Celebrating Inclusive Excellence: Alex Montañez Strives to Leave a Mark on the World

<p><em>GTRI Research Associate Alex Montañez sits with his service dog Willow. (Photo Credit: Sean McNeil)</em></p>

GTRI Research Associate Alex Montañez sits with his service dog Willow. (Photo Credit: Sean McNeil)

At the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), we advance technology and provide innovative solutions. To achieve such a broad mission, GTRI needs people with varying skill sets and abilities to support the needs of our sponsors and our organization. That is how Alex Montañez, an artist and graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), ended up at a research institute.

Alex hopes to leave a mark on the world, contributing his talents to a great cause. While reflecting on adversity and victories in his life, Alex remembers many people who positively impacted him along the journey.

Seeking Art and Finding the Navy

Growing up, Alex had no idea that his choices would lead him to GTRI. After his mother’s passing when he was 11, Alex was sent to Puerto Rico to live with various family members. The first few years were difficult. He could understand Spanish but didn’t speak it or really know how to read or write it. Through this tumultuous time in his life, Alex sought art as a form of escape. He started small with places and objects and gradually advanced to drawing video game characters and attempting to make his own concepts.

“When I was in high school, I surprised my art teacher with some of the knowledge that I had acquired through books and my observations of my surroundings,” Alex explained. “Art became a form of expression and way for me to communicate how I felt.”

After high school, he hoped to attend college and learn about automotive design. However, his extended family had no real means to help him. Due to personal family reasons, he had little to no opportunity for higher education.

Alex was at a point in his life where he was unsure of what tomorrow would bring, and it felt like no options were available. He reached out to an old friend of his mother who was a Navy Recruiter. She offered plenty of options to choose from, but due to time constraints given to him by his extended family, Alex had to pick a job that would grant him an opportunity to leave as soon as possible. He opted to become a steelworker, S.W. for short, thinking that metal fabrication would put him one step closer to becoming an automotive designer.

However, his eight years of contract service did not turn out exactly as he expected. Alex was deployed to Iraq in 2004. There, he supported a variety of construction tasks, including reinforcing vehicles, creating functioning shower facilities, rapidly building bridges, and completing repairs for tactical operations. Alex also engaged in a lot of humanitarian relief, eventually earning him a humanitarian ribbon. After Hurricane Katrina struck the United States in late August 2005, Alex aided in the relief efforts distributed through Mississippi and Louisiana. While deployed to Africa, he not only helped build homes and schools for the local residents, but also built relations with the community while upholding the Navy’s traditions and values. While this is not where he had anticipated life taking him, Alex looks back on this time in his life with gratitude.

“I met amazing people that helped me become the person that I am today,” said Alex

Seabees are known for their “Can Do” motto and comradery. During his time serving with the NMCB 74, he met one of his closes friend and brother at arms, Andrew (Andy) Rhead, while playing chess. Alex won three games in a row and never allowed his friend a rematch.

“Another one of my military friends, William Anderson, was the one who got me into the digital field (of art),” said Alex. “If it weren't for Will, I probably wouldn't have had the direction on what I wanted to pursue and wouldn’t be where I'm now.”

Returning to His Artistic Roots

Upon completing his service, Alex opted to utilize the G.I. Bill to pursue a college education. Initially, he enrolled in the now-closed ITT Technical Institute, but the game design program was shut down before Alex had a chance to complete it. This left him scrambling with half his G.I. Bill already used up.

Alex found a path forward at The Art Institute, where he met Phillip Hall, an animation instructor at the time. In 2014, Alex completed his bachelor’s degree in Media Arts and Animation and was ready to finally see his dream of working in art and animation come to fruition. But then, interview after interview ended with no job offer. Everyone loved his portfolio, but without any relevant work experience, nobody was willing to take a chance on the new artist. Alex reached out to his old professor and friend Philip for advice. He wanted to know what he was doing wrong.

Phillip explained he had been in a similar situation. He understood the frustration of wanting to put his skills to use, only to be stopped by the lack of work experience. Alex was at a crossroads in his life, and his upcoming choices would shape the course of his future.

Phillip’s solution had been more education. He took a risk by enrolling in a master’s program where he focused on refining his skills and pushing his limits. Afterward, Phillip landed a small job as an animator, and there he grew his network and met people who saw his potential. Eventually, he got to work on box office films like ‘Hotel Transylvania’ and award-winning games likes ‘Red Dead Redemption 2.’ This story resonated with Alex.

“I felt that pursuing a master’s was the most reasonable course of action for me as well,” shared Alex. “But at that time, I wasn't even able to be able to afford it. I had nearly used up all my G.I. Bill due to a combination of getting my bachelor’s at the Art Institute of Virginia Beach and situation with ITT Tech.”

