Sixteen-year-old Angela Mendez and 17-year-old Carolina Martinez are working side-by-side in a lab at UC San Diego this summer. On a recent Wednesday, they were mostly quiet and methodical among the whirring machines, lost in the process of transforming black carbon and polyethylene into a thin film.

“We’re working towards making batteries safer, so we’re creating a thermo-responsive polymer switching film, which is a coating that will go around a lithium-ion battery to prevent it from overheating,” Mendez said.

Think exploding cell phones and hoverboards in flames. These high schoolers are working on a possible solution to that. It’s part of a seven-week program, called Enlace, that brings together high school and college students from both sides of the border to collaborate in some 60 labs across campus.

“I place them in laboratories in pairs with the intent of having them build these human bridges across the border, using science and engineering as a tool to get them to engage, to get them to know each other, to get them to participate in the development of knowledge,” said engineering professor Olivia Graeve, who founded the program.

VIDEO BY KATIE SCHOOLOV

One might expect to see a study in contrasts — white, black and Asian students learning from their Mexican counterparts and vice-versa. But the vast majority of U.S. students in Enlace are Mexican-American and speak Spanish. It’s not required but, rather, a product of the region’s student body and recruitment patterns.

Just like her lab partner from Baja California, Mendez crosses the border regularly to shop or see family.

“Although we’re from different sides of the border, I think we’re pretty much the same,” she said. “We’re both ambitious.”

Her partner, Martinez, had to search when asked about differences between the two.

“Maybe here you can go hang out with your friends after school. You don’t really do that in Mexico because it isn’t the safest,” Martinez said. “But I think, at the end of the day, the culture is still pretty strong on this side of the border, even though we’re separated by a wall.”

The San Diego-Baja region already defies its border to some extent. Graeve said Enlace is about taking that to the next level.

“It is beyond just family crossing over and visiting family on both sides of the border,” she said. “It’s about thinking of this as one economic region and one region of innovation that can educate its young people to contribute to both sides of the border in science and engineering.”

As activists have staged rallies to protest President Donald Trump’s border policies, businesses and their boosters are urging the president to consider that shared economy. In a report last month, UC San Diego researchers detailed $6.2 billion in goods that U.S. and Mexican companies produce in tandem.

Educators, too, have been taking a stand to protect what immigrant students, international faculty and millions of dollars in cross-border research bring to their campuses.

Graeve, who grew up in Tijuana, hopes to build a future where those things aren’t at stake.

“The impact of having these students — future leaders, future diplomats, future scientists, future Nobel Laureates — know each other since they were 17 years old is gigantic,” she said. “Bringing these young people together for seven weeks and having them develop these true, honest and pure friendships is a goal that will eventually, in my view, change U.S.-Mexico relations. Friends since they were 17. That’s it. That’s the goal.”

If that’s true of Mendez and Martinez, they’ll make a powerhouse team.

“My dream college is MIT, but another option I think I could go to is Berkeley, and I would study chemical engineering,” Mendez said.

“I have very high dreams for, like, Stanford and stuff like that. But I’m thinking probably UCLA. I also find myself really drawn to Cal Poly,” Martinez said.

Enlace, in its sixth year, has seen record enrollment this summer despite political tension at the border. It’s grown from just five students to more than 100 this year.

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