Though I was raised far from the lands of my maternal grandfather’s people, I have always taken pride in my Lakota heritage. I grew up in the farming community of Sheldon, Illinois, with two sisters and a brother who are all younger than I; and to this day I prefer not to live in large cities. As a professor at the University of Michigan and yet a resident of a rural area fifteen miles from campus, I have been happy that my career choice has allowed me to steer clear of living in a big city.When I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, my cultural background was such an oddity that people were more curious about it than anything else. I do know that it affected my worldview quite a lot. For example, I dislike the Native American sports mascot at Illinois, Chief Illiniwek, which led to some uncomfortable encounters. Also, I was raised to have particular values that were not always appreciated by others. I learned to respect elders, understanding that they can reveal wisdom to you. Thus, I interacted with my professors differently than did many of my peers. I was not familiar with the style of learning that was more interactive, where you had to speak up and let the professor know that you had the answers. In many cultures people are not taught to stand out from the crowd and strive to make themselves noticed; so at times teachers may think quiet students are not learning or that they are not interested. However, just because you are quiet and perhaps do not always raise your hand in class, it does not necessarily mean that you are not a good student.
I changed fields several times during my journey from my Bachelor of Science degree to my doctorate. Though my first degree was in physics, after graduation I took a job in computer programming. While working as a programmer, I learned that my real interest was in mathematics and the teaching of it to others. Since a doctorate in the subject seemed to be the way to do that, I entered graduate school at the University of Illinois in 1977. I received a master’s in statistics and a doctorate in mathematics over the next six years. What do I study in mathematics? Spaces.
You live in a world that has four dimensions, because you can move forward-backwards, sideways, and up and down. Those are the three space dimensions. But don’t forget the other dimension, time. As a mathematician, my main mathematical focus is functional analysis, a branch of mathematics concerned with spaces having infinite dimensions! This is a difficult concept to consider, but mathematicians have developed tools to tame infinity. I have also recently published a graduate level textbook entitled An Introduction to Banach Space Theory. Banach spaces include the space that you live in as well as spaces of infinite dimension.
I am seriously concerned with the problem of extreme under representation of minorities in mathematics. To help remedy this, I spend my summers working directly with Native American middle and high school students on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa (Ojibwa) reservation in North Dakota. My responsibilities to them are to further their interest in mathematics and to help them understand the importance and cultural relevance of mathematics. For instance, in the Ojibwa language there is a wonderful way to attach suffixes to counting words to indicate not just the number of items being counted, but also something about the nature of the objects being counted. As an example, rather than referring just to two blueberries, an Ojibwa speaker could talk about niizho-minag miinan, two three-dimensional organic blueberries, where the fact that the two (niizho) blueberries (miinan) are three-dimensional and organic is implied by the suffix minag. The fact that these distinctions are important when counting in the Ojibwa language conveys vital information about the traditional values of Ojibwa culture. This helps the students understand more about their own culture and the place of mathematics within it.
Students should know that learning is not just the road to a better job: it can also be fun. When taking mathematics courses (and I encourage you to take as much mathematics as you can), you should ask your teachers to tell you interesting things about the material and its history, since this really is exciting stuff.
As a final piece of advice, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t succeed, or that you will at most be second-rate. I have had that happen to me, and I firmly believe that hard work and determination will pay off in the end bigger than anyone could ever imagine.
Addendum: Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow of the American Mathematical Society (Inaugural Cohort) Deputy Director, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley (2002-04)
Selected for inclusion in the book “100 Native Americans Who Shaped American History”, by Bonnie Juettner, Bluewood Books, long featured in the bookstore section of the National Museum of the American Indian
Updated April 3, 2018
Rebecca Garcia, PhD
I was born in Guam, a small tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. The Chamorro people migrated to Guam some 1500 years ago. Fast forward about one millennium, the island was claimed a colony of Spain by the (in)famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan. For nearly 500 years, the people were indoctrinated by the Spanish Jesuit priests and their “missionaries,” who brought with them a host of diseases like small pox and influenza. These diseases, along with the islanders attempt to return to their former ways of life, wiped out nearly 95% of the island’s inhabitants. The conquerors saw the need to restock the population, and this brought an end to the pure Chamorro bloodline. After the Spanish-American war, in the Treaty of Paris, Guam was ceded to the United States along with island nations like the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. We islanders still identify ourselves as Chamorros. In our culture, we place a high value on family.
