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Vicente Llamas, PhD

I was born and raised in Boyle Heights, a barrio in East Los Angeles. Although my Mexican-born parents had very little schooling, they instilled in my two sisters and me the importance of education. I attended Catholic schools throughout my elementary, secondary, and university education. In high school, I did very well in the sciences and mathematics. However, I didn’t do well in high school physics, which was surprising to me because I loved building things and always thought I’d become an electrician or some other kind of mechanical technician. My love of building started when I was a kid. I was always fixing things like radios and television sets. I even built my own stereo with the help of my dad.
My high school teachers recommended that I take the “college track” courses rather than the strictly technical courses I planned on taking in order to become an electrician. I had no idea I was capable enough or even eligible to go to college, but I was accepted to Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles, which was exciting and scary at the same time, since my family, not wealthy by any means, had to come up with the high cost of college. At the time, we didn’t know that there were federal aid and loan programs to help offset the costs of higher education, so along with my mother and father, I worked constantly for four years. By the time I graduated from Loyola, my education had been completely paid for.
I entered college still interested in being an electrician, so I majored in electrical engineering, not knowing how vastly different the two fields are. One of the required courses was engineering physics taught by a professor named Father Cooney, who became a mentor to me. Father Cooney was absolutely fantastic— he always challenged us to do better and he did it in a tough, yet caring way. I loved the work and I loved the excitement of physics, so I decided at the end of my first year to pursue physics as my major. Everyone thought I was crazy given that I hadn’t done so well in my high school physics class. I wasn’t a stellar student, but I did finish my physics degree in four years and received a full scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Missouri.
My experience in Missouri was a hard one. Not only was it an adjustment going from an urban environment like Los Angeles to a rural one, but the Midwestern culture was so different. There was virtually no ethnic diversity. I had never felt like a minority before because, living in East L.A., we were the majority!  Except for another Hispanic student with the surname Romero, all my classmates were white, and there were very few women. I had good friends, but the small community of Rolla is where I had the difficulty. Townspeople didn’t respond to me very comfortably. I think it had as much to do with their ignorance of who I was as with their lack of experience with people from different backgrounds.  However, I decided to get involved in the community and my last two years were much easier as the townspeople appreciated my efforts.
After applying to 268 colleges for a teaching position once I received my Ph.D., I landed a job at New Mexico Highlands University in Northern New Mexico and was there for 24 years before retiring in 1994. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I began to get involved in developing organizations that helped increase minorities in the science fields, both academic and professional. That’s how the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) began— a group of Hispanic and Native American scientists in the early 70s who shared the similar experience of discrimination and isolation in the sciences.
It was a natural progression for me to continue my minority advocacy work after I retired. Currently, I spend a great deal of time working on programs to improve mathematics and science education in southwestern Native American and rural Hispanic communities.
As much as I enjoy traveling the country with my science/mathematics education consulting business, I miss teaching. I really loved the one-on-one interaction I had with students. I was considered a tough but caring professor like that of my mentor Father Cooney. I believe that one of the qualities of an excellent teacher is to accept the fact that he/she doesn’t have all of the answers. For me, this made for an exciting exchange with students whose questions always gave me new information and new insights. Although I no longer teach, I do have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve come a long way from building radios to helping build future communities of minority scientists throughout the country!