I don’t recall liking mathematics when I was in elementary school, but that changed when I was first introduced to algebra in junior high. I had a teacher who was considered the hardest teacher in the entire school. Eight out of ten students would fail his classes, so when I got an A in his algebra class, I knew I had found my true passion. In high school, I remember having a rush of adrenaline when I took math and physics exams. My cheeks would turn red and it was like a concert in my brain, with all the numbers and formulas coming together in unison.
I was born in Mexico, where my parents were missionaries, but we moved to New Jersey when I was a teenager. Although no one in my family was a scientist, my dad is good with math—perhaps that's where I inherited the math gene. After I graduated from high school, I attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), where I majored in applied mathematics. I was doing so well that my academic advisor suggested that I enroll in the B.S./M.S. program. I always thought I would become a math professor because that’s what mathematicians do, right? WRONG.
Looking around on the Web for a summer program during my senior year at NJIT, I came across the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI)–Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. I applied and was accepted. MTBI was held at Cornell University, so I moved to Ithaca, New York, in the summer of 2000. This REU completely opened my eyes about what one could do with mathematics and introduced me to mathematical epidemiology. I was intrigued by how models could provide decision support for planning and mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. I returned to MTBI for a second summer in 2001, and it was only after this summer that I knew I wanted to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. One of the presenters during the summer was Herbert W. Hethcote, a pioneer in mathematical epidemiology, including mathematical modeling for childhood vaccination strategies, and professor at the University of Iowa.
I enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Iowa, with a fellowship from the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program of the U.S. Department of Education and an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship. Although by this time I had lived in six states and two countries, I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock I experienced when I got to Iowa. (New Jersey was concrete and industry—Iowa was cornfields and cows!). In 2003, the director of the MTBI program received a prestigious appointment at Los Alamos National Laboratory and invited me to join his research team. Although the original plan was to spend only one year at Los Alamos, the landscape, the work, and the people around me enticed me to stay.
After completing my Ph.D. in 2005, I was offered a postdoctoral position, and soon after, I was converted into a permanent staff member. Currently, I work on mathematical and computational models for infectious diseases. I am also interested in understanding and modeling human behavior in response to epidemics and other disasters. Most recently, I’ve been using social media to study emergent human behavior during recent disasters, such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. My goal is to use social media to model and forecast human behavior to better predict the spread infectious diseases. I believe that human behavior can play a key role in infectious disease dynamics and can be implemented by people with limited or no resources. What I love about working with epidemics is that everyone can relate to it and it can guide public health policy so that fewer people die from infectious diseases..
I enjoy hiking, skiing, and yoga. While I’m a scientist, I’m also girly and fashionable. I don’t think being a scientist means wearing boring clothes and horn-rimmed glasses!