ASU applied mathematics doctoral grad found inspiration in high school math program

December 14, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Arizona State University graduate Javier Baez was interested in chess at an early age and enjoyed solving puzzles. He liked math but did not think about studying mathematics. Javier Baez (left) shakes hands with Mark Searle, executive vice president and university provost at the Graduate Commencement on Dec. 11, 2017. Photo by Rhonda Olson. Download Full Image

He grew up in the border town of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico until he started middle school in San Luis, Arizona. He became a U.S. citizen in 2012.

His parents were both educated in Mexico, his father as an engineer and his mother as medical doctor.

Every summer during high school, he attended the Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program at ASU. The last class he took was applied mathematics, where he learned that he could model the spread of diseases, population growth and genetics using mathematics.

“That was the ‘aha’ moment when I realized I wanted to study mathematical modeling,” Baez said.

He went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in applied mathematics for the life and social sciences at ASU.

In his last year of undergraduate studies, he took a graduate level course in mathematical biology, where he met professor Yang Kuang.

javier Baez

Javier Baez (right) with professor Yang Kuang at the ASU graduate commencement ceremony. Photo by Rhonda Olson

“Through the course, I got to know him and his philosophy for doing science,” said Baez. “He inspired me to do research in mathematical biology and I decided to stay at ASU to work with him for my PhD.”

On Monday, Dec. 11, Baez earned a doctorate in applied mathematics from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

 “Javier is very adaptive and hard working,” said Kuang. “Most importantly, he is a fast learner, and a creative and experienced programmer.”

Baez has already had two real data-based publications, one on Ebola epidemics and one on prostate cancer treatment predictions. He plans to submit several more in the coming months.

He is a key author, in collaboration with the Xiao Wang Lab, of a significant manuscript on pattern predictions in synthetic biology to be submitted in a month to the journal Science

This past summer, Baez entered the Kaggle competition from Zillow to learn more about machine learning. He is using boosting and feature engineering strategies to predict the Zestimate error in a dataset of houses given by Zillow. Currently at 105th place on the leaderboard, he hopes to be in the top 100 to advance to the second round in January.

He also worked during the summer as an intern at Caterpillar, which led to a job offer. He will begin his career as a data scientist at Caterpillar in January.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective? 

Answer: During my PhD, I learned something that probably everyone experiences. As you learn more, you realize how little you know. Every field is incredibly vast, and to fully master anything you need to be a lifelong learner.

Q: What was your dissertation topic? 

A: I looked at how to model androgen deprivation therapy for prostate cancer patients. Specifically, how to predict when a patient will become resistant to the therapy in order to avoid unnecessary treatments and improve their quality of life.

Q: Why did you choose this topic to research? 

A: I was interested in modeling physiological systems. When I started the research phase of my PhD, I learned about a clinical trial done in Canada for patients undergoing androgen deprivation. I decided to work on extending previous works of my advisor with former students. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in graduate school? 

A: That would depend how early or late you are in your graduate degree. If you are starting out, don’t burn out too quickly by working all the time. If you are close to finishing, push through and finish — you are close!

Q: Why is mathematics a great major to pursue?

A: Mathematics gives you a broad perspective and the ability to work on many different things. I was able to work on spreading of Ebola, prostate cancer modeling, pattern formation in cells, and plant virus spread.  

Q: What do you think is misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: I think the general public thinks of mathematics as a set of rules and formulas that you need to memorize. Mathematics is about ideas and logic. Mathematics is used for understanding things better/precisely and not to make them more complicated.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot was Wexler Hall. I had my office, classes, and meetings there. 

Q: When not studying, what do you like to do for fun in your spare time?

A: I (have played) chess as a hobby for some years now. I try to play in tournaments when I have time. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I am very interested in medical problems, such as the problem I worked on for my thesis. However, I know preventive medicine has a greater impact than curative medicine. I know that about half a million children die from diarrhea worldwide, a fully preventable and curable disease. I think that I would implement a campaign to educate people about washing hands to prevent diarrhea and try to get them access to clean water. It would take more than $40 million to solve it worldwide, but I would try to help as many communities as possible.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


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A first for their families

December 14, 2017

ASU graduating more first-generation students than ever — here's a look at their journeys and how the university helped

After 10 years, three changes of major and two children, Ashley Pitman graduated from college this week — the first in her family to earn a degree.

Like many first-generation students, her journey took a bit longer, but she knows that she’s secured a future for herself and her family with her bachelor’s of nursing degree from Arizona State University.

“One of the main reasons I did it is because I think each generation of family should improve themselves and strive for higher achievements,” the Navy veteran said. “Even having two kids in the middle of it, I still did it.

“I don’t think my kids will have an excuse to not go to college now.”

Pitman is part of a growing number of first-generation students accepted to and graduating from ASU, part of the university’s mission to expand access.

In the fall 2017 semester, 22,070 students — including first-time freshmen and transfers — were the first in their families to go to college. That's 26 percent of the total enrolled student population, compared with 18 percent a decade ago. And their graduation rate is on the rise.

First-generation students can face unique challenges in navigating the complex world of higher education, but graduation is critically important as Arizona tries to increase the number of degree-holding residents as a way to draw business and boost the state’s economy.

