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!