A veterans' advocate recommended a vocational rehabilitation program that assists service members with disabilities in achieving a higher educational level. Alex signed up for the military program, and with his impressive portfolio and letters of recommendation from professors, he received the scholarship and soon enrolled at SCAD.

As he entered his master’s program, Alex was facing conflicting feelings. He had finally found a path forward and a way to express it, but there was also unrest in his personal life. He recently had ankle surgery, a serious relationship had abruptly ended, and he had just moved to a new city where he didn’t know anyone.

“I was ultimately alone, and I was definitely at my low point,” said Alex. “It was a very difficult journey for me to even make it to the start of my education.”

At first, people didn’t believe in him. But Alex pushed himself, and little by little, people started recognizing his talents and expertise. By the end of this time at SCAD, Alex was leading workshops and was well known around campus as the go-to guru with ZBrush and Maya.

During Alex’s final year at SCAD, he attended an event called BeeConnect. There, he met Megan Denham, a senior research associate at GTRI’s Information and Communication Laboratory (ICL). Megan saw Alex’s passion and talent. She thought those skills, combined with his prior military experience, would make Alex a great fit at GTRI. And she was right! Alex joined GTRI in February of 2020 as a temporary employee, with a way to join full-time once he completed his master’s degree in May of that same year.

Finding a New Community at GTRI

Almost as soon as Alex started at GTRI, the organization responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with work-from-home policies. Even though Alex didn’t get an opportunity to work side by side with fellow coworkers, he wanted to finish his degree and join the team full-time. It was April when tragedy struck once more, as Alex found out his little sister had passed away.

“It was tough,” Alex said. “I had spoken to her about getting together for the holiday a few weeks prior, and she expressed how proud she was because I never gave up on my dreams, and it gave her courage to keep moving forward.”

What kept Alex going through this difficult time were the words his sister gave him, the drive his friends and family instilled in him, and the GTRI community (that he knew so little about) showing him a level of understanding and compassion.

Alex did graduate with his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Visual Effects in May 2020, and he started his permeant role at GTRI in the fall. While his current title is Research Associate I, a better descriptor may be 3D Environment/Character Modeler. In ICL, he works on texture design, rigging, and animation in both the 2D and 3D space. He also has experience in motion tracking and motion capture, and he’s moving into learning coding languages such as Python and C++ to aid in his designs.

“My main goal is to do something in my life where I can leave my name chiseled,” said Alex. “Whether in a game or a film, I want proof that I was alive. I overcame these insane hurdles. I want to show that I managed to get here and make my family in heaven proud as they watch from above.”

At GTRI, Alex offers his expertise to research teams, and his background in the military offers him a clear perspective on the importance of GTRI’s national security-focused work. Alex has faced intense adversity at every step of his life. Thankfully, at many stages, friends and mentors have come along to guide and support Alex. In 2021, Alex’s GTRI coworkers had the opportunity to play that role in his life. Only a few months after his sister passed away, Alex too found himself in an isolated hospital bed with an early strand of the virus.

“I’ve been through some tough times in my life, but being in a room where you don’t have the strength to physically move, nurses and doctors are coming in and out of the room in what looked like hazmat suits, and hearing them say they may have to put you on a ventilator… it tore me up inside” shared Alex.

Through what was explained to him as an experimental treatment, Alex was able to recover. But he returned home weak and barely able to walk. Some of his GTRI colleagues, including Megan Denham, Victoria Razin, and Leigh McCook, delivered a get-well basket and ensured Alex felt supported through his recovery.

“It was that kind of dedication, kindness, humility, and overall humanity from these individuals that instilled the drive to work that much more at GTRI. It made me want to give back,” said Alex. “It reminded me that I started working because Megan sold me on the idea that I'll be able to give back with my skills.”

Alex’s current goal is to continue growing in his field and learning new skills. To help his coworkers on future projects, he would love to collaborate on opportunism that could open up doors for GTRI in the VFX experimental film and VR/AR field.

“I would even like to dive into a project that would incorporate aspects of what a service dog is or even create a game to drive a story about people with a service dog,” said Alex. “When it comes to GTRI, I’ve seen and worked on projects that have the potential to be even greater. It makes you feel like anything is possible with the right minds and passion.”

 

Writer: Katrina Heitz
Photographer: Sean McNeil
GTRI Communications
Georgia Tech Research Institute
Atlanta, Georgia USA

 

The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the nonprofit, applied research division of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Founded in 1934 as the Engineering Experiment Station, GTRI has grown to more than 2,800 employees, supporting eight laboratories in over 20 locations around the country and performing more than $700 million of problem-solving research annually for government and industry. GTRI's renowned researchers combine science, engineering, economics, policy, and technical expertise to solve complex problems for the U.S. federal government, state, and industry.

 

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(Interim) Director of Communications

Michelle Gowdy

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