A degree makes an enormous difference. College graduates not only have lower rates of unemployment than non-degree-holders, they also earn an average $17,500 more per yearA recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500. Another recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime. than high school graduates. Graduates are also more likely to vote and to live a healthier lifestyle.

ASU has committed to removing barriers to higher education and to supporting first-generation students with specialized coaching, which improves the odds that they’ll persist in their studies and graduate.

“We’ve proven that ASU’s vision is possible,” said Kevin Correa, associate director of ASU’s First-Year Success Center.

“We can be committed to both access and excellence at the same time. Those things are not mutually exclusive.” 

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Sustainability doctoral graduate Michael Sieng (left) and Navy veteran and nursing graduate Ashley Pitman (right) stand with their families, of whom they are the first university graduates.

A blessing and a burden

ASU has supported students through its First-Year Success Center coaching program for several years, but two years ago, the university launched Game Changers, an initiative specifically focused on first-generation freshmen. These students get one-on-one counseling from older peer coaches, many of whom also are first-generation students, along with group events and advice on building practical skills, like time management and how to email a professor.

Game Changers validates the students’ experiences, according to Marisel Herrera, director of ASU’s First-Year Success Center.

“It’s the identity of ‘first.’ What happens when you’re the first in anything? There’s a huge learning curve because you have experiences that those around you have not had,” she said.

Students learn not only practical information specific to ASU, like how to work the meal plan, but they meet a community of people like them.

“We have faculty who were first-generation students come and give talks,” Correa said. “They become role models for the students to relate to and aspire to.”

Beyond practical advice, Game Changers recognizes the unique pressures that first-generation students face, Herrera said.

“You can be this awesome student, academically qualified, living the dream that you and your family have worked so hard for, but you still feel somehow like you don’t belong or you have to prove yourself in ways different from others,” she said.

Even with family support, there can be stresses.

“You have a great deal of expectation from those around you, including your family and your community, to succeed — which is a blessing and a burden,” Herrera said.

“So many times we see students who are doing great but they’re dealing with a level of stress that’s pretty high because this is not just about them and their 18-year-old world. This is: ‘I need to make my family proud.’ ”

Herrera said the Game Changer coaches approach the first-generation students’ experiences as positives, not negatives.

“We talk about them being trailblazers. We congratulate them for being courageous pioneers for their family. We celebrate the experience and ask them to reflect on it,” she said.

Game Changers coaches also push the freshmen to maximize their college careers with leadership positions, undergraduate research, study abroad or entrepreneurship.

“We want them to elevate their vision of themselves,” Herrera said.

The intense one-on-one help is unusual, and colleges from around the country call Herrera to ask about the model.

“For ASU to be the largest university in the nation and to offer such personalized support is unheard of,” she said. “We’ve demonstrated that you can care deeply at scale.”

Time for a culture change

When a family launches someone into college, that student often supports those who follow.

Tomy Gates graduated with a degree in community sports management this week, and his twin brother, Tommy Gates, will earn his degree in tourism development and management in May.

“We were pushed to graduate from high school, but college was never spoken of in our house,” Tomy Gates said.

The two eventually enrolled in community college in their home state of California, and then Tomy Gates transferred to ASU.

“He helped me with everything,” Tommy Gates said of his brother. “He transferred first. He said, ‘This is what you need to do. This is how it will work. It’s a load you can carry, and I know you can do it.’ I’ve been looking up to him since I got here.”

The two, who live together while attending classes on the Downtown Phoenix campus, said that even though they were never encouraged, they knew they wanted degrees.

“It’s time for a culture change, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Tommy Gates said.

“We knew we could do it. We weren’t pushed to be doctors, but we knew we had the skills to graduate and change everything around us and make a better environment.”

Laura Samora was the first in her family to get a degree when she graduated from ASU in 2009, and this week, she watched her husband, Frank Samora, also a first-generation student, earn his degree in kinesiology.

“With us it’s really been a team effort with his working full time and going to school full time,” she said. “It’s been incredible to see all the personal growth in him, and the finish is almost bittersweet.”

Frank Samora, who’s a Marine Corps veteran, said his wife “got him over the finish line” and that he bonded with other first-generation students.

“We helped each other to reduce the anxiety. ‘First time you, first time me,’ ” he said.

Young people whose parents did not finish college are less likely to enroll in higher education right after high school. So for many, the journey to a degree is a long one.

Stacey Lynch earned her psychology degree from ASU Online this week, 20 years after graduating from high school. Along the way, she married and had seven children.

“My parents never encouraged me to go to college,” she said. “They said, ‘Find a good man to support you and have his babies.’ ”

Lynch worked for several years before enrolling in a community college in her home state of California.

“It was really hard because I did it all by myself. A lot of people have financial support and the backing of their parents, and I didn’t have that,” she said.

She had to work up the courage to apply to ASU Online two years ago and didn’t even tell her husband until a week after she was accepted.

“I told him, ‘I really want to finish this,’ ” said Lynch, whose children range in age from 18 years old to 4 months.

Her husband, Joe Lynch, is starting a master’s program in ASU Online this spring.

“She inspired me. It was so hard, and she did so much homework and she had a baby in her senior year,” he said, adding that their son and six daughters all will attend college.

Stacey Lynch, who will begin the master’s of social work program through ASU Online next fall, said that her degree means she’ll always have the ability to provide for her family.

“It’s changed my life.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now