Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Cali, Colombia. Cali is passionately referred to, by locals and visitors alike, as “la sucursal del cielo” (heaven’s branch office) or as “la capital Mundial de la salsa” (the world’s salsa capital). Needless to say, music, dancing, and a strong afro-latin culture were huge parts of my life growing up. Math and Physics were the subjects that made the most sense to me in high school; I went to Universidad del Valle (or Univalle for short) for a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and then got a Ph.D. also in math at Stanford. I learned how to drive in North Carolina, where I lived for 4 years while doing a postdoc at Duke University. I remember buying my first car and thinking to myself “yes, a sedan would be fine, I don’t think I’ll need to drive it in the snow too much”. I still have the same car, and I’ve lived in Michigan for the last 3 years; I’m currently an assistant professor at Michigan State University, with appointments in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering (CMSE), and also in the Department of Mathematics. So, at least culturally, I’m from Cali, California, North Carolina and Michigan.
Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.
The ICFES exam is a test for graduating high school students in Colombia. It is similar to the American SAT in that universities uses it to make admissions decisions. While in high school, I attended an “ICFES preparation course”, and the math teacher said something along the lines of: “it is unlikely that you will cram in two months all the math you missed in school; let’s do cool problems instead!!”. What happened next blew my mind and changed my entire perception of what mathematics is. I cannot thank that teacher enough. We did things like proving that there are infinitely many primes or explaining why there are as many natural numbers as rational numbers. I had never done proofs before, but after this course, I realized that math was about why things are true. Right then and there I decided that that’s what I wanted to do for a living. Side note: At some point during my college freshman year, while on our morning commute, my dad asked me if my plan was to switch to engineering after a few semesters in math because (in his mind) engineers seemed to be more employable. Crazy talk.
What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?
Last year I published a paper I’m super proud of: “Multiscale projective coordinates via persistent cohomology of sparse filtrations”. The premise is that, if one thinks of a data set as sampled from an underlying (unknown) topological (e.g., measure metric) space, then one can use topological properties of said space (inferred from the data) to find appropriate coordinate representations for the data set in question. The reason why I like it so much: it takes ideas from classic algebraic topology (Brown representability, fiber bundles, characteristic classes, etc) and puts them to use in a data science problem. Yes, applied topology!
What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?
I was able to bring my mom and my dad to my Ph.D. graduation. They don’t speak a word of English; they didn’t even have a passport before that visit either. It was super cool to see how proud they were, and how everything seemed completely foreign.
Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.
Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, so put in the work! Even the people that you perceive as being super successful, deal with insecurities and feelings of inadequacy.