From Miner to Googler

From Miner to Googler

UTEP Alumnus’ Journey to Success

As a child, when Gilberto Contreras would receive a new toy, his eyes would light up. Not because he was excited to play with it, but because he could not wait to take it apart.

The University of Texas at El Paso alumnus spent much of his childhood disassembling toys, radios, calculators and remote controls. He loved to learn how things worked.

Contreras, Ph.D., was born in Torreón, Mexico, in the state of Coahuila. His family moved to Juárez when he was 5.

In middle school, Contreras enrolled in a vocational school in Mexico and studied electronics. He spent hours browsing through electronic hobby catalogs, dreaming up ideas for DIY projects.

His fascination deepened when he got his first computer at 13.

“Nobody in my family had used a computer before, so I had to read every single book about computers that I could get my hands on,” he recalled. “It was at that time I decided I wanted a career in engineering.”

A college degree was something Contreras always wanted, but coming from a lower middle-class family, his options were limited. A friend persuaded him to attend UTEP. He was able to afford his college education thanks to the P.A.S.E program, which allows Mexican nationals to pay in-state tuition. He also received a scholarship from the Margarita Miranda De Mascareñas Foundation.

At UTEP Contreras was first exposed to academic research as a member of the Neuro-Fuzzy Logic Team led by Patricia Nava, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Engineering and co-director of UTEP’s Distributed Computing Lab. Nava became Contreras’ first mentor and encouraged him to pursue a doctorate.

Contreras graduated from UTEP in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He went on to earn a master’s and doctorate in computer architecture from Princeton University.

Today, Contreras is a systems reliability engineer at Google. His advice to current UTEP students is to think big.

“Many students believe that it is virtually impossible to be admitted to an Ivy League school or be hired by companies like Google, Facebook or Amazon,” Contreras said. “One thing is for sure: if you don’t apply, you won’t be admitted, no matter how smart you are.”

- Christina Rodriguez