2023 Student Essay Contest: 9-12 First Place

“From the World Cup to a Sustainable World: Mandiola’s Math Mindset”

by: Alexa Eskovitz (Windward School)

Interviewee: Leticia Torres Mandiola (Ørsted)

Just as a constant anchors a math problem, math and soccer anchored Leticia Torres Mandiola as she moved across six different countries before graduating from high school. While “jock” and “math nerd” are stereotypically contradictory personae, Torres Mandiola attests that the same qualities that made her a star soccer player also shaped her into a great mathematician. For Torres Mandiola, life is diligence, collaboration, and problem-solving, on and off the field.

Torres Mandiola’s father shuffled the family around the world due to his engineering career, instilling in Torres Mandiola a seed of curiosity–about culture, people, and math–that she carries with her today. Torres Mandiola’s travels taught her to adapt to new situations, embrace new cultures, connect with people from diverse backgrounds, and solve problems.

“Math is universal,” says Torres Mandiola, explaining what first attracted her. “Math connects everyone.” Though Torres Mandiola grew up with four spoken languages, her favorite is a fifth language, math.

With her father’s tutelage during her adventuresome childhood, Torres Mandiola considered a career in engineering. She excelled early in math, and helping math-phobic friends solidified her grasp of key concepts: “Only after you have mastered something can you teach someone else.” It wasn’t until college, however, that Torres Mandiola discovered her true passion for mathematics, and she switched her major from engineering. Torres Mandiola’s hesitation about pursuing a math degree arose from her concern that it would limit her to a career in academia. But Dr. David Uminsky, Torres Mandiola’s advisor at the University of San Francisco (USF), helped her appreciate that “you can use math for everything.”

As a Division I soccer player on a full athletic scholarship, Torres Mandiola spent much of her time at USF traveling to play. While she preferred attending class, Torres Mandiola found that the travel did not impact her success in math because math is all about repetition, perseverance, and precision. The same mentality fed Torres Mandiola’s achievement in soccer: “For athletes, it’s about dedication and hard work. You can learn a concept theoretically, but you need to practice and exercise to excel.” Torres Mandiola’s mindset ultimately earned her the position of captain of the first Chilean women’s team in history to qualify for the World Cup.

While at USF, Torres Mandiola enrolled in “Problem-Solving,” a course that sparked her passion for tackling difficult challenges: “The class was about how to approach and progress through solving a problem even if there wasn’t always an answer at the end.” Torres Mandiola was so enthralled by the challenge of the class that even after her group had failed to solve a problem on an exam, she returned to her professor weeks later with what she believed to be the answer. To Torres Mandiola, there is power and strength in knowing she can tackle a problem with stubbornness and purpose.

Before graduating from USF, magna cum laude, Torres Mandiola worked for a summer at UCLA on an algorithm to segment microscopy images. Torres Mandiola then accepted an internship with the Los Angeles County Registrar, where she worked to promote voter participation by identifying areas of low voter turnout; she enjoys using data science, the core of which is math, to solve a diverse array of problems. Torres Mandiola’s curiosity next drove her to Imperial College London, where she completed a rigorous one-year master’s program in applied mathematics.

Torres Mandiola’s background has served her well as a mathematician, particularly in her current employment, where she collaborates with other scientists to tackle the world’s climate problems by fostering the growth of renewable energy. Most of Torres Mandiola’s career has been at Ørsted, a multinational company focused on alternative energy. She began as a data scientist, building algorithms to detect when wind farms might fail. Torres Mandiola next transferred to corporate strategy, where she attacked sustainability problems with her math mindset: “Sometimes, a problem isn’t even defined and you have to set up what problem you’re trying to solve.” Recently, Torres Mandiola moved to a newer area called green hydrogen; she thrills in pursuing the ambitious long-term vision of a sustainable world.

Torres Mandiola shares that the strangest part of her job is dealing with other’s perceptions of mathematicians. After failing to conjure an image of a typical mathematician, she exasperatingly inquired, “What does a mathematician look like? What does that even mean?” From the outsider’s perspective, Torres Mandiola explains, there is an assumption that mathematicians “must be really smart.” But, in Torres Mandiola’s experience in the workplace, if you don’t fit the mold–a man, a non-athlete, and an introvert–then you have to work overtime to prove your value.

As Torres Mandiola progressed in her career, she noticed that women were woefully underrepresented in data science and the greater energy industry. When she faced a backlash from speaking up about sexist comments at work, Torres Mandiola established Female Coders Ørsted and the Gender Inclusion Network at Ørsted, platforms to increase diversity and awareness in her field. Torres Mandiola credits math with giving her the mindset to problem-solve outside of the math sphere, and she is proud of turning adversity into a positive.

From soccer to the environment to gender equity, Torres Mandiola has used her math skills to make a demonstrable difference and smash stereotypes. She likes being able to evaluate where she has failed or faltered, thanks to the tangibility of mathematics: “You go from problem to solution and back again.” This allows her to experiment with various strategies and, most importantly, to try again if necessary.

Torres Mandiola encourages young female mathematicians to speak up. Looking back at her first job, she remembers being surrounded by older men. She would judge herself based on how much experience Torres Mandiola thought her colleagues had. But really, she said, “no one knows everything. Put yourself out there, try things, and ask the stupid questions” because “what you know is better than you think.” Toward the end of our interview, I felt that I had already found a mentor and a friend in Torres Mandiola; she congratulated me on accomplishing that first, brave step, reaching out to someone I admire.

Torres Mandiola loves that she is a mathematician and relishes knowing she can tackle formidable problems with confidence. Even in non-mathematical settings, she knows others value her math skills, giving her an edge. People will say, “Oh, you studied math and that can be applied in many different ways.” That, she knows, is precisely what a math mindset is all about. Soccer fanatics often say “Football is Life,” but for Leticia Torres Mandiola, “Math is Life.”