Erika Camacho visits Purdue University via Mathematical Biosciences Institute’s Visiting Lecturer Program

06-27-2012

The Mathematical Biosciences Institute (MBI), located on the campus of the Ohio State University in Columbus, runs a visiting lecturer program which "sponsors visits of mathematical biologists to institutions that have large numbers of undergraduate students who are members of groups that are under-represented in the mathematical sciences community." Dr. Erika Camacho, Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences within the Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Arizona State University, visited Purdue April 5- 6, 2012.

On Thursday evening, Dr. Camacho gave a presentation for a joint meeting of the Purdue Mathematics Society and the Purdue chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics. In front of an a crowd of two dozen undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, Dr. Camacho's talk, "Insights to Success Before, During, and After Graduate School Through My Story," focused on her thoughts concerning many of the struggles that students and women of color must endure in striving to attain their academic and professional goals. Dr. Camacho shared her life experiences and the challenges she had to overcome to help her achieve her personal and professional goals. After the presentation, nearly half the group continued the lively discussion over dinner at Khana Khazana, a local Indian restaurant.

On Friday morning, Dr. Camacho had lunch with faculty in the mathematics department. Several, including Patti Bauman, Johnny Brown, and Monica Torres, are members of the department's newly formed Diversity Committee. Others, such as Edray Goins and Julie Feng, knew Dr. Camacho through her connections with Dr. Carlos Castillo-Chavez of Arizona State University and her work with the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). The discussion centered around Dr. Castillo-Chavez's spectacular success in graduating underrepresented minorities, with some suggestions on how Purdue could duplicate this success.

Soon after, Dr. Camacho joined Edray Goins and presented for his class, "MA 39000: Great Issues in Mathematics." This course, geared for seniors in the mathematical sciences, "has the general purpose of serving as a 'bridge' between formal college courses and the continuing study and consideration of major issues by responsible college graduates." In front of an audience of more than 60 undergraduates, Dr. Camacho discussed her journey from Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to Cornell University in Ithaca. The students had seen and discussed the film Stand and Deliver, and listened with rapt attention as she discussed her relationship with Kimo, the calculus teacher Jaime Escalante from the movie. Students asked a wide range of questions, professional and personal, during the hour-long class period. "We all have an obligation," Dr. Camacho said, "to take advantage of the opportunities we are given."

On Friday afternoon, Dr. Camacho sat down for a quiet discussion over tea and cookies with the Purdue Chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics. For about an hour in an intimate setting with just a dozen female graduate students, Dr. Camacho discussed how to find an advisor, balance family with work, and keep emotionally healthy under the stresses of graduate school. Dr. Camacho told the story of how she struggled to keep a marriage intact with a husband who lived 2,000 miles away while attempting to raise a newborn son. She extolled the praises of faculty and friends alike who encouraged her during the difficult times when she considered dropping out of her doctoral program.

To wrap up her extremely busy visit, Dr. Camacho gave a research talk for the Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics (CCAM). Her talk, "Tracing the Progression of Retinitis Pigmentosa via Photoreceptor Interactions," focused on her work to create a mathematical model of Retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a group of inherited degenerative eye diseases characterized by mutations in the genetic structure of the photoreceptors that leads to the premature death of both rod and cone photoreceptors. She showed that the evolution of RP from one stage to another often requires the failure of multiple components. Her work should provide a framework for future physiological investigation, potentially leading to long-term targeted multi-facet interventions and therapies dependent on the particular stage and subtype of RP under consideration. Indeed, the results of this mathematical model may also give insight into the progression of many other degenerative eye diseases involving genetic mutations or secondary photoreceptor death and potential ways to circumvent these diseases.

Purdue University was quite fortunate to have such a lively and engaging speaker visit its campus. Although Dr. Camacho was just there for two days, she made an impact that will be felt for a while to come.

This article was contributed by Prof. Edray Goins. For additional information on MBI's Visiting Lecturer Program, see http://mbi.osu.edu/about/vlprogram.html.