How these alumni went from love at Rice to faculty at UT

Recently hired together by the University of Texas at Austin, Samantha '14 and Pedro Santacruz '13 met in a Ashutosh Sabharwal class.

Samantha and Pedro Santacruz

Samantha and Pedro Santacruz met in that most romantic of settings at Rice University — Ashutosh Sabharwal’s class in “Error-Correcting Codes.”

“We worked together on the final project, and right away we learned we had different working styles, but otherwise we were very compatible. It was great,” said Pedro, who earned his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) from Rice in 2013.

“It’s amazing the way things have come together. We’re married, we’re part of the faculty at UT and now we have a baby,” said Samantha, who’s Rice Ph.D. in ECE came one year after Pedro’s.

Both were hired in the last year by the University of Texas at Austin. Pedro is an assistant professor of instruction in ECE; Samantha, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Her research lab, Santacruz Lab, focuses on development of neuroprosthetics and their use in treating various neurological disorders.

The couple began dating while at Rice in 2009 and married in 2016. Their daughter, Natalia, was born last January.

As a doctoral student, Samantha worked in the lab of Caleb Kemere, associate professor of ECE and of bioengineering.

“I was interested in communications systems, and the brain is the most interesting and complex communications system in the world. Our working assumption is that many disorders are caused by erroneous signaling in the brain and can be treated by correcting this,” she said.

Her doctoral thesis, “Engineering Deep Brain Stimulation as a Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease: from Models to Materials,” won the annual Best Thesis Award given by the ECE department. After Rice, Samantha was a postdoctoral fellow in electrical engineering and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting researcher in the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis.

“Having my own lab is wonderful. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that we can interface with the brain. Now I can approach that idea through three main areas — experimental work, computational and technological, meaning new interfaces,” said Samantha, whose laboratory staff includes a postdoc, four graduate students and five undergraduates.

Among the potential applications for her work are treatments for such common neuropsychiatric disorders as depression and anxiety, the leading cause of disability in the U.S.

Pedro earned his B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso in 2004 and 2006, respectively. While at Rice his research focused on distributed networks in wireless communications, working in the Center for Multimedia Communications under Sabharwal, professor and chair of ECE.

He was a postdoc at UT Austin from 2013 to 2015, and then an assistant professor of ECE for three years at San Jose State University. He teaches classes related to wireless communications, algorithms, distributed networks, information theory, graph theory and communication theory.

“UT has developed a new track for data science,” Pedro said, “and I’m part of that program. I’m fortunate to have some very good students.”

Samantha’s timing is good. Her training and research interests lie in the new and burgeoning field of neuroengineering.

“By nature it’s multidisciplinary and draws from expertise in biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, neuroscience, psychology, neurology and other fields. UT Austin has remarkable faculty members in all of these areas, which makes it an intellectually stimulating environment,” she said.