A Lucky Choice:
Reflecting on My Time as a Grad Student in Mathematics at the University of Iowa
By Omayra Ortega, MPH, PhD
Arizona State University West
Mathematical And Natural Sciences
When I chose to attend the University of Iowa, my decision wasn’t based on much more than the choice of advisor. I knew that I needed a fellowship or some sort of support to go to grad school and that I wanted to work with Herbert Hethcote in Math Biology, but past that, I really didn’t look into the university. In the past this method (or lack thereof) had proved successful for me, and in hindsight I hit the jackpot when I started my graduate career at the University of Iowa.
I had attended majority institutions since high school, so I knew that I could surmount any cultural differences I encountered. I grew up in New York City, but I knew what it meant to live in a small town. I was a Hispanic female but have interacted with the whole rainbow of peoples and cultures. However, being a bi-coastal person, I erroneously thought that all of the landlocked parts of the United States were contained within the Rocky Mountains. This way I could go snowboarding on the weekends if I got bored or felt lonely while at Iowa. I am now familiar with the plains, the prairie, the rolling hills, and the fertile land between the two great rivers that is the Midwest, so I know better than to think of it as a snowboarder’s paradise.
Despite my initial confusion, I began to love Iowa, both the city and the university. Iowa City was and is very liberal and forward thinking. I expected everyone to wear overalls, quilt, and chew hay, but that wasn’t the case. Instead I found a thriving organic co-op, car share programs, garden-share programs, and a walkable and very bike-friendly downtown with a central pedestrian mall. The university, which was the center of my life, sustained and nourished my mind and social calendar for 7 years.
The social activities in the math department started even before the start of classes. I was invited to an orientation workshop for students who were receiving minority fellowships. The purpose of this meeting was three-fold, first, we needed to understand how the fellowship worked, second, we needed to choose the right courses based on our past preparation, and third, we needed to meet each other. Phil Kutzko and Gene Madison ran this orientation that went on for two weeks before the start of classes. We all knew what courses we should take during our first year, but the orientation helped us choose what level we should begin at. Some students were able to jump right into PhD level courses, I had to begin at the Master’s level, and some students needed to retake some undergraduate courses. These choices were available to us, but not forced on us. We were able to sign up for the level we felt most comfortable at, and nothing less. Senior graduate students who were also receiving similar fellowships would attend from time to time to welcome and get to know the new students. This was a great resource for us newbies, so we would have familiar faces we could look to if we had any questions about grad school. At the time, I believe, there were only 3 senior grad students of color in the math department, a fellow named Louis, Sharon Lima, and Sharon Clark, but just knowing these friendly students existed in Iowa was welcome news. As my time at Iowa progressed those numbers increased exponentially from those initial three that I met.
In addition to the orientation workshop, the math department coordinated a welcoming BBQ and picnic, which has since become an annual event that is open to grad students in all of the STEM fields. This BBQ marks the start of the fall semester and helps students connect with students of color who are not in their field, thus extending the social network of grad students of color. The math department also organized daily departmental teas where all students could get to know their professors in an informal setting.
One of my favorite math-related activities was Phil & Gene’s informal potluck dinners at Phil Kutzko’s home near campus. These events were always well attended and happened about once a year. Phil made a mean margarita and his sense of humor kept us all in stitches. Really, anytime Phil and Gene put on a get together, laughter always followed.
Of course there were also informal get-togethers within the department. There was never a shortage of potlucks, birthday parties, chicken-wing nights at the Vine, FAC (Friday After Class) at Joe’s Pub, friends or relatives visiting, or a PhD defense or passed comprehensive/qualifying exam to celebrate. Sometimes we didn’t even need a reason, but the math department at Iowa is a social animal. Through these social activities we fostered and sustained a caring community environment in our department.
I fought the fear of taking comprehensive exams by fooling myself that they weren’t that important and that if I didn’t pass I would drop out and pursue my alternate career goal producing electronic music. When the time came to begin taking these exams, Iowa offered optional summer preparatory courses in each of the comprehensive exam areas. I enrolled in these optional courses, and having that prep course immediately before the exam, solidified my knowledge and gave me a venue to try some practice problems before taking the exam.
These courses were led by a senior grad student whose chosen field was the same as the discipline of the comprehensive exam. This structured practice gave me the added advantage of actually believing that I would pass the exams, instead of doubting my abilities. I passed all of my comprehensive exams on the first try.
After successfully passing all three of my comprehensive exams, I looked to my next hurdle, writing and defending an as yet undecided thesis topic. My first issue was to choose a topic. I knew that I wanted to do something in Math Biology, but what would keep me interested? What would be a topic important to Mathematics and to Biology? I am grateful that my advisor was very open to any topics that I wanted to pursue. We explored many different topics in Math Epidemiology and my advisor allowed me to spend some time in Cairo, Egypt researching a topic further. In the end my time in Cairo writing a cost-benefit analysis of the rotavirus vaccine solidified my choice of dissertation topic. I would evaluate the rotavirus vaccine using deterministic models.
I began work on this topic at the end of my third year at Iowa, but the work seemed to drag on. I wasn’t getting good results and I was taking a really long time to achieve those weak results. During my fifth year I began to seriously doubt I would ever finish. When my advisor decided to retire to Washington state, I thought that might be the end of my grad school adventure, but all of my professors and my peers encouraged me to continue.
With my advisor in a whole different state, I decided to begin a job working as an instructor at Arizona State University. I was cautioned that this could be a dangerous choice, since it is very hard to complete a PhD and start a brand new job at the same time, but I decided to join the workforce anyway. My advisor and I continued to work together through email and snail mail correspondences and I added a co-advisor based in Iowa.
While at Arizona, students and professors from Iowa would occasionally send me emails to see how my thesis was coming along, and would send encouraging messages, through my colleagues at ASU who they had met at conferences, for me to persevere and get this degree done. Even though I wasn’t in Iowa, the reach of its math department extended all the way to Phoenix, AZ. Because of these little reminders, I was aware that I was still part of the Iowa math community and that they still cared about me. With the help and love of all of my fellow grad students, professors, and mentors, I was able to complete my degree this past summer.
I believe that the University of Iowa’s math department may have been the ONLY place in this world where I could have been able to complete my PhD. Without the constant support of friends in the department, each day, to go to classes, to complete assignments, to take comprehensive exams, to attend conferences, and to give talks, I could have easily succumbed to my own laziness and self-doubt and dropped out. I want to point out that I had support to succeed, not threats of failure to keep me going. I found that many people try to use negative reinforcement to get students to produce results, but this never works. At the very least, I know that wouldn’t have worked for me. Just about every idea I had for research topics was supported. When I wanted to travel to the Gambia during my second year to work in the Epidemiological Statistics Unit of the Ministry of Health, the math department found funds to help me go.
In general, if a student had an opportunity to give a talk at a conference, the department found the funds to support the student. The positive outlook and support at Iowa were a treasure to me. There were many times when I considered leaving, I missed my family and my friends on both coasts, and the winters in Iowa were severe. But the constructive competition at Iowa and collaboration implicit in the caring community there sustained me all the way to graduation.