Managing Editor: Yolanda
S. George Editor:
Making Strides is a quarterly (April, July, October, and January) research newsletter published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program. Its purpose is to share information about minority graduate education (MGE) in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. It is available in print and electronic format. Inquiries, information related to MGE, and all correspondence should be sent to the editor.
|An Interview with Dr. Carlos Castillo-Chavez
By Virginia Van Horne
Each issue of Making Strides features a short interview with an underrepresented SME minority professor who has been instrumental in mentoring and encouraging students through all levels of the education pipeline, as well as demonstrating leadership and outstanding accomplishments in the world of SME.
I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Carlos Castillo-Chavez, a Professor
of Biomathematics at Cornell University, and Visitor, Institute for Mathematics
and its Applications, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (February-June
1999). A winner of two Presidential Awards, one in 1992 for faculty
fellowship, and the other in 1997 for mentoring, Dr. Castillo-Chavez has
published close to 60 research articles. He held a Catedra
Patrimonial (Chair Professorship) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma
de Mexico from April 1998 through February 1999 and a Profesor Plenario
(Chair Professorship) at the Universidad de Belgrano in Argentina since
1995. He is equally well-known for his research on resource management/ecology
and epidemiology/ immunology as well as for his mentoring of students.
Using a variety of outside funding, he founded the Mathematical and Theoretical
Biology Institute for undergraduate research at Cornell to provide research
opportunities for students. Most recently, in May 1998 he was named
Distinguished Alumni at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of
Wisconsin, Stevens Point.
How did you become interested in mathematics?
It is somewhat of a long story. Although I have a Ph.D. in analysis and applied mathematics, it was theatre that was my first interest. My goal was to become an actor! Despite my doing well in math, and receiving encouragement from my father to study math, I had a genuine interest in music and theatre. When I graduated from high school, I began working full-time and took several math classes at the National Polytechnic Institute and some classes at the National Institute for Fine Arts and Theatre, both in Mexico City. When I was 19, I entered an acting contest, but I didn’t win. Not being one of the top contestants caused me to change my focus from acting to returning to school.
In 1974, at the age of 22, I moved to the United States and settled in Wisconsin. I began working at a cheese factory and quickly realized that there would be more opportunities for me if I returned to school. I applied to the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, and was accepted.
Tell us about your experience as an undergraduate.
In 1976 I graduated. It was a short timeframe because my math credits and Spanish credits were transferred, and because I took an overload of courses, to include 11 credits one summer. I thought about studying theatre, but because of my thick accent and limited English, I opted to major in both Spanish literature and in mathematics. To fulfill my undergraduate foreign language requirement, I was able to take English as my second language. In fact, I was the very first student to be given this opportunity. This eventually turned into a program for other students who did not speak English as their first language and for English-speaking students who had deficient education.
I was one of two Latinos on the entire campus! The campus environment was friendly, but I was looked at with genuine curiosity by other students. For example, I can remember several people actually asking me why Mexicans were lazy. Consequently, I always felt that I had to prove something—to demonstrate that I was fully capable of obtaining my degree, despite my being of Mexican descent.
Did you encounter any road blocks?
I wanted to increase my courseload, enabling me to graduate in a shorter time period. Unfortunately, my Spanish professor, who was my advisor, would not allow me to take on this heavy load. I went over his head and obtained approval to take on more classes. Later, this same professor gave me a B in a Spanish reading course, although I deserved an A. I appealed the grade and won. (It should be noted that the entire appeal process took a period of two years.)
Another semester, I was $450 short on my tuition. I went to the financial aid office to ask for assistance, but was denied. Not being one to simply “give up,” I approached Chancellor Lee Dreyfus. By strange coincidence, the Chancellor was available and alone in his office! I explained that I would have to drop out of the university if I did not receive assistance. He authorized financial assistance.
What did you do after graduation?
I got married and we moved Milwaukee. I wanted to pursue my education in mathematics and applied to many graduate schools (one being the University of Wisconsin, Madison), but was not accepted because my math background was weak. However, the Milwaukee campus accepted me. I began work on my master’s degree and completed it in the summer 1977 and then began work on my Ph.D. in the fall.
