MATH : Life In Absolute Values - Higher Education

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MATH : Life In Absolute Values

by Arelis Hernandez

Title: Assistant professor in mathematical sciences & applied computing, Arizona State University at the West Campus
Education: Ph.D. and M.S., applied mathematics, Cornell University; B. A., mathematics, Wellesley College; B.A., economics, Wellesley College
Age: 34

Career mentors: Carlos Castillo-Chavez, Arizona State University; Ivelisse Rubio Canabal, Universidad de Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras What advice would you give young faculty? “It is important not to forget where you came from; no one gets to where they are by themselves. Even if you are the brightest person on the planet, someone created the opportunities so the doors could open to you.”

The Spanish word “ganas” cannot be defined by written words or loose paraphrases.
It is more than “a wish to do something,” as its English translation purports. In fact, “ganas” can only be interpreted through a life that embodies it.

As a high school student in East Los Angeles, Dr. Erika Tatiana Camacho didn’t know what ganas looked like. She aspired to only one thing: becoming a store cashier.

“That way I didn’t have to clean houses and work so hard like my parents did,” says Camacho, the youngest of four children who became angry watching her Mexican-born parents sacrifice wellbeing for menial wages.

Having immigrated to the United States as an 8-year-old, school wasn’t easy for Camacho — especially the part about speaking English. For Camacho helping the family survive superseded personal ambitions. She says she watched her older siblings start and stop in school, and it was only a matter of time before she would suffer the same fate.

But things changed, she says, the year she arrived at Garfield High School and into Jaime Escalante’s algebra class. Escalante, whom Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos portrayed in the 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver,” was known for raising the achievement of his students, mostly Latino, and preparing them for college.

“He asked me what I wanted to be, and the first time I didn’t want to respond because I didn’t know being anything was a possibility,” Camacho says. “He always said ganas is all you need, the desire and discipline to do it.'”

Camacho quickly went from expressing variables to finding integrals and found herself applying to college. Attending Wellesley College was a hard sell for her close-knit family even with a generous financial aid package. Nevertheless, Camacho pursued dual degrees in economics and mathematics, but the challenges only began for her.

“I didn’t realize how poor we were until I wanted to go to college,” Camacho says. “It was really hard. I lacked the preparation that other women had and was working four jobs to send money back home. There was a $2,000 parental contribution that I paid for my parents.”

At times, she says the obstacles became overwhelming, responsibilities conflicted with her schoolwork and she often felt isolated. She persevered because she saw education as her “way out of poverty. For other people college is about status, for me it was about survival. Not just my survival but also everyone who stayed behind in East L.A. I had to get educated to create opportunities for those people.”

Camacho was inspired by her experience to explore the interdisciplinary connections between mathematical concepts and real-world application. She has won several grants supporting her graduate work from the Mellon, Ford and Sloan foundations. Journals like The Mathematical Scientist and Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering have published her research. She also worked as a research associate at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Center for Nonlinear Studies in New Mexico.

“She became, most likely, the first U.S.-raised Latina to earn a Ph.D. in mathematical physiology,” says Dr. Carlos Castillo- Chavez, a mentor who is now Camacho’s colleague at Arizona State University. “At ASU, she is playing a critical role in building applied mathematics at our west campus where they are building a top-notch computational program with emphasis on applications to biology.”

During her tenure at Loyola Marymount University, Camacho co-founded and directed the Applied Mathematical Sciences Summer Institute, an undergraduate summer research program for under-represented minority students. They applied mathematical models to things like political affiliation, racial profiling and even college drinking habits.

At ASU, Camacho loves teaching her students with ganas, helping to open doors while continuing her research working with sociologists and biologists to find mathematical solutions to issues affecting communities of color. Her latest work looks at the math behind photoreceptors to cure degenerative eye diseases.

“I think I am able to connect with them [students] and serve as a role model for them,” she says. “I am able to provide a more familiar environment to learn because I understand where they are coming from. I put things in a context they can understand.”

For Camacho, ganas meant dedicating her intellect and energy to pursuing a collective goal for her family, her community and herself. That desire, she says, will hopefully enable Camacho to reach an ultimate goal: university presidency.

— Arelis Hernandez

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