Growing up financially unstable, I saw the importance of to reaching the point where I could take care of my family, and I knew that education was the key to having that privilege. I was probably six years old, flipping through the pages of an old dictionary, when I came across a small section about the different degrees in education, “Ph.D.: one of the highest academic degrees.” It was then when I started to dream of that different life.
I knew I had to leave my little island in order to get my degree. Throughout my schooling, I was serious about reaching my goal, so I allowed myself to be who I was and not try to fit in with the others. At the time, our schools had limited and outdated materials and equipment, but our teachers were dedicated, encouraging and supportive. They often said to me, ”Go to the best college you can, do the best that you can, and go as far as you can go.”
The idea that family comes first also had an effect on where I ended up going to college. Although I received a full scholarship to the University of Portland, my parents wanted me to be near my brother, who went to school in Los Angeles. My entire family (six of us!) flew to California and we marched into the admissions office at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) with my unofficial high school transcript. My mom met with the dean of admissions and showed him my records and asked if they would accept me. To my surprise, he said yes! Though it wasn’t my first choice, I was happy to stay close to my family. I realized that having done well in school opened up these doors of opportunity. Looking back, I would have done it the same way all over again, as embarrassing as it was!
Although LA is huge, the campus at LMU was comfortably sized, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I started my studies as a pre-med chemistry major. I quickly learned that even though I won an island-wide competition with my high school chemistry project, chemistry wasn’t for me. However, I really enjoyed my calculus class and did well enough that my professor, the late and great Dr. Mike Cullen, suggested I major in math. Later in my undergraduate career, Dr. Herbert Medina took me under his wing and became my mentor. He informed me of programs I could do to advance my career as a mathematician and invited me to work on some undergraduate research questions with him. He opened doors I never knew existed.
In the end, I received two national graduate fellowships to attend graduate school in mathematics, one from the National Science Foundation and one from the National Physical Sciences Consortium sponsored by the National Security Agency.
So, I went on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and although I made the cut with only 30 others, I was at a huge disadvantage from the very start. It was an extremely competitive environment, and the professors seemed interested only in the crème de la crème. Most everyone else came from universities like Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge. In fact, I needed to take extra undergraduate classes just to get up to speed. I felt very isolated and these early experiences made me realize that I should have chosen a graduate program that fits me. At the time, it seemed my first choice should be the best schools, but while I was there, I saw many who started out on a similar difficult path, got frustrated with life and ended up throwing in the proverbial towel altogether. I could have easily been one of them.
During a period of exams, my father passed away. It was a very difficult time, and so I left school for a while. After this necessary break, I went back and finished the master’s program at Berkeley. Then one of the rare congenial math professors at Berkeley, Dr. Bernd Sturmfels, pointed me toward New Mexico State University to go for my Ph.D.
The minute I was in that beautiful desert, I knew it was where I belonged. Although Las Cruces has a very different climate from tropical Guam, the population is largely Latino. It’s a huge support to feel like you belong to a community. The math department became my second home. Whatever I needed, large or small, the professors were there for me: trips to mathematics conferences all over the country and sometimes abroad, summer employment, materials and equipment. I finally finished my degree in August 2004.
Now I am an assistant professor in mathematics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. I teach classes every day and work on research projects with students and on my own. With a family of my own and the care of my mentally disabled sister, I work hard everyday to balance my personal life and my career. At the moment, I am working on developing a summer research program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. It will be the first such program in mathematics in the Pacific Islands. I hope to start bridging the gap between the Pacific Islands and the continental United States, both culturally and mathematically. Undergraduates will be able to work on current mathematical research topics, which I hope will influence them to pursue a career in mathematics. One of my career goals is to increase opportunities so more minorities seek higher math degrees. I am the first Chamorro woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, but I do not want to be the last!