During the summers (1977-1979), I worked at the University of Milwaukee’s Spanish-speaking Outreach Institute, teaching math to local Latino students. A few years back, parents from the south side of town had a sit-in at the University and demanded their children be granted an opportunity to attend the university. As a result, the outreach institute was created.
The year 1979 became a turning point for me. My advisor invited me to a dinner event. During the course of the dinner, he questioned the validity of offering special treatment to Hispanics, Blacks and Native Americans. I was so taken aback that I did not immediately react. To this day, I regret not confronting him. Rather, the next morning, I attempted to change advisors. However, he prevented the change, stating that he would approve it only after I took and passed my Ph.D. oral qualifying exams, with him serving as chair of my Ph.D. committee. I did not agree with this and quit school in fall 1979.
Did you intend to return to school?
I had complete confidence in my ability to complete my degree. I worked at a bank at night and as a system’s analyst in the day. I applied to a number of schools and was accepted by all of them. In fall 1980 I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
I finished my mathematics Ph.D. in 1984. (Of note, I actually completed my thesis problem in 1983, some time before I had passed my qualifying exams and before I had completed my course work.) At Madison, I was very fortunate to interact with a number of mathematics and biology professors who welcomed me into their academic and social community. It was a welcoming and encouraging environment. During my last semester—spring, 1984—I opted to take on biology courses because my thesis was somewhat related to ecology.
What happened after you completed your Ph.D.?
My wife had completed her Ph.D. in English Literature; we were both looking for academic positions. The University of Tulsa was able to offer us two positions. During this time, Simon Levin, a biomathematics professor at Cornell (now at Princeton), offered me a postdoctoral position in the section of ecology and evolutionary biology. He was also able to get a half-time appointment for my wife in the writing program. Consequently, we took the offer and began our careers at Cornell in 1985.
How did you meet Dr. Levin?
I was familiar with his work. In 1984 I wrote to him about a position, but he had no openings. I contacted him again in 1985. Consequently, he interviewed me. I always had an interest in applications. I wanted to be able to contribute my skills in a direct way; applied mathematics—as opposed to pure mathematics—seemed the way.
Please describe your role at Cornell.
I worked with Dr. Levin for three years as a postdoc. He is an incredible mentor—he taught me a number of things: ecology and evolutionary thinking, how to write, how to be a better person, etc. He encouraged me to attend meetings and interact with visitors. In 1987 I began working on HIV research and began to amass a number of publications. In 1988, I applied to several academic positions around the country and received several offers, including one from the Harvard School of Public Health and two from Cornell. I accepted the offer to join the Cornell biometrics department.
The majority of my early career at Cornell was spent on research. However, in 1990 I joined a university committee on affirmative action, and served as Chairman from 1991-94, and as co-Chair from 1995-96. We directly created at least four minority faculty positions, and indirectly influenced the creation of several more. This committee is still in existence.
In 1989 I received two grants¾one from NIH and one from NSF. I was the first faculty member in my department to be the recipient of an RO1 grant. In 1991 I was promoted to associate professor with tenure and in1992 I won a Presidential Faculty award (a first for Cornell) and received a half-million dollars to continue my research.
You also received a Presidential Award for Mentoring in Science & Engineering in 1997. How did you become involved with students?
In 1996, I did limited teaching. To be frank, I was challenged by Frank Gomez (then a postdoc at Harvard, now a chemistry professor at Cal State, Los Angeles) to do something for underrepresented students. I was not familiar with the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans (SACNAS). Frank challenged me to start a northeast chapter of SACNAS. One thing lead to another. A chapter was born and I was named its first president (1993-1996)! Afterwards, I served on the SACNAS board of directors from 1995-1996.
As a result of my work with SACNAS, I began a summer program (now known as the Cornell-SACNAS Mathematical Sciences Program) which helped to establish the Cornell Mathematical and Theoretical Institute. The program is designed to encourage undergraduates to pursue advanced degrees in math and sciences and facilitate access to graduate studies for Chicano, Latino, Native American, and other minority students in the sciences through a training program that includes a series of small group research projects. A program based on mathematical training and mentorship is also offered. The role models are nationally recognized Chicano, Latino, and Native American professors as well as successful young faculty, providing the students with a unique mentoring experience.
Additionally, I’ve been mentoring many women—around the country—for many years as my postdoctoral students or in an informal role.
Thank you Dr. Castillo-Chavez.
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