White House recognizes mentoring role in STEM


  Friday, August 7, 2020
  Awards and Recognitions, Faculty Focus

By Amanda Alaniz

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Dr. Cristina Villalobos, a Myles and Sylvia Aaronson Endowed professor in the UTRGV School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, associate dean for the College of Sciences, and founding director of the Center of Excellence in STEM Education, has been awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).

The much-lauded professor was presented with the award – among many recognitions honoring her commitment and dedication to the STEM fields – during a virtual ceremony held Aug. 3. The formal ceremony will take place at the White House at a later date.

The PAESMEM award is one of the nation’s highest honors and recognizes the critical role mentors play outside the traditional classroom setting in the academic and professional development of the future STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workforce. Mentors support learners ranging from kindergarten through college, as well as those who recently started their careers in STEM.

“I’ve been collaborating with others in making positive changes – increasing the number of students especially women and underrepresented minorities in obtaining STEM degrees,” Villalobos said. “And that’s really what the award means to me – that my work and assistance from others have brought this to fruition.”  

When she found out she was one of 12 awardees, she said, she was overcome with emotions, from elation to surprise to feeling honored, especially because it is such a highly competitive award. 

This is the second straight year the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring has been awarded to a UTRGV faculty member. UTRGV Professor Dr. Karen Lozano, a Julia Beecherl Endowed Professor in mechanical engineering and director of the UTRGV Nanotechnology Center of Excellence, received the honor in 2019.

‘‘It’s really about making students aware of these opportunities and preparing them, academically and professionally, for their bachelor’s degree and beyond. And to prepare them to become leaders, especially as women and Latino leaders we need to lean in. We need to be at the table to make critical decisions about problems our nation faces.
—Dr. Cristina Villalobos’’

PATH TO SUCCESS  

Villalobos, a native of Donna and first-generation college graduate, received her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Texas-Austin and her Ph.D. in Computational and Applied Mathematics from Rice University.

Her interest in the STEM fields sparked during high school, beginning with a passion for mathematics. She would tutor her friends and participated two summers in TexPREP (Texas Prefreshman Engineering Program) at UTRGV legacy institution Pan American University. 

Once she graduated from high school, she wanted to pursue a career in mathematics and found herself following a path that would lead to teaching math.  

As an undergraduate she attended summer research programs at UC-Berkeley, Rice University, and Sandia National Laboratory. Villalobos decided to pursue doctoral work in applied mathematics inspired by her mentors - Dr. Efraim Armendariz and Dr. Uri Treisman from UT-Austin; Dr. Richard Tapia from Rice; and Dr. Juan Meza from Sandia labs.

The guidance she received is why making students aware of opportunities is important to her as it can direct one’s path to a brighter future, she said.   

For Villalobos, teaching mathematics means inspiring and guiding students into becoming leaders in their respective careers. They are the ones who will be generating new developments, build new technologies and generate change.  

“It’s nice to be recognized for this award, because I see it more as, I helped contribute to producing more students who will lead the nation,” she said. 

 

‘TAKING THE INITIATIVE’ 

The PAESMEM honors mentors who share their expertise and guidance with learners, sometimes through formal or informal mentoring programs. Mentors demonstrate impact on individuals historically underrepresented in STEM fields. 

At UTRGV, the Center of Excellence in STEM Education, under the guidance of Villalobos and program coordinator Idalia Mejia, focuses on strengthening ties to STEM through academic programs and providing resources to students pursing degrees in STEM fields to prepare them for professional careers or graduate studies.   

One of the center’s goals is to help increase the number of STEM graduates, particularly those from underrepresented groups, and has had an impact on thousands of K-12 local students by providing STEM resources and hands-on activities.  

Villalobos said the center is important because it serves as a hub where college students can get answers to STEM-related questions. They also have access to resources, whether that be learning about research programs or workshops to prepare for graduate studies.   

The center is especially important for UTRGV because the student population is predominantly Latino, she said, and UTRGV can help provide future Latino leaders in STEM fields.  

“It’s really about making students aware of these opportunities and preparing them, academically and professionally, for their bachelor’s degree and beyond,” Villalobos said. “And to prepare them to become leaders, especially as women and Latino leaders we need to lean in. We need to be at the table to make critical decisions about problems our nation faces.” 

Villalobos already has seen the impact on students mentored at the center and who have utilized the resources offered. She cited one alum who recently defended his Ph.D. in mathematics education at UT Austin, and says she can see how UTRGV is preparing students to have a positive impact in STEM.  

She instills in students to live by the STEM center’s motto: “Take the initiative and knock on doors to find opportunities.”  

 

CREATING LASTING IMPACT, ESTABLISHING GOALS 

Villalobos has more than 18 years of experience in higher education and currently holds the Myles and Sylvia Aaronson Endowed Professorship at UTRGV. She received the 2019 Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award for Scientific Scholarship, Civic Sciences and Diversifying Computing, and has served on the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science Board of Directors.

She also was a member of the National Academies committee that published the 2019 report, “Minority Serving Institutions: America’s Underutilized Resource for Strengthening the STEM Workforce.”  She also serves on several external committees and advisory boards to increase the pipeline of underrepresented groups in STEM. 

Villalobos said she is grateful for the Presidential Award because it means she has had a role in helping students make impactful changes, and in encouraging more representation for Latinos and women.  

Some of her personal goals are to see more UTRGV students involved in STEM-related academic positions and become leaders in government and industry jobs. She sees it more often now and hopes that continues to grow.  

“This award means a lot to me, but it also means a lot to the Rio Grande Valley and UTRGV. It means we’re doing great work here. When I received this honor, it wasn’t just me – it means we’re doing amazing work in the Valley,” she said. “We’re educating and preparing our students for higher education and careers.”

ABOUT UTRGV

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.