Being a professor is a demanding job, but the rewards are worth every effort. I am in a highly visible career, where many students of color and women alike see in me that they too can achieve their dreams in the sciences and mathematics. I am a mentor, advisor and a source of support and encouragement to my students. If you love science or mathematics, don’t give up and don’t give in. Don’t give up your natural talents for anybody else and don’t give in to anyone or anything that tells you, “College is not for you. A master’s degree is not for you. A Ph.D. is not for you. ”
What can you do with your math degree? Mathematics will open so many doors of opportunity. It trains you to ask the right questions and gives you the power to find the right answers. This is an important skill in every career and in every science! Start out on the right foot now by getting to know your teachers, and appreciate all that they do. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize it was really their feet that kept those doors open for me all along.
Carlos Castillo-Chavez, PhD
I never thought about becoming a mathematician or a scientist when I was younger. In fact, I had a strong desire to become either an actor or a hotel manager! While in school I worked as a Coke salesman at the 1968 Olympics in my native Mexico City, and in a hotel. As a student I excelled at all subjects; however, after the October 2, 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, I lost interest in school. The hope for democracy and change had been destroyed by the military. I immigrated to Wisconsin in 1974 where I held a few non-academic jobs – including a job at a cheese factory – before returning to school. I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) in 1975, where I majored in Spanish literature and mathematics, earning my bachelor’s degree in 1976. I completed a master’s degree in pure mathematics in 1977 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and in 1984 I completed a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the supervision of Fred Brauer. I taught for a year at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma(1984-85) before accepting a position as a postdoctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Simon Levin (now at Princeton University) was my mentor from 1985 to 1988. I joined the faculty at Cornell in 1988 as an assistant professor of biomathematics, was promoted to associate professor in 1991, and to full professor in 1997.I have been very lucky because I have a job where I am interested and am able to work with issues that I find important. Because I want others to be able to have the same opportunities as myself, I co founded (with Herbert Medina) the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) in 1996. MTBI supports and fosters research activities primarily among underrepresented minority undergraduate students. During the regular academic year, MTBI also mentors and supports underrepresented minority undergraduate and graduate students from various universities who are working in the mathematical or statistical sciences. MTBI mentored and trained over 106 minority undergraduate students in the mathematical and statistical sciences from 1996 to 2000. About 47% of these students were enrolled in some of the most selective U.S. graduate programs in these fields in the nation. I received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1997, in part for the work that I have carried out with MTBI.
I currently hold joint appointments in the Departments of Statistics, Biometrics, and Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at Cornell University. I am also a member of the graduate programs of applied mathematics, epidemiology, ecology and evolutionary biology and Latin American studies at Cornell. My research involves the use of dynamical systems, modeling, statistics and computational techniques in the study of theoretical questions that arise in these fields. You may never have heard of a dynamical system, but its main idea has already been covered in your algebra course in high school, the composition of functions. In dynamical systems, we choose a function f and a point a, and follow the computations, a, f(a), f(f(a)), f(f(f(a))), …, forever. For example, if f(x) = x2, then if we start with a real number a, the sequence of numbers generated gets larger and larger if a>1 or a<-1, smaller and smaller if -1<a<1, and stays one if a=±1. This is a dynamical system. Maybe it doesn’t look very interesting, but if you let a be a complex number, then beautiful patterns are described. However, I used them mostly to model populations and disease epidemics.
I have carried out specific research on HIV/AIDS, influenza, Chagas’ Disease, and tuberculosis. My research is driven by the study of the role of social dynamics (social landscape) on disease evolution. I received a Presidential Faculty Fellowship Award (1992-1997) for my interdisciplinary research and leadership efforts, which included a $500,000 National Science Foundation Grant. My research and education programs have been supported by various funding sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Security Agency, and the Sloan Foundation. I have published over ninety research articles, edited two volumes and co-authored a textbook on mathematical biology (with Fred Brauer). I was awarded the Profesor Plenario by the Universidad de Belgrano, and named a Catedra Patrimonial by the Institute of Applied Mathematics (IIMAS) at the National University in Mexico (UNAM). In 1999, I was named distinguished alumni by the UW-Stevens Point Alumni Association, and in 2000 I received the QEM Giant in Science Mentoring Award. For a recent interview look at STRIDES.
My job has been extremely rewarding. Thanks to my luck, awards, and hard work, I have been able to give back to those who need it the most. I have learned that education is the key to a better life for an individual, their family, and their community.
