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Getting to Know Carlos Castillo-Chávez

Dr. Carlos Castillo-Chávez was originally interested in politics as a young man, but as he grew disillusioned with the political system in his native Mexico, he shifted gears and cleverly combined his interests in humanity and mathematics.

Castillo-Chávez, now the University Regents Professor and Joaquin Bustoz Jr., Professor of Mathematical Biology at Arizona State University, studied how human populations grow and change, how the AIDS virus can spread among populations, and how bioterrorism impacts populations. Castillo-Chávez says he became interested in ecology and education as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University.

“The news stories said people from Haiti were more at risk of getting HIV, and that didn’t make sense to me. Risk should not be about nationalities but about behavior,” he says. “I was studying how [scientists] made these predictions, including their methods of identifying risk groups. There is HIV in all levels of society, among all ethnic groups and nationalities. I brought a fresh perspective as a Mexican about the disease and its dynamics.”

That “outsider” perspective, Castillo-Chávez says, often results in minority scientists asking different questions — those that initially might not be considered “research-worthy.” He uses prostate and colon cancer research as examples. Both diseases disproportionally affect males, and prior to greater numbers of women entering the sciences, prostate and colon cancer research focused on males with the disease more so than on women.

As a result, Castillo-Chávez says it is important for him to mentor underrepresented students.

“It is important to have students develop a sense of ownership about what they are doing,” he says, adding that his students often have ideas for research that “are not standard or common for mathematicians to study [but] are fascinating, compelling, sometimes groundbreaking.” As an example, Castillo-Chávez cites the work of three of his female undergraduate students who are studying the dynamics of bulimia using mathematical models. “Regular math faculty may have dismissed this topic as not good for research in applied mathematics,” he says. But two years after the students began their study, the Journal of Mathematical Psychology published their first paper on the topic.

Castillo-Chávez’s mentoring of students has not gone unnoticed. He was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor Award at the organization’s annual meeting earlier this year. Castillo-Chávez also runs the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, a summer research program at ASU, to encourage underrepresented undergraduate students to study graduate-level mathematics or computational biology. So far, 140, including 113 underrepresented students from MTBI, have gone on to graduate programs.

Castillo-Chávez calls his mentoring work his proudest professional achievement.

“Science is very challenging, collective work. No matter how hard you work, the importance is to make collective advancements over time,” he says. “I love impacting young people, encouraging them to get their Ph.D.s while working on questions that matter to them and their communities. They are the engines of improvement in our society. There’s nothing like having the job that I have.

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