I was born in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up in the Spanish speaking part of town. Both of my parents were born in the state of Sonora in Mexico. My father died when I was nine years old, and my mother had to work three jobs to make ends meet. My siblings and I also helped out by working at the family gas station after school, on weekends, and during the summers. Though my family experienced poverty, I came away with a sense of pride. My family valued education. In grade school, I had a supportive group of teachers. They were very caring, tough, and they believed in my abilities. I appreciate them giving me a good foundation in English and mathematics. I was a B student through high school. During my junior year, at the suggestion of a teacher, I carried out an experiment on the impact of a medication on the fruit fly. Many hours of work produced insignificant results. Laboratory work did not suit me. After graduating from Salpointe Catholic High School in 1964, I attended the University of Arizona. I chose to major in chemical engineering. This choice was made purely for monetary reasons. A chemical engineer had visited my high school and had said that he made $11,000 per year! This was an unheard of sum of money at that time and I decided to choose that for my field of study.
There were several problems with this choice of a major. As a high school student, I had detested chemistry class. Secondly, my abilities to perform any kind of experiment were negligible. If the chemistry experiment called for a liquid solution, mine would become a gel. The third problem was philosophical. As a high school student, I had studied for a time to become a priest and the engineering curriculum was too focused on the practical, and came into conflict with my theological way of thinking. Though I thought that I wanted to study something scientific, engineering was definitely not it. That first semester was a total disaster. I earned nine units of D’s, four in chemistry and five in college algebra and trigonometry and so I lasted as an engineer for exactly one semester!
It was at this point that I made a momentous decision. During that first semester at the university, I had dropped calculus and taken a lower level mathematics course. I felt terrible that I had done so badly in my first semester mathematics course, and I was also annoyed with myself because I had not been able to understand calculus. Out of pure pride I decided to take calculus that second semester and I earned a C. The following semester I took the next calculus course and earned an A. I also enrolled in physics. By the end of my sophomore year, I had decided that I was going to earn a doctorate in mathematics. My philosophical interests had turned into mathematical interests. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and a minor in physics in 1968, from the University of Arizona. In March 1968, I was sent to active duty in the US Navy and served aboard the aircraft carriers, USS Yorktown and USS Kearsarge until 1969.
I began graduate school in 1970, earning a master’s degree in mathematics in 1972 and a Ph.D. in 1975, at the University of Arizona. I was a teaching assistant, I was in the naval reserves, and I worked on masonry crews on weekends to help finance my college tuition and support my wife and children. After I got my doctorate, I accepted a position at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I worked on problems dealing with the command and control of atomic weapon systems. In 1977, I accepted a position as an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona. I was promoted to full professor of mathematics in 1989.
My research deals with problems in algebra and number theory. I also enjoy working on problems involving communication systems. Modern communication systems use very sophisticated mathematical ideas. For example, to understand how music is stored and played back on a compact disk requires graduate school level mathematics.
I have traveled extensively giving lectures throughout this country and around the world. One of my most interesting lecture tours was a threeweek trip to China in 1988 where I gave lectures in Beijing, Sichuan, and Shanghai. I have also worked as a consultant to the Naval Ocean Systems Center, where I helped solve problems dealing with communication systems for submarines. From 19941996, I served as president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
Video of William Vélez. Dr. Vélez talks about his work, how he became interested in mathematics and what is important to him as a professor.
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