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Student balances family life with difficult doctoral program

May 05, 2010

When Angela Ortiz-Nieves graduates with her doctorate in Applied Mathematics in the Life and Social Sciences on May 12, she will receive a degree that takes the average student seven years to complete. She will have done it in six – and as a wife and a mother to three young children, including twins who were born prematurely, one with a congenital disorder.

“Finding a balance between family and doctoral work was very difficult for me,” Ortiz-Nieves says. Her family and friends rallied around her, as did her mentor and thesis co-advisor, Regents’ Professor Carlos Castillo-Chavez and her other co-advisor, Research Professor Harvey Banks.

She credits all of these individuals with providing the help, encouragement and sound advice she needed to stay with her program, and adds, “Lastly, but not less important, my desire to succeed and give my family a better life kept me going in the difficult times.”

Taxing situations are nothing new for Ortiz-Nieves, who lost her father when she was 14. The youngest of three, she grew up in an underprivileged setting in Puerto Rico and was the only sibling to go to college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences and applied mathematics from the Universidad Metropolitana.

That same year, she moved to New Mexico and began her master’s program in statistics. A year later, she transferred to ASU and began the Applied Mathematics in the Life and Social Sciences program – housed in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – under the supervision of Castillo-Chavez.

Ortiz-Nieves has received several scholarships and awards, including the NSF’s LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Graduate Fellowships. Also, she produced the first ever published refereed paper on the dynamics of bulimia, which appeared in the Journal of Mathematical Psychology.

Being a woman and a minority in a field that, historically, has not been friendly to either isn’t daunting to Ortiz-Nieves.

“I feel very honored to be an example for other minorities, especially for Hispanic women,” she says, noting that her experience at ASU has bolstered her. “Having been part of the applied math program, I did not feel isolated. This program has a number of diverse students with backgrounds similar to mine.”

Castillo-Chavez knows the challenges, as well as the achievements, that have filled Ortiz-Nieves’ young life.

“She is an extraordinary individual, as dedicated, hardworking, strong and self-disciplined a student as I have ever met,” he says. Her life “provides the kind of stories that movies are made of.”