Even people who love math can get spooked by it.

Albert Einstein famously referred to quantum mechanics as “spooky,” and it’s something UW graduate student Jorge Cisneros remembers as he shares his passion for math with others.

Cisneros, who is earning a doctorate in applied mathematics, says that imposter syndrome, not just in math, but in graduate school, always feels present at some level. To help, Cisneros has surrounded himself with a community of other graduate students across the country, especially students from other minority backgrounds, not just to feel supported but to provide encouragement and mentorship.

“You meet people who are doing different things, but you share a common experience of struggling to get to where you are now,” Cisneros said. “We’ve gone through so much but we’re all here, so why stop now?”

Cisneros, whose family is from Mexico, grew up in Texas and earned his undergraduate degree from University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Driven to prove himself, he participated in the honors program, double majored in math and physics, minored in chemistry, and attended multiple summer research programs at universities across the country. His hard work helped him secure the prestigious Ford Fellowship as well as the GO-MAP Fellowship to support his graduate studies. This summer, he’ll be virtually interning at the Argonne National Laboratory in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division, which will help with his career ambitions of working in national labs.

“He’s very inquisitive and asks good questions,” said Cristina Villalobos, a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and a mentor of Cisneros who encouraged him to apply for graduate school. “He learns from mistakes and just has a lot of discipline to get the work accomplished.”

Part of what inspires Cisneros is a love for how math helps solve complex problems. Cisneros is studying applied math, which he describes as the link between pure math — abstract and theoretical — and applied sciences like engineering and chemistry. His thesis is about developing an analytical and numerical method to solve intricate equations that don’t have exact solutions. This type of work is important for understanding water waves in oceanography, atmospheric sciences, and weather forecasting.

“It’s very satisfying because in a way solving math problems are like solving puzzles,” Cisneros said. “You have all the pieces, but you have to figure out how to put everything together…. It’s very satisfying when you’ve been able to put all these pieces together maybe in a way no one else has done before.”

Cisneros wants to make the work of math less spooky for young students as well, who he notices tense up just at the mention of math. He volunteers at grade schools with his graduate student peers who are part of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics UW. At a math fair last year at Lockwood Elementary School, Cisneros helped students make bracelets to represent the digits of pi, with different colored-beads representing different digits. This also involved explaining that because pi goes to infinity, a real bracelet that included all the digits of pi would have…

“501 beads?” a student asked.

“No, you need an infinite number of beads and an infinite length of string if you wanted to capture all of pi,” Cisneros explained. Some kids were listening, and others were just thrilled to go home with a bracelet. But that didn’t matter: “What I try to do is remove the spookiness of math and physics with these activities, with these outreach events,” he said.

Outreach is also important for helping Cisneros feel connected with other students of minority backgrounds who are in graduate school. Cisneros has formed these connections through conferences he attends, from a convening of students who received the Ford Fellowship to the Math Alliance Field of Dreams Conference, to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science conference, to meeting up with other students who participate in the Graduate School’s GO-MAP.*

Connecting with these communities gives students from underrepresented backgrounds in academia opportunities to network with each other as well as professors in the field. Through the Math Alliance, Cisneros was assigned two professors, one from his own university and one from another, who was also of Hispanic background, and could support his ambitions to attend graduate school.

They also provide channels of mentorship between students: recently, Cisneros was at a conference hosted by a professor from his undergraduate school and was able to encourage a student interested in what Cisneros is studying at UW to look into joining the math department.

At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where 87 percent of students are Hispanic, Villalobos said these mentorship opportunities are critical to help increase diversity in academic leadership. “I encourage them to go for the PhD, to go into academia, because we need that diversity,” Villalobos said.

# Finding the fellowships

Fellowships and funding opportunities are a critical part of making diversity possible. When Cisneros applied to graduate school at UW and received his acceptance letter, that letter included funding from GO-MAP for the first and last year of his graduate school program.

“Obviously money was such a big concern for myself and my family so seeing that offer be part of the acceptance letter was definitely a really good thing to see as I was hearing back from the other Ph.D. programs I was applying to,” Cisneros said.

Cisneros’ mentor, Villalobos, encouraged Cisneros to apply for the Predoctoral Fellowship through the Ford Foundation, which supports students of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds through graduate school. Earning this award gave Cisneros three years of funding.

Having multiple years of research experience as an undergraduate student helped him stand out, Cisneros said, because he was able to show how he dealt with the natural roadblocks and failures that come from learning.

“They know you know what it takes to do research, the frustration that comes along with it,” he said. “The sense of being stuck but also the perseverance to get something done, to get results.”

In other words, knowing how to persevere amidst the spookiness of learning.

Learn more about applying for fellowships

**GO-MAP was the name of a program that is now called GSEE, the Office of Graduate Student Equity & Excellence. Learn more.*

*By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School*

*Originally published April 28, 2020*