The paths of life are not always straight or unobstructed, but when we have a purpose anchored in passion, we can always make the best of our circumstances. We can choose our outlook in whatever surrounds us, and this is key for getting where we want to be in life. I believe that drive results from passion and perseverance. And I believe that mathematics can spur us all to discover our passions, by tapping deep into our creative roots.
I was born in Rosario, Argentina, the cradle of a Latin culture pervasively infused with European traits, a country tethered by glaciers, jungle, desert, and sea. My background is part native, part Italian, part Swiss, and part Spanish. I am proud to be a Latina woman, but I don’t feel my heritage defines me exclusively. Since I grew up in South America, I never saw myself as an ethnic minority. I was also surrounded by both strong men and women, and this made me little aware of gender stereotypes.
My parents were both first-generation college graduates: my father was a hand surgeon, and my mother a biology researcher and university professor. They inspired both my younger sister and me by encouraging us to discover and pursue that which we had a passion for.
My father passed away in a car accident when he was just 41 years old. I was nine. Though physically absent, he lived through my sister and I, as my grandfather used to say. And he certainly lived in the stories and memories of the many who knew and loved him. During his life, my father had a joyous bohemian spirit. In the hospital ward he would sing to the lepers he treated, inspiring them while restoring functionality to their hands and feet. After his death, my mother remained a strong and steadfast spirit. Always focused on the positive, she led and inspired us even through the most difficult time of her life.
Throughout my life, my analytical mind has always craved worthy challenges. This is why I went to a math and science intensive high school, the Instituto Politecnico Superior General San Martin, an institution also known as “El Poli” to its many alumni. There, my passion for mathematics began to develop. Surrounded by a majority of male peers, I enjoyed subjects like chemistry, drafting, and material sciences while learning, literally, to make nuts and bolts in the old workshop lathes. El Poli taught me practical skills such as carpentry, soldering, blacksmithing, and even masonry. In my senior year, my search for a balance between theory and applications led me to specialize in construction. I loved creating floor plans, blueprints, and performing engineering calculations.
While still in high school, I came to the U.S. on a cultural exchange for a semester with an organization called Youth for Understanding (www.yfu.org). This was a great experience from many angles. I attended an American high school in Spokane, Washington, and had a fantastic host family who would later influence my return to America. Once back in Argentina, I finished high school and took the summer to think about my future. My love for math and science had grown strong, yet these subjects had almost been my exclusive focus during high school. I felt I wanted to explore something new. I considered a variety of fields: medicine, economics, engineering, architecture, and even law.
After reading my parents’ anatomy books, I realized I was not terribly moved by the prospect of memorizing such detailed information about our human body. So, I opted to start a career in economics and accounting. I really enjoyed taking classes in marketing, and civic and commercial law. These subjects enriched me, adding much-needed breadth to my high school experience. But when I began working in an accounting office, it became clear to me that the scientific creativity I had experienced in high school had no equivalent in the accounting field, and so I returned to mathematics.
Mathematics is a field where the creative mind can be unleashed to blossom while extending and reshaping the work of other creative minds. A student of mine, who is a full-time artist, once reflected: “Doing mathematics is like shaping clay into a piece of art. You problem-solve until you achieve the shape you envision, or something even better.” The fulfillment that stems from a finished piece of mathematics can indeed be just as personally engrossing as the work born of the artist’s hand. Unfortunately, the beauty of mathematics and its creative power often remains hidden to those who are only exposed to the artifacts of the discipline. Mathematics is more a way of thinking, than a collection of facts, rules, and skills. It is the art of essentializing, to unveil structure.
After completing a year and a half of mathematics studies at the Universidad Nacional de Rosario, I transferred to Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where I had earned an international scholarship. There, with the unwavering support of my USA host family and many of my Whitworth professors, I quickly earned my bachelor’s of science in mathematics.
Both my parents had university degrees, so I always thought I would earn a graduate degree as well. I moved to Arizona and started the PhD program in mathematics at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There I was surprised to notice a gap between the mathematics I knew and the mathematics I was expected to know. I had always led my peers when it came to mathematics, yet now somehow the tables had turned. It was an exciting yet an unsettling time.
I have always surrounded myself with people with forward-looking vision and a positive outlook. Such individuals are great assets in challenging times. A good friend of mine, now himself a mathematician, would often remind me that focusing on the math I loved was far wiser for graduate school success than fretting about: “Just do your best and enjoy the math you love!” The advice I sought from my math professors seemed to echo my friend’s words: “Having to catch up is normal, don’t get discouraged!” So, I dropped some classes and took others that were still challenging but more manageable. And so I got through my first year of grad school.
Some of my peers ended up leaving the program. Stepping away from a mathematics PhD program is not always a bad thing. Leaving because you decide math is not what you want to do is fine. But leaving because all of a sudden you feel defeated can be an issue. The sour flavor of feeling one has fallen short sticks to you no matter what, and may later undermine other successes. So my advice is: know what you like, and leverage the opportunities to pursue it. I focused on my love for mathematics and immersed myself in the field.
Early in my graduate career I discovered groups and fell in love with Galois theory. But later, a summer reading introduced me to symplectic and Poisson geometry, and this plucked just the right chord in me. So I became a geometer. I chose a problem that straddled both theoretical and applied mathematics and earned a PhD in mathematics specializing in Poisson geometry of dynamical systems.
After postdoctoral time at the University of Michigan and the University of New Mexico, my husband and I have returned to his hometown of Tucson. I am now Director of Development and Evaluation at the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Arizona, and my current academic work focuses primarily of mathematics education.
In addition to being a mathematician, I also enjoy many hobbies: operating a ham radio, spinning, dancing salsa, and pottery. I still enjoy carpentry a skill I have drawn upon while remodeling two houses. Today, I am also the wife of a driven entrepreneur and the mother of two young boys.
I have found that in life, the important thing is to understand what motivates you. Do you want to make money? Do you want to be well known? Or do you want to do something you have a passion for and use it to make a difference? Having that clear is important for approaching whatever you might choose to do in life. I have always done the things I love. I feel privileged to have had this choice, and I wouldn’t change a thing.