Elena Martinez chalks up her love of math to a desire to gain a deeper understanding of her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease.
The more she studied the disease and its causes, the more she came to understand that the most cutting-edge research in the field was coming via the mathematics used to create sophisticated computer models of the brain.
“Math has always been a confidence and self-esteem booster for me,” says Martinez. “Although I was born in California, my parents wanted Spanish to be my first language, so I started school speaking limited English.”
Her adeptness at the logical language of math helped her level the playing field relative to her Los Angeles public school classmates whose first language was English.
A junior with a double major in math and computer science at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), Martinez plans to apply her skills and passion for mathematics to finding solutions to real-world problems and pursue a PhD in applied math.
In the summer of 2020, Martinez entered the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, an eight-week immersive research experience at no cost to students. Martinez worked with pediatrics and bioengineering professor Alison Marsden, postdoctoral research fellow Martin Pfaller and doctoral candidate Jonathan Pham in the Cardiovascular Biomechanics Computation Lab. She helped develop and hone computational models of blood pressure changes that could provide a greater understanding of cardiovascular diseases.
“It gave me the opportunity to use my math and programming skills to address the number one cause of death worldwide,” Martinez says.
Martinez credits SURF with teaching her that only by rising to the challenges of unexpected circumstances does personal growth occur. “I am taking with me an abundance of resources to help me with my graduate school application, with future research and with professional opportunities,” she says.
Martinez is currently mentoring Latino students in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Speak Now program, where she teaches English to students who just immigrated to the U.S. and inspires other minority students to pursue STEM fields. At LMU, she serves as a math teaching and research assistant and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the McNair Scholars Program. Her extracurricular activities include volunteering at an elementary school in Compton.
“I hope that when I share my experience with other minority students, I incite a sense of curiosity into the discovery, innovation and learning that accompanies research programs such as SURF,” Martinez says.