Benjamin S. Duran, PhD
I was born in 1939 in Tularosa, New Mexico. My people are known as Chicanos, with four hundred years of heritage in New Mexico. My family was poor and extremely hard working, and I was the third oldest of five children. My siblings and I started working in the cotton fields when we were in grade school, trying to earn money to help our family. Although we were poor, we were rich in family values; the values I grew up with were those of family, community and helping each other.
When I started elementary school, I knew very little English. When I was in public school I had the impression that all teachers were white since that was the situation in our school—there were no role models for Chicanos. However, I was blessed with talent in mathematics and a high school teacher noticed that and pushed me into the more advanced classes in mathematics.
When I graduated from high school I was ready to join the Air Force. But, a friend of my family came to my graduation and offered to buy my books for the first year if I attended the College of Saint Joseph in Albuquerque. He took me there during the summer to see the campus and I decided I would take him up on the offer. This friend taking interest in my education motivated me in ways that are immeasurable.
I was the only one from my family to go to college and my first year of school was very difficult. I was so homesick I almost quit, but my parents considered education to be very important so they encouraged me to continue and pursue my degree.
When I was an undergraduate in college I supported myself by being a janitor for four years. I also had to take out loans to help support my education. Since I had not planned on attending college I did not seek any scholarships as a senior in high school and I did not receive any counseling to that end.
Despite my financial difficulties, I never had any doubt as to what I would study in college: mathematics. During my senior year at the College of Saint Joseph, my mathematics professor suggested that I attend graduate school and study statistics, since he felt that was becoming a very important field of study. He was right. I received a Ph.D. in statistics in 1966 from Colorado State University. As a graduate student I had a research assistantship for one year and a training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for four years. In graduate school there are more opportunities for support in the form of research/teaching assistantships, fellowships, grants, etc.
What do statisticians do? We are involved in the design of studies for producing meaningful data, analyzing data for useful information, and drawing practical conclusions from data. Statisticians are employed in our government where they are involved in many areas used in forming national policy, such as the census bureau where they design sample surveys. They are also involved in the pharmaceutical industry where they analyze data to determine which drugs are effective and safe before they are dispensed to the public; in the credit card industry where they determine the credit rating of applicants for credit cards; in industry where they are involved in the quality assurance of products; etc. In short, statisticians are employed in many different types of industry, which affect our daily lives.
As a statistician I was involved in public education for 36 years, directing the research of over 50 master’s/ Ph.D. students in statistics, and collaborating with researchers in several science and engineering disciplines. I have also worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory on problems dealing with system reliability, and at the Weapons Laboratory (now Phillips Laboratory) at Kirtland Air Force Base on research related to the development of an outer space discrimination system to defend against a potential nuclear attack, etc. Prior to my retirement from Texas Tech University in 2002, I was elected a Fellow of the American Statistical Association. One of my most important objectives is to promote the education of our minority students and to promote their involvement in today’s society. Also, I advise many minority students on educational opportunities.
If you are the first one from your family to pursue a higher education you will be setting a great example for those who are to follow. I was the only one from my family to attend a university but each of my four children has received at least a master’s degree. So you see, by pursuing a higher education you impact many others.
Ermelinda DeLaViña, PhD
My Hispanic background is so diverse (including Spanish and Mexican) that sometimes I just describe myself as fifth generation Texan. Although my parents grew up in the small town of Bishop, Texas, they moved to Houston, Texas when I was an infant and that is where I grew up. From the age of seven, I lived in a single-parent household in an inner-city neighborhood called Denver Harbor. I can remember that the middle school that I attended was pretty rough with lots of racial tension. Luckily, I was included in a school program called “Major Works” which encouraged academic excellence. This program helped shield me from some of the negative things happening at school.
Times were hard and my mom had to work two jobs. As the oldest of four children, I had to take care of my younger brother and sisters much of the time. Although it wasn’t easy, I can look back and say that growing up in my family taught me to work very hard and to be responsible for myself and others.
