We sat down recently with Cristina Villalobos, the Myles and Sylvia Aaronson Professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Founding Director of the Center of Excellence in STEM Education, and the winner of the 2019 Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award for Scientific Scholarship, Civic Science and Diversifying Computing. She will be accepting her award and speaking at the Tapia Conference Banquet on September 20th in San Diego.
Tell me a little about your childhood.
My parents were born, raised, and married in Mexico and came to the US and worked in canning factories. I am the eldest of three children and was raised in Donna, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where I initially began schooling at a Head Start Program, a school where my mother later worked as a custodian. During summers while in high school, I participated in the Texas Pre-Freshman Engineering program that was offered at our regional university and had my first exposure to computer science and physics.
How did you end up in mathematics?
I always enjoyed math. Originally I was not planning to go to college, but I tutored peers in high school and decided I would be a high school math teacher, which meant I needed to go to college. My family did not travel much due to limited means. When in high school, I competed at the University of Texas at Austin for a state competition and that's how I learned about UT. Thus, I attended the University of Texas Austin, becoming the first in my family to attend college.
And how did you decide to go into academia?
During my time at UT Austin I had some faculty mentors who guided me into summer research programs at places like UC Berkeley, Sandia National Laboratories and Rice University. The faculty in those programs all encouraged me to go to graduate school. While I was an undergrad I read about Richard Tapia, a Mexican American who had become a elected to the National Academy. A friend and I drove from Austin to Houston to meet him. He and his wife invited us to dinner with other mathematicians. His welcoming spirit and kindness changed the course of my life. While still an undergraduate, I attended Richard Tapia's Spend a Summer With a Scientist Program. After this experience, I attended Rice University for my PhD and Richard Tapia became my PhD advisor.
What are you working on today?
I work with colleagues in various science areas, modeling and solving problems using optimization methods. With faculty in Electrical Engineering, I am creating models around antennas. With other colleagues I am working in the area mathematical biology, modeling potential drug therapies to battle retinitis pigmentosa. Recently, I received a grant to reform precalculus, calculus 1, and calculus 2 courses at the university level by infusing active learning through recitation labs to increase pass rates; these are our gateway courses for students entering STEM fields.
The award also honors your work in diversifying computing. Can you tell me about the Center for Excellence in STEM Education? In 2011, my university was awarded one of three five year grants from the U.S. Department of Defense HBCU/MI program to create a Center of Excellence in STEM Education. Our mission is to increase and retain the number of students going into STEM programs and to strengthen STEM academic programs. All of this is done with the mindset that we need to develop Latino leaders for careers in academia, government, and industry. We organize programs and workshops on a variety of topics such as applying for summer research programs and internships, resume writing, and creating successful research posters. Part of our goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities attending STEM graduate programs. We also keep young alums engaged by inviting them to give talks.
What advice do you offer to students in STEM?
I share my mother's advice: Take the Initiative! Go out and ask questions about what is available. People do not ask you what you need, you need to go out and seek the resources you need. I've applied this advice many times during my undergraduate and graduate career and even now as faculty. For example, when I was a first-year student at UT, I learned about the Emerging Scholars Program and inquired about becoming a part of it. This program formed the foundation that led to my current path.
We look forward to seeing you at the Tapia Conference.
I am quite honored to be receiving the Richard Tapia Award as it has significant meaning to me personally. I wish to thank my family, colleagues, friends, and mentors for their continued support.