a 3D printing technique that makes durable structures out of lunar dust. He has produced igloos, building blocks and cubes with complex angles and curvatures.

Essentially, Aguiar is researching a material that could be the backbone of interstellar engineering. 

“It’s very expensive to ship supplies to space. One pound of material can cost thousands of dollars,” says Aguiar, a life-long fan of space exploration.

“Just imagine what it would cost taxpayers to ship entire houses to the moon. Instead, we can use the material that is already there to build infrastructure.” 

Lunar dust is a powder consisting of tiny, irregularly shaped rocks. It covers the moon and can present a potential hazard for astronauts. In previous missions, the dust has eroded spacesuits and sensitive equipment. 

Aguiar’s research would flip this hazard into an asset. Using a lunar dust simulant provided by NASA, he is working with a material that has approximately five times the hardness of mild steel. Now, the College of Engineering and Computing student is focusing on how to make his 3D-printed objects withstand all the perils of the moon, including radiation, asteroids and temperature swings.

Aguiar works under the guidance of engineering experts at FIU’s Plasma Forming Laboratory. One of those experts is Ambreen Nisar, a research assistant professor who researches ceramic materials used for space exploration and hypersonic vehicles.

“On Earth, temperatures are very different depending on where you go. The weather in Miami is super hot, but somewhere in the northwest, it’s still freezing. The same happens when you are on the moon,” Nisar said. “Any material that is used needs to withstand extreme thermal shock.”

Aguiar joins other researchers around the country who are focused on making structures out of lunar dust. In particular, Aguiar is focused on finding a way to manufacture the structures to withstand the harshest elements of space. The key is getting the parameters of the 3D printing and treatment process right. He mixes the dust with a resin, which is like a glue, to bind the small rocks together. Then, he 3D prints the material and puts it through a furnace to acquire the desired shape and to burn away the resin.

It’s like cooking, Aguiar says; the ingredients and parameters must be exactly right. He learned it from Professor Arvind Agarwal, director of the Plasma Forming Laboratory. 

“When I’m teaching my new students, I always use the example of cooking to explain materials engineering,” Agarwal says. “You can make a chicken into either grilled chicken or fried chicken. The taste is completely different, but the starting material is the same. The same goes for lunar dust used in Brandon’s research. By modifying how he ‘cooks’ the dust, he can completely change how his structures perform.”

Aguiar will continue his research on a Presidential Fellowship as a Ph.D. student at FIU this fall. His 3D-printing method and parameters are pending patents and were recently published in a journal. 

Aguiar’s research is a continuation of a senior project done by FIU Ph.D. student Kazue Orikasa, who is now researching how plastics could be used to protect technology in space. 

You can read more about Brandon here.



This article was originally written by David Drucker ’18 who is an account manager for FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing, where he writes about research and technology. Drucker has been a contributor to FIU News since 2018. In 2021, he led the launch of Panther Personalities, a podcast highlighting members of the FIU community. In his spare time, David enjoys fishing, golfing and putting his Paws Up for the Panthers at university events. The article was posted with Drucker’s permission. 

Break Through Tech at FIU places 25 interns at American Express
FIU & FAU student duo wins $10K to develop wearable tech
StartUP FIU Students Develop Innovative Strategies to Tackle Healthcare Disparities for Pharmaceutical Giant GSK
Interstellar engineering; Student uses NASA-supplied simulated lunar soil to 3D print out-of-this-world housing