Mathematically Gifted & Black - Homepage

Black History Month
2020 Honoree

Back to Circle of Excellence
Omayra Ortega

Omayra Ortega

Assistant Professor of Mathematics & Statistics

Sonoma State University

Where are you from?

I grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, NY (“What better place to find a queen?”). I received two Bachelor’s degrees in 2001, one in Mathematics and the other in Music, from Pomona College, and then a Master’s of Public Health, and a Master’s in Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences in 2005, and (finally) a PhD in Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences from the University of Iowa in 2008.


Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.

I was always good at math, so I can’t pinpoint a specific moment when I thought, “this math thing is my jam!” But every time I hear someone explain connections between nature, music, and mathematics, I am reassured that I chose the best and most beautiful of all of the disciplines. My parents indirectly gave me a gentle push towards mathematics. My mom LOVEs to play games (like dominoes, gin rummy, mahjong, parcheesi, or Uno), especially if they are team games and involve optimizing your strategy. My dad enjoys listening to music and is a natural vocalist and percussionist. I think having those two personalities around me helped to develop my love of pattern, order, beauty and problem solving.


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?

I am most proud of the students that have come through my research group. Many are enrolled in graduate school and my current students are on the path to graduate school or great professional careers. My 3 earliest research students are working in artificial intelligence, the actuarial sciences, and one has even started her own health consulting firm! I see my students as a living testament to my legacy and to my impact on this field.

I am also very proud that I was finally able to offer a Statistics for Social Justice course, something that I had been ruminating on for many years. Whenever I offer this course or incorporate ideas from social justice into my statistics classes I can see that my students are more active and engaged with the subject matter. Statistics becomes less of a required course and more of a useful tool when they see it applied to social justice topics.


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?

For better or for worse, my personal and professional life are not really that separate. I am very proud that I have been able to maintain my track record of organizing Sonia Kovalevsky High School Mathematics Days since 2006! I started with my first at the University of Iowa while still a graduate student and continue to organize these at Sonoma State University, where I am now.

I joined the board of the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) in 2017 and I am very proud of the work that I do as the chair of the Publications and Publicity Committee, the editor of the NAM newsletter, and the editor-in-chief of the NAM Editorial Board to the MAA Math Values Blog. NAM is a non-profit professional organization in the mathematical sciences with the mission and purpose of promoting excellence in the mathematical sciences and promoting the mathematical development of all underrepresented minorities. I am very proud of the work that we do at NAM and look forward to serving the mathematical community through this organization for many years.

Otherwise, I have been training capoeria for almost 11 years now, I love the combination of martial arts, music, and culture that comes with that practice. I am an avid crochetter and knitter, I’m proud of my skills in the fiber arts and I am hoping to get back into embroidery and yarn bombing, activities that I haven’t practiced in a couple of years.


Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

I have had a VERY circuitous career path, so I am no stranger to challenges and self-doubt. I really like the Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight,” meaning that challenges and set backs will inevitably come your way, what is important is what you do after that. I also think that it is very important to give back to your community. I try to leave every situation that I am a part of better than how I found it. I am the product of many programs, scholarships, and fellowships, and have had the pleasure of having some of the very best mentors. I think that the best way that I can show my thanks, is to take their example and be the very best scholar, educator, community member, bridge builder, and mentor that I can be.