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Math professor selected as 'emerging scholar'

January 13, 2010

She expected to become a store cashier until she took algebra with legendary high-school teacher Jaime Escalante (of "Stand and Deliver" fame) in East Los Angeles. Now Arizona State University mathematician Erika Tatiana Camacho is one of 12 faculty members under age 40 from across the United States selected as 2010 Emerging Scholars by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Camacho is an assistant professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on ASU’s West campus. She joins faculty members from institutions including Dartmouth College, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas at Austin in being selected for this year’s Emerging Scholar recognition by the editorial staff of Diverse, based on criteria including significance of research, uniqueness and competitiveness of field of study, publishing record and teaching record.

“I’m humbled by this recognition,” Camacho said. “I have seen this annual issue of Diverse for several years and have been awed by the stellar scholarship records of the recognized scholars, especially given the early stage of their careers. It is truly an honor to be in the company of these amazing individuals.”

“Dr. Camacho is a superb scholar-teacher who embodies the best of New College,” said Elizabeth Langland, New College’s dean. “She is highly attuned to the needs of our students and models for them the ability to achieve their highest aspirations with hard work and dedication.”

Camacho brings real-world problems and projects into the classroom. She encouraged a student in her differential equations class to use data from his job with a golf equipment company to develop equations to model how far a golf ball will travel when struck by different clubs. Her calculus students read and analyze journal articles focusing on topics such as gender gaps in education and specifically in math achievement.

With work published in journals including Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering and The Mathematical Scientist, Camacho has displayed an ability to cross disciplines in her research. She collaborates with life sciences professors in New College’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences on projects that apply mathematical modeling to gene functions in cells. For the last two years, Camacho has collaborated with a George Mason University sociologist to model the dynamics of workforce migration of highly skilled scientists. They are studying various aspects of this problem including the factors that affect this migration from the perspective of both the individual and the country. This spring, Camacho and an undergraduate student will work on mathematically incorporating a multitude of political aspects into this project.

Camacho said she has been fortunate to have mentors helping to guide her. First there was Escalante, who was portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver." It was in 1990 that Camacho entered Escalante’s algebra classroom at Garfield High School. Then in 1996, when she was an undergraduate student at Wellesley College, Camacho was the first student admitted to the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI), a summer program established by Carlos Castillo-Chavez at Cornell University. Its goal is to increase the number of Ph.D.s from underrepresented U.S. populations in fields where mathematical, computational and modeling skills play a critical role.

In 2004 the MTBI program, and Castillo-Chavez, relocated to ASU. Castillo-Chavez is a Regents’ Professor and the Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of Mathematical Biology in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change on ASU’s Tempe campus. He also is director of the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In 2003, Camacho became the first former MTBI participant to earn a Ph.D. when she completed her doctorate in applied mathematics at Cornell. She then spent a year as a postdoctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Camacho next held a tenure-track faculty position at Loyola Marymount University, while also co-founding and co-directing the Applied Mathematical Sciences Summer Institute, with a mission similar to the MTBI program at ASU. She joined ASU’s New College in 2007.

Castillo-Chavez, who has continued to serve as a mentor to Camacho, told Diverse that “she is playing a critical role in building applied mathematics at our West campus, where they are building a top-notch computational program with emphasis on applications to biology.”

“From fostering interdisciplinary collaborations to helping build our new program in applied mathematics, Erika has made significant contributions to the Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in a relatively short period of time,” said Roger Berger, the division’s director. Mathematical and Natural Sciences students pursue bachelor’s degrees in applied computing, applied mathematics and life sciences (with or without a pre-med option). The division also offers minors in chemistry, life sciences and mathematics, as well as a mathematics concentration for secondary education majors.

“Erika’s inspirational life story serves as a source of motivation for many of our students,” Berger said.

More information about Camacho’s life story and professional accomplishments can be found in the article about her that was published in the Jan. 7 issue of Diverse. The article is at