My mom always wanted her children to finish high school so that our lives could be easier than hers, but it never occurred to me that I might go on to college. However, when I was in the 9th grade, I had an algebra teacher that inspired me to seriously consider going to college. Mr. John Patronella made me feel smart. He made me believe that I could succeed in college, especially in math. When I brought up the idea of college with my mom, she beamed with pride and supported me all the way.
I consider myself lucky to have had such a wonderful mentor as Mr. Patronella because I didn’t feel that I got a lot of support in high school. For example, I remember a high school counselor who tried to discourage me from taking trigonometry and physics. She said, “Oh sweetie, you don’t need more math or science. You did all of your math, you did all of your science; you’re not going to need that.” Not only did I have the desire, but I believed in myself enough to know that I was capable of taking these classes, and I’m glad I did!
After high school, I went to the University of Houston for one semester but being in college was very different than I had imagined. So despite all of the support and encouragement from my mother and Mr. Patronella, getting a job and making money sounded more appealing to me; I dropped out. I moved to South Texas for a job, and it took me about two years of working long hours for not enough money at a small company before I decided to return to school. Fortunately my mother and Mr. Patronella were still very supportive and encouraging. I applied for student grants and loans while attending the University of Texas, Pan American fulltime. With Mr. Patronella’s continued mentoring, I decided that I wanted to attend graduate school, so I moved back to Houston. I was nervous about graduate school but promised myself that I would go to University of Houston for at least one semester. It turned out that I enjoyed the challenge of graduate school and research. I earned my Ph.D. in 1997.
My first year in graduate school, I was a research assistant for Dr. Siemion Fajtlowicz and helped to develop a version of his computer program called “Graffiti.” Graffiti generates conjectures in math. Similar to a scientific hypothesis, a mathematical conjecture is a math statement that will be either proven true or shown to be false. In middle school and high school, students are usually working with “concrete” math or math that’s already proven to be true. Students then learn how to do the problem and verify that the answer is correct. What makes my work fun and interesting is that I am able to work on conjectures, which means that I do know that they are necessarily true. If a conjecture is proven to be true, then it becomes a theorem; if it’s proven false, it’s usually thrown out and work begins on another mathematical statement.
By living and going to school in Houston and South Texas I was often surrounded by people with a similar cultural background, predominantly Hispanic. Still, at the University of Houston there were very few female or Hispanic graduate students in the math department. Luckily, in the math department, success was based on how hard you worked. Pursuing math and science has been challenging at times, but because I truly
As an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Mathematic Sciences at the University of Houston-Downtown I conduct mathematical research and teach college math. I plan to continue my research activities and teaching, and hope to someday become a full professor. I would also like to write short math books for college level students. My research with the Graffiti program continues as I have developed a similar program called Graffiti.pc. This has provided me many professional opportunities, for example, I was recently invited to be one of the main speakers at an international conference in Canada. A mathematics conference is usually a meeting where mathematicians share and discuss their research.
There are a lot of opportunities for someone with a Ph.D. in mathematics. You can become a professor like me or go into industries such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals, banking and accounting, governmental agencies, and high tech. The website for the Mathematical Association of America provides good information on a variety of careers
Employers are interested in the reasoning abilities and analytical skills of mathematicians. If you enjoy math and think it would be a career path for you, then follow it, embrace the challenge!
Concha Gomez, PhD
Many people who set high goals for themselves and reach them can tell you that a clear objective, determination, and support from loved ones got them were they are. I cannot. I had none of this support early in life. My father did not foster career-oriented aspirations in me because I was a girl, not a boy. He also did not support my decision to go to college later in life. I had a teacher who was excited about mathematics, but she never told me I could become a mathematician, although she did instill a love of math in me early on. Without support early in life, it was hard to set any goals at all, simply because I didn’t know I could. In other words, I didn’t set many goals because I didn’t know I should have any.
As an Italian and Cuban-American girl growing up in the Midwest, it was hard to find mentors, or even friends, who were of a mixed cultural heritage. I left the area as soon as I got out of high school and went to a more diverse area at the University of Wisconsin for college. Madison was a bigger city; it was southern Wisconsin, so it was a little bit more diverse but still wasn’t enough for me. I still felt very out of place, and soon I dropped out of college and moved to California, where suddenly the whole world opened up. The process of getting through college at a university seemed nearly impossible early on because of my lack of support from home. My father had encouraged my brothers tremendously and helped them pay their tuition, but he refused to give me a dime. In the end, I was forced to wait until I was in my mid-twenties to be considered financially independent so that I could apply for financial aid with or without my family’s help.
