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Doctoral grad finds future in mathematics, teaching

April 30, 2012

A love of learning, a desire to teach and a mother’s inspiration will culminate in a doctorate in applied mathematics this spring for Raquel Lopez.

Born in Mexico, Lopez is the 12th child out of 13 born to a poor farming family.

“My mother’s will to provide us with an education that she never had and her power to instill in us the value of an education have been my biggest inspirations to never give up in my journey towards a Ph.D.,” Lopez says.

She will be the first in her family to earn a doctorate.

After acquiring an associate's degree from Yuba Community College and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from University of the Pacific in California, Lopez became very discouraged during her first year of graduate studies in California. “The mathematics department lacked funding, academic and moral support. I was going to quit graduate school.”

Ami Radunskaya, a member of EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education), pointed Lopez to Carlos Castillo-Chavez, the director of ASU’s Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI).

“He offered me an opportunity to get my Ph.D. here, and I could not say 'no' to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Lopez.

Her dissertation research is in partial differential equations in the field of quantum mechanics.

“I hope that my research can, in particular, help quantum physicists in their research of quantum optics and the study of light,” Lopez says. “If these mathematics don't have a solid application, I hope that the mathematical and physics world still sees them as just beautiful mathematical equations. Because indeed, mathematics is always beautiful.”

Several publications in highly regarded mathematical and physical journals are among her other accomplishments, says her mentor, Sergei Suslov, a professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We all wish her the best in her academic career!”

Lopez enjoys the challenges and joys of research, but also wants to teach.

“I believe that good teaching – at any level, and at any college or university – should be valued," she says.

Since she began at a small institution herself, she hopes to teach at a small university or community college.

“I want to be a mentor for students who go to two-year colleges so they may pursue more than a two-year degree. I have always loved learning, and I see myself at an institution where I can continue teaching mathematics – a lifelong learning process.”

Lopez has been awarded an Alliance Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). A three-year postdoctoral appointment allows her to choose a mentor among seven research universities and she is guaranteed one year at a NSF institute.

Her parents, a younger brother and his wife, and a few close friends will join Lopez in celebrating her accomplishments May 2 at the Graduate Commencement ceremony.