2014 September Archive - Building Diversity in Science

Archive for September, 2014

A Lucky Choice: Reflecting on My Time as a Grad Student in Mathematics at the University of Iowa

Posted on: September 23rd, 2014 by No Comments

By Omayra Ortega, MPH, PhD 
Arizona State University West
Mathematical And Natural Sciences

When I chose to attend the University of Iowa, my decision wasn’t based on much more than the choice of advisor. I knew that I needed a fellowship or some sort of support to go to grad school and that I wanted to work with Herbert Hethcote in Math Biology, but past that, I really didn’t look into the university. In the past this method (or lack thereof) had proved successful for me, and in hindsight I hit the jackpot when I started my graduate career at the University of Iowa.

I had attended majority institutions since high school, so I knew that I could surmount any cultural differences I encountered. I grew up in New York City, but I knew what it meant to live in a small town. I was a Hispanic female but have interacted with the whole rainbow of peoples and cultures. However, being a bi-coastal person, I erroneously thought that all of the landlocked parts of the United States were contained within the Rocky Mountains. This way I could go snowboarding on the weekends if I got bored or felt lonely while at Iowa. I am now familiar with the plains, the prairie, the rolling hills, and the fertile land between the two great rivers that is the Midwest, so I know better than to think of it as a snowboarder’s paradise.

Despite my initial confusion, I began to love Iowa, both the city and the university. Iowa City was and is very liberal and forward thinking. I expected everyone to wear overalls, quilt, and chew hay, but that wasn’t the case. Instead I found a thriving organic co-op, car share programs, garden-share programs, and a walkable and very bike-friendly downtown with a central pedestrian mall. The university, which was the center of my life, sustained and nourished my mind and social calendar for 7 years.

The social activities in the math department started even before the start of classes. I was invited to an orientation workshop for students who were receiving minority fellowships. The purpose of this meeting was three-fold, first, we needed to understand how the fellowship worked, second, we needed to choose the right courses based on our past preparation, and third, we needed to meet each other. Phil Kutzko and Gene Madison ran this orientation that went on for two weeks before the start of classes. We all knew what courses we should take during our first year, but the orientation helped us choose what level we should begin at. Some students were able to jump right into PhD level courses, I had to begin at the Master’s level, and some students needed to retake some undergraduate courses. These choices were available to us, but not forced on us. We were able to sign up for the level we felt most comfortable at, and nothing less. Senior graduate students who were also receiving similar fellowships would attend from time to time to welcome and get to know the new students. This was a great resource for us newbies, so we would have familiar faces we could look to if we had any questions about grad school. At the time, I believe, there were only 3 senior grad students of color in the math department, a fellow named Louis, Sharon Lima, and Sharon Clark, but just knowing these friendly students existed in Iowa was welcome news. As my time at Iowa progressed those numbers increased exponentially from those initial three that I met.

In addition to the orientation workshop, the math department coordinated a welcoming BBQ and picnic, which has since become an annual event that is open to grad students in all of the STEM fields. This BBQ marks the start of the fall semester and helps students connect with students of color who are not in their field, thus extending the social network of grad students of color. The math department also organized daily departmental teas where all students could get to know their professors in an informal setting.

One of my favorite math-related activities was Phil & Gene’s informal potluck dinners at Phil Kutzko’s home near campus. These events were always well attended and happened about once a year. Phil made a mean margarita and his sense of humor kept us all in stitches. Really, anytime Phil and Gene put on a get together, laughter always followed.

Of course there were also informal get-togethers within the department. There was never a shortage of potlucks, birthday parties, chicken-wing nights at the Vine, FAC (Friday After Class) at Joe’s Pub, friends or relatives visiting, or a PhD defense or passed comprehensive/qualifying exam to celebrate. Sometimes we didn’t even need a reason, but the math department at Iowa is a social animal. Through these social activities we fostered and sustained a caring community environment in our department.

I fought the fear of taking comprehensive exams by fooling myself that they weren’t that important and that if I didn’t pass I would drop out and pursue my alternate career goal producing electronic music. When the time came to begin taking these exams, Iowa offered optional summer preparatory courses in each of the comprehensive exam areas. I enrolled in these optional courses, and having that prep course immediately before the exam, solidified my knowledge and gave me a venue to try some practice problems before taking the exam.

These courses were led by a senior grad student whose chosen field was the same as the discipline of the comprehensive exam. This structured practice gave me the added advantage of actually believing that I would pass the exams, instead of doubting my abilities. I passed all of my comprehensive exams on the first try.

After successfully passing all three of my comprehensive exams, I looked to my next hurdle, writing and defending an as yet undecided thesis topic. My first issue was to choose a topic. I knew that I wanted to do something in Math Biology, but what would keep me interested? What would be a topic important to Mathematics and to Biology? I am grateful that my advisor was very open to any topics that I wanted to pursue. We explored many different topics in Math Epidemiology and my advisor allowed me to spend some time in Cairo, Egypt researching a topic further. In the end my time in Cairo writing a cost-benefit analysis of the rotavirus vaccine solidified my choice of dissertation topic. I would evaluate the rotavirus vaccine using deterministic models.

I began work on this topic at the end of my third year at Iowa, but the work seemed to drag on. I wasn’t getting good results and I was taking a really long time to achieve those weak results. During my fifth year I began to seriously doubt I would ever finish. When my advisor decided to retire to Washington state, I thought that might be the end of my grad school adventure, but all of my professors and my peers encouraged me to continue.

With my advisor in a whole different state, I decided to begin a job working as an instructor at Arizona State University. I was cautioned that this could be a dangerous choice, since it is very hard to complete a PhD and start a brand new job at the same time, but I decided to join the workforce anyway. My advisor and I continued to work together through email and snail mail correspondences and I added a co-advisor based in Iowa.