It wasn’t until I moved all the way to California that I realized how much diversity, or rather a lack of diversity, had affected me growing up. Still in California, however, there were very few women, especially Latina women in the field of mathematics. It did not even occur to me that mathematics was an area I could thrive in until I took a community college calculus course in San Francisco. I got such good grades and seemed to enjoy the work so much that my peers began to enquire about my plans for a four-year university. When I told them I hadn’t given college much serious thought, they were astounded. Eventually some older student friends of mine convinced me to give college more serious thought. Finally I was being told, “Of course you can!” instead of “Why would someone like you be interested in that?” Soon I began to look into University of California, Berkeley, and in time, I was accepted to the school.
While my goals and passions in mathematics seemed to be finally coming into clear view, I still didn’t have many mentors in the field encouraging me to thrive. Eventually I managed to put myself through college and graduate school at Berkeley as a mathematics major by working and going to school full time. I had this goal when I got into graduate school that it didn’t matter if I got my Ph.D. What mattered was that I learned as much as I could. I would only set these small goals for myself, not knowing how far I could take anything. Simply getting a B average was a goal, and then I got all A’s. By setting these small goals, I eventually was able to overcome the large obstacles set before me.
Now I am a faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I get to teach other students and run a program called the Wisconsin Emerging Scholars program. The program is supposed to increase the number of minority students in science and engineering by having them in intensive calculus discussion sections, similar to honors classes. I have come full circle back to the area in which I grew up, to the first university I attended and then left. It’s interesting because not a lot has changed. People still assume the ethnic norm to be Caucasian, and students of color often get marginalized and placed in the category of “other.”
Part of my job is to try and bridge existing gaps so that students don’t get left behind or not offered important opportunities to help them thrive. My experience growing up here and my education living in California help me bring together two worlds here. My favorite part of being a mathematician and teacher is working with students. I love it when I get to talk to a student outside of the classroom and find out their individual stories. I think it is important for me to offer mentorship because it is something I never had. It is part of my goal to offer support to students who may not have it and help define objectives that may not yet have been offered, so all they need is determination to carry them the rest of the way.
Cleopatria Martinez, PhD
I am Mexican-American, and I was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico. All of my relatives are from New Mexico–my family has been there since the beginning, from before the border was changed so that New Mexico was no longer a part of Mexico, but a part of the United States. In this sense, I have always been ”American”. I grew up in Denver, Colorado in the housing projects. I have a brother and a sister who are both younger than I. My family received welfare and always lived far below the poverty level.
My brother, sister, and I were raised solely by my mother. Sometimes my mother would work outside the home, so we had a great deal of responsibility. I was the oldest, and I had to make sure that everyone did their chores and their homework. I did my homework without any help, since my mother had only a third grade education. Sometimes she would relieve me of some of my chores so that I could do extra homework. In this way she showed me how much she valued education.
I attended Smedley Elementary School, Horace Mann Junior High School, and North High School, all in Denver. When I was growing up, we faced serious obstacles like poverty and discrimination. I was always aware of the notion that Mexican-Americans were not able to reach certain levels of success. I had a dream when I was small that I would be a brain surgeon and that I would discover something fabulous. However, that was one of those dreams that was crushed by the very subtle yet pervasive message that people who looked like me could not achieve this. Every year, my public school teachers would share statistical information with our class showing that kids with all of my characteristics, such as being on welfare, coming from a single-parent home with an income below the poverty level, and living in the housing projects, were likely to fail. A chart in the classroom showed different incomes for different families, and I found out that the income for my family was so low that it was off the chart. I thought that if people were that poor, they wouldn’t even be able to live. I laughed to myself because it was my goal at that time to reach the poverty line.
