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Omayra Ortega

Omayra Ortega, PhD

I was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, to hardworking parents: my father was a building superintendent and my mother was a flight attendant. They were both born in Panama but met in New York City. My parents and my two older brothers were always very supportive of my dreams, even though they didn’t always understand why I was constantly studying!
Math was a lifelong friend that made sense to me. From kindergarten to sixth grade, I was a fixture in my elementary school’s computer club. A good student who wasn’t always challenged in school, a social studies teacher nominated me for Prep for Prep, a program that supports promising students of color in New York City schools.
As a result of my time spent in Prep for Prep, I was later admitted on a full scholarship to Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts. Unlike my time in New York City, I was very aware that I was one of a handful of students of color in the school. Still, I was always proud and happy with my uniqueness. This confidence would be a great asset later on.
After high school I went to Pomona College in Claremont, California, where I commenced party mode! During my freshman year I was suspended after failing two classes and sustaining a whopping 2.0 GPA. Finally, it was time to relearn the value of hard work and discipline. I went to De Anza Junior College in Cupertino, California, where I got serious with my studies. I took on a full-time job at a bagel store that opened at 3 a.m. I would work until noon and then head to class where I took a double full load. For the first time in my life, I got straight As! Community colleges are a terrific way to get an education at an affordable price, if you are motivated to study and work hard.
My experience at the community college was an important boost to my confidence, and I decided to return to my math and music double-major at Pomona College. Unfortunately, the dean was not sure I could handle it. In addition, I was the only person of color and the only woman math major. My mentors advocated for me strongly and I was reaccepted.
That summer was a critical for me. I considered moving to Las Vegas and becoming a lounge singer. My mentor, Erica Flapan, was completely shocked. She recommended I teach summer school math classes at the Center for Talented Youth. If not for her, I might have left the field of mathematics entirely!
Dr. Ami Radunskaya and Dr. Rick Elderkin at Pomona encouraged me to apply to a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. I was chosen to participate in the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) program.
At last, I was on the right track. It was like a sleepaway camp for nerds where I got paid to study! No more waking up at 3 a.m. to bake bagels. I was now learning the secrets of higher mathematics and loving it. We studied linear algebra, ordinary and partial differential equations, and stochastic processes—all which would one day be put to great use in my research.
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and attended the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) summer program before attending the University of Iowa for my PhD. Studying for a doctorate is the start of a long and arduous path that has many rough spots—where you can easily get discouraged and drop out. But this is true of all the great and difficult things life has to offer. There were many times when I doubted myself and just wanted to quit with my master’s. It would have been so much easier to go home and throw parties for a living. And then, I considered that life.
I realized that I would most likely burn out before I reached middle age, and then what? But you can be a mathematics professor your entire life and get paid to study creative ideas! Becoming a professor is also a great tool for social mobility. My father would say, “Don’t worry about the boys right now, just worry about your education. Whatever you want to do, we will support you!”
Preparation in the EDGE program helped me during my early years in grad school and later when I took and passed my comprehensive exams. This helped me gain a lot of confidence. I thought, “Now all I have to do is write a really long paper to get my PhD!”
And that is exactly what I did. This was an incredible challenge for me. Although I have always enjoyed creative writing, this level of technical writing at this length seemed tedious. At times I had no idea if I could even answer my own questions.
At long last I received a PhD in applied mathematics and computational sciences from the University of Iowa. My dissertation in the field of mathematical epidemiology evaluated and predicted the growth of rotavirus infection at the population level. Today, I still continue with this research. I am also an assistant professor of applied mathematics at Arizona State University where I teach a variety of courses, such as calculus, probability, and proof writing.
In my spare time I train in capoiera (cap-oh-way-rah), a Brazilian martial art that combines self-defense, dancing, music, and acrobatics all in one! It is a great way to develop focus and discipline—all the skills necessary to succeed in mathematics.
Being great in mathematics is like anything else—you need lots of practice. If you think you love math, then stick with it and keep trying. If you ever get discouraged, then try a different type of math or find new people to study math with. Get to know as many people as possible. Look for better mentors. Network and find a good community with as many supportive programs as possible.
Right now there is a shortage of American mathematicians. But there is a great deal of money for people to study in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Part of the reason I have my PhD is bribery. “Oh, you would pay for me to go to grad school? OK! I’m happy to take your money!” So much of what happened to me was just serendipity. I happened to see this poster. I happened to meet this critical mentor. I happened to have been recommended. But it is our responsibility to make those chances happen.