While at Arizona, students and professors from Iowa would occasionally send me emails to see how my thesis was coming along, and would send encouraging messages, through my colleagues at ASU who they had met at conferences, for me to persevere and get this degree done. Even though I wasn’t in Iowa, the reach of its math department extended all the way to Phoenix, AZ. Because of these little reminders, I was aware that I was still part of the Iowa math community and that they still cared about me. With the help and love of all of my fellow grad students, professors, and mentors, I was able to complete my degree this past summer.

I believe that the University of Iowa’s math department may have been the ONLY place in this world where I could have been able to complete my PhD. Without the constant support of friends in the department, each day, to go to classes, to complete assignments, to take comprehensive exams, to attend conferences, and to give talks, I could have easily succumbed to my own laziness and self-doubt and dropped out. I want to point out that I had support to succeed, not threats of failure to keep me going. I found that many people try to use negative reinforcement to get students to produce results, but this never works. At the very least, I know that wouldn’t have worked for me. Just about every idea I had for research topics was supported. When I wanted to travel to the Gambia during my second year to work in the Epidemiological Statistics Unit of the Ministry of Health, the math department found funds to help me go.

In general, if a student had an opportunity to give a talk at a conference, the department found the funds to support the student. The positive outlook and support at Iowa were a treasure to me. There were many times when I considered leaving, I missed my family and my friends on both coasts, and the winters in Iowa were severe. But the constructive competition at Iowa and collaboration implicit in the caring community there sustained me all the way to graduation.

Multiplication With Angelia

Posted on: September 23rd, 2014 by No Comments

By Tanya Moore, PhD

angeliaandtanya2005_000There are moments when we are reminded of how much we have to share with those around us. The other night as I was preparing to leave my sister’s house after a quick gab session, my seven year old niece Angelia walked up to me and asked me if I would show her how to do multiplication. Even though I was tired and hungry after a long day, how could I possibly say no to her request?

Sitting at the kitchen table, I taught her how multiplication was another way to do addition. We worked out the times table for all the numbers between 1 and 9 by adding the appropriate numbers. I showed her tips to figuring out what happens when you multiply numbers by a 0, 1, 10, or 100. After she calculated an answer, and found that she was right, she let out a genuine squeal of delight. She did this each time with each calculation. Even as we could hear American Idol begin to play in the other room (one of her favorite shows, no less), she wanted to keep going. She began to discover patterns, seeing that when you multiply two numbers it doesn’t matter which order you multiply them in.

With each computation I could see her confidence and esteem bursting at the seams. She also didn’t seem to mind, and even thoughtfully nodded her head in agreement, to my mini-lecture on why I didn’t want her to use calculators yet to figure out the answer, because finding out the answer is only one part of learning math, the other part is about sharpening your mind and making it strong.

I realized that each of us walks around each day with so much information and knowledge, some of it hard earned, and some of it acquired with ease. We sometimes spend so much time focusing on what we “don’t know” what we “don’t have to give” that we blind ourselves to all that we have to offer and limit what we give to those in our lives and communities.

Shortly after our multiplication session, I learned that in her after school program there are a group of boys in a higher grade that are constantly challenging each other to math questions like, “I bet you don’t know what 130 times 8 is.” My niece, who is a force to be reckoned with on the soccer field, monkey bars or in a swimming pool, is very competitive, and I can only imagine how it has been burning her up inside not to be able to jump with her own “I bet you don’t know” challenge. Whatever her motivation, I am happy that she spoke out loud her desire to learn. I wouldn’t have known that I possessed something, something small and simple that I took for granted that could translate into an opportunity to build confidence and excitement for learning.

It makes me wonder how many of our youth, and our peers for that matter, have burning questions, but for whatever reason are to afraid to ask or don’t know where to go to find the answers, and how many times we can be a bridge that can help a person take the next step in accomplishing their goals. Each of us should know that right now, we have what it takes to be mentor to someone in our life.

I can’t wait to teach Angelia about infinity!

The Beautiful Language of Mathematics

Posted on: September 23rd, 2014 by No Comments

By Dr. Evelyn J. Patterson

I was born into a world filled with math. Both of my parents speak the language fluently, and I began speaking it at the young age of 4. Despite the respect I had for it, I fought hard not to be sucked into the world. Who wants to do what their parents do? Not me! I was set on becoming a medicinal chemist. Eleventh grade came. Chemistry came. Chemistry conquered. And I gave in to the deep-seeded passion that I had for math. That’s the short story of my long relationship with math. Throughout the course of the relationship, there existed a magnetic pull that kept me engaged and now it continually strengthens my devotion. Of these many attractive qualities, I’ve taken the liberty to share my top ten below. Enjoy. 


  1. I can use Statistics to eloquently describe any emotional situation in life, from my disappointments in life (it really sucks when your observed value is not equal to your expected value) to unexpected surprises (I’m in the right tail!).
  2. Algebra allows me to believe it’s possible to manipulate any situation and determine the unknown.
  3. I relish in the power of tipping over a mountain of research with one contradiction (proof by contradiction).
  4. The freedom to date around in many different disciplines, still remaining loyal to your one true love.
  5. There’s a sense of security of knowing there is always a right answer.
  6. The hope of finding an algorithm for generating prime numbers.
  7. Not wearing a jogging suit means you’re dressed up—just ask my dad.
  8. Having a function that you use to describe yourself and how you relate to the world.
  9. Statistics is a beautiful vernacular—where only a few chosen people ever understand that it’s a language of precision to describe the most imprecise things of our time.
  10. Knowing that one of the things that makes reproduction beautiful is its ability to prove that 1+1 ≥ 2.

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