Anthony “AJ” Villareal cites his father as a big influence growing up – and a main motivator for choosing a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The elder Villareal, who works as an engineer, instilled in his son the importance of hard work and a never-give-up attitude, key elements to success in any STEM profession.

ORNL Research Profile: Anthony “AJ” Villareal
As a participant in the GEM Fellowship Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Anthony “AJ” Villareal spent two summers conducting research related to moisture content in residential buildings.

Inspired by his father, AJ Villareal studied mechanical engineering at the University of New Mexico (UNM), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in the field. During his senior year at UNM, he learned of the GEM Fellowship Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Viewing the GEM program as a great opportunity to conduct research at a top-tier research facility and a way to continue his studies in graduate school, Villareal jumped at the chance to participate.

As part of the GEM program, Villareal spent two summers with ORNL’s Building Envelope and Urban Systems Research Group in the Energy and Transportation Science Division.

Under the mentorship of Jeffrey Munk and Philip Boudreaux, research and development (R&D) staff members, Villareal assisted in the design of a software simulation tool that aims to predict the hourly moisture levels and heat generation within residential buildings.

Heat and moisture emanating from such sources as indoor appliances (washing and drying machines) and activities like showering and food preparation lead to water vapor inside homes. The amount of water vapor within a home can in turn affect the moisture content of the building materials and the effectiveness and efficiency of the home’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.

“When designing buildings, it is extremely important to consider and factor for the moisture content,” Villareal said. “(Moisture content) will have a major impact on the HVAC systems. By accurately predicting this content, it can lead to designing a more efficient building. 

Through the GEM internship, Villareal expanded his knowledge and grew as a researcher by tapping into the expertise of those in his group as well as across the lab. Additionally, he formed valuable connections with lab staff and other students.

“My past two summer experiences during my GEM Fellowship have been greatly beneficial,” Villareal said. “I have gained a significant amount of technical knowledge, but the people I have met and worked with have been just as beneficial and important to me. My experiences as a GEM fellow will stay with me for my entire career.”

Villareal is pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Once he completes his graduate studies, he intends to move back to New Mexico and start work as an engineer, following in his father’s footsteps. 

“During my career, I want to work on projects that will be beneficial to the lives of everyday people,” Villareal said. “I also want to give back to people and share my story and experiences with them, and hopefully this will leave a positive impact on future STEM leaders.” 

The GEM Fellowship Program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium and ORNL. The National GEM Consortium is a network of leading corporations, research institutions and universities that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in STEM fields. The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.