2020 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate Winner

From Mexico to the World: Dr. Villafuerte’s Mathematical Adventure

By Ximena Mercado Garcia (The University of Texas at Austin)

Interviewee: Laura Villafuerte Altuzar (The University of Texas at Austin)

Feeling represented by faculty members from your university is important. It makes you feel empowered and capable of achieving what you want, just as they did. Therefore, I was so excited to find out that Dr. Villafuerte was a math professor at UT Austin, mainly because less than 5% of the US college faculty is both female and Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
After falling in love with a logic class in middle school, Dr. Villafuerte realized she wanted to keep doing math. She recognized it was a hard subject, and in fact this made her doubt herself for a while. However, after passing a math class in high school known for being failed by everyone, she became more confident in her mathematical skills. That was the time she decided she wanted to devote her life to this field.
Determined to study math, Dr. Villafuerte moved from Chiapas to Veracruz, as there was no university in her hometown where she could major in math. After graduating from Universidad Veracruzana in 2002, thanks to her excellent academic performance, she was awarded a scholarship from the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology to study her master’s degree. She completed her master’s degree in Applied Mathematics at Centro de Investigación en Matemáticas (CIMAT), a recognized institution located in Guanajuato. This was the stage of her life where she was finally able to “create math.” During her bachelor’s degree, she became really interested in analysis, so she continued focusing on this area. In CIMAT, Dr. Villafuerte met a professor who would later become her PhD advisor. He was from Spain and invited her to pursue a doctoral degree at Universidad Politécnica de Valencia. Excited about this new opportunity, she accepted the invitation to go.
Studying in Spain left Dr. Villafuerte not only with a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics, but also with a solid research team with whom she continues producing papers. Her research is focused on random differential equations (RDEs) which, as Dr. Villafuerte explained, are differential equations involving random variables and stochastic processes. Her research combines probability theory, differential equations, and numerical analysis, and can help solve math models developed by engineers and scientists. Dr. Villafuerte recommends to those who want to conduct research in the future to focus on something they really like and feel comfortable with, just as she did.
Besides doing research, Dr. Villafuerte has also built a career in academia. She started teaching at Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas when the option to pursue a major in mathematics was finally available. She worked there for about seven years as a full-time professor. In fact, she helped plan and direct both the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. In 2015, she had the opportunity to become a visiting associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for a year. It was in 2017 when she moved to Texas and started teaching at UT Austin.
Once in the US, Dr. Villafuerte had to face another challenge: teaching students who didn’t have a solid math background. In Mexico, she was used to teaching students who were majoring in mathematics and were genuinely interested in learning math in a deeper form. However, most introductory calculus classes in the US are taken also by STEM and business students, not only by math majors. Therefore, she needed to adapt the way she was teaching. “The way that I teach now is to show students why some facts are true in a very simple way. And when they get it, I try to relate that with something that is more general. I used to do it the other way around,” Dr. Villafuerte explained. Starting with a particular example as a preamble to a general explanation has helped her students gain a better understanding of math, especially those who aren’t passionate about the subject. Dr. Villafuerte emphasized the importance of keeping your rhythm when learning math; she considers it is better to go slow, but having a good comprehension of the material, than to go fast and memorizing without understanding.
Dr. Villafuerte’s advice to students who are interested in pursuing a career in mathematics is different from what people tend to tell you, and it will probably take a load off many students: “don’t rush.” She believes that there will be a time when you will be able to “do things,” but that “there are few things you can do if you don’t know the basics.” She also explained that “it’s more appropriate to invest your time in actually knowing the foundation. It’s just like constructing a building. Your foundation should be solid in order to get a really good building.” She recommends enjoying the bachelor’s degree and highlighted that students shouldn’t feel bad for not having experience, as it will arrive at the right time, just as when she got into CIMAT and Spain. One of her thoughts that is still stuck in my head is the following, which I hope other students find useful: “If you are meant to be someone and you work hard for something that you like, there is no way someone can stop you. And you will keep going.”