Omayra Ortega an Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences shared some thoughtful advice and experience from her career.
How did your interest in (STEM) begin? Was there a person who influenced your career choice and/or who encouraged you to pursue your career?
I have always been interested in STEM. From an early age I was talented at mathematics so I enjoyed any activity involving numbers. I even loved taking the standardized tests in elementary school! When I was very young I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a nun, but I am glad I chose math instead. Some people who influenced my decision are my undergraduate mentors. Dr Ami Radunskaya, Dr Rick Elderkin (both from Pomona College), and ASU’s own Dr Carlos Castillo-Chavez were the most important influences on my decision to pursue a degree in mathematics and eventually become a professor of Applied Mathematics.
What advice would you give to young women pursuing a degree in the STEM path?
Make sure to chose a field that motivates you. If you are inspired by science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics, keep pursuing your dream and don’t EVER give up. Make sure to connect with great mentors. Mentors don’t necessarily need to be professors, professors can give great advice, but aspirant peers work also. You need to find people who have walked the path you want to pursue. Sometimes graduate students and advanced undergraduates can give you the best information on who to do research with, how to study best, or what classes to take and when. Also make sure to keep a thick skin. In particular in the sciences people tend to be very direct and may say things in a way that will hurt your feelings. It can be hard, but you have to try not to take the negative things personally but as constructive criticism to work from. I struggle with this issue myself.
Letter to my younger self: Things I wish I knew when I first started working…..(title taken from a workshop in Grace Hopper Conference)
What do I wish I could tell my younger self? Start your research early and check in on it often. Try to set aside a couple hours every day specifically for research. It is important to start this habit in grad school or even as an undergraduate because at that juncture in your life you have a mentor watching over you and teaching you the skills necessary to write a scholarly article. If you are lucky your advisor will also want to publish with you which will give you invaluable insight into the journal submission and publication process. If you can get into this habit while you are still beginning it will carry on through your career.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment thus far in your career?
My greatest accomplishment in my career thus far is the work that I have done with my research students. I direct the Mathematical Epidemiology Research Group (MERG) where I work with 2-3 undergraduate students per semester. These students have grown into
researchers and scientists. Most of my MERG students go on to graduate school in mathematics or computing while the remainder were fortunate to find jobs in such fields as aeronautics and actuarial sciences. I am very proud of all of them.
A personal add on statement
If you are in search of a mentor you should check out the Association for Women in Mathematics Mentor Match program. This program will match you with a mentor who is a professional in your field of interest who may be located anywhere in the country. The two of you will communicate mostly over the phone and via email but often mentees do meet their mentor in person. The AWM Mentor Match program is a free service. https://sites.google.com/site/awmmath/programs/mentor-network
Thank you Omayra for your advice and sharing your valuable insights to all our readers. Omayra also helps organize the ASU West – Sonia Kovalevsky High School Math Days that will take place April 5, 2013. Save the date! Read more about Women in STEM at ASU New College >>