I felt invisible in school, but I wanted to succeed. There was no way I was going to inherit money or a job, so I knew I had to be a good student. I thought that English class was really unmanageable, because I never knew what the teacher expected and in history class, we never talked about people that I felt I could relate to. Out of all the different subjects in school, I liked mathematics the best. With mathematics, I found that if I followed the rules, I would get the right answer. It didn’t matter what the teacher thought, because there was only one answer that was right. I stopped listening to remarks that were negative. I just kept on going with my education. I decided that when I hit that brick wall, I’d hit that brick wall and let the wall stop me, rather than just stopping myself before I’d even tried. I graduated from high school, I was sixth in my class. After high school, I started college at the University of Denver as a mathematics major. I did very well in this program, and I went on to the University of Colorado, Boulder for my master’s degree.
After I had finished my master’s degree, I still wanted to get a Ph.D. Considering the discrimination I had faced, everything else seemed easy. When I went to college, I knew I had to work twice as hard as anybody else just to prove that I had equal abilities. This made me a very hard worker, and an extremely persistent individual. I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, Boulder. My current title is professor of mathematics at Phoenix College, which is part of the ten college system of Maricopa County Community Colleges. I teach mathematics from arithmetic to calculus and differential equations. From my experiences I have learned that if you have a dream, God has given you the ability to make that dream come true. If someone tells you differently, they are absolutely wrong.
Javier Rojo, PhD
My mother is from the little mining town of Jerome, Arizona and my father is from Rosales, Chihuahua, Mexico. I have four sisters, one older than me, three younger than me. I grew up in Juarez, Mexico which is right on the border. My culture derived mostly from Mexican values, because I had a lot of family around me. However, I was greatly influenced by U.S. culture, since the two countries are only separated by a river. As time went on, I was more exposed to U.S. culture, and during my graduate school years, Mexican-American culture made an impact on my life. I think my experience in coming from a more Mexican cultural environment has allowed me to understand that some of the perceived differences between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are not really there at all, and that we come from the same origin and have much in common.
My parents constantly encouraged me when I was growing up, so I always thought I could do anything I set my mind to. My parents never finished grade school, and my father by profession was a barber. Financially, it was sometimes difficult with five children in the house, so I started working while I was in high school to help pay for some of my expenses. I worked as a painter, a railway worker, and a gas station attendant. I also spent a lot of time playing sports.
I was always good at mathematics, and I decided to go to college right after high school. I attended the University of Texas at El Paso where I earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. I attended Stanford University for my master’s degree in statistics, and earned my Ph.D. in statistics from University of California, Berkeley. I am currently Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas, El Paso. There are two very different aspects to my job. One is teaching, which I enjoy very much. I always want to know about the new ways that young people see the world. As a teacher, I have the ability to affect their lives, and they also affect mine. The second part of my job is research. I especially enjoy working with undergraduates and graduate students on research projects. Students sometimes need some college level work before they have the background to do research. But there are many opportunities for a student to get involved if this is what they would like to do.
With statistics, people have the ability to impact policy decisions by interacting with public health officials and government agencies to better understand some of the problems in society. Statistical techniques are used in designing studies in clinical research, air pollution control, quality of manufactured products, and other areas such as engineering, physics and chemistry, and the creation of new materials. So I do not only work with other mathematicians and statisticians, but people who do many different kinds of important work. This is one of the best things about my job.
Right now I am working with the National Parks Service, looking at pollution data, specifically to try to see if the Clean Air Act passed twenty years ago is helping to keep the air clean in national parks. We have been trying to find out if the situation has gotten better, worse, or if it has stayed the same. The problem is complicated because the pollution in the national parks does not come from the parks themselves, but comes from the surrounding cities. I work with people in materials science (metallurgy) and we look at the properties of these materials in terms of corrosion properties, strength, and other qualities. I am also working on a problem which has to do with mapping certain genes in the human genome and trying to find out where they are, and whether a particular gene has an impact on any specific physical characteristic of a person. We are trying to tell from these genes whether a person has a chance of getting a certain disease in their lifetime.
I think statistics has potential use in any area of investigation. For students who are interested not only in mathematics, but have diverse interests in the other sciences, statistics could be the area which would give them the opportunity to interact in a wide range of scientific fields. My career objectives at this point are to become the best researcher that I possibly can, and to have a positive impact on as many minority students as I can. The best way I have found to meet my goals is to pursue them with hard work and perseverance.
Guadalupe Lozano, PhD
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.
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.