Samuel Cavazos wasn't a fan of mathematics until he discovered a book in the eighth grade titled "Prime Obsession" that explores a yet unresolved, over 150-year-old hypothesis regarding prime numbers presented by the little known mathematician Bernhard Riemann.
"After reading this book, I saw that math was much more than just adding and subtracting or multiplying and dividing, that was it for me," said Cavazos, who graduated in 2013 from The University of Texas-Pan American with a bachelor's degree in math.
This spring, Cavazos became the first student ever - undergraduate or graduate - from UTPA's Department of Mathematics to receive a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The award to Cavazos was based on his excellence as a student and his collaborative research with his math department mentor Dr. Sean Lawton. The scholarship will provide $30,000 per year toward Cavazos' pursuit of a combined master's and Ph.D. in mathematics at Northwestern University. He will also receive an institutional fellowship to help him through the five-year program.
Cavazos said he's happy about how the award will allow him to concentrate on his studies and research. He's also proud of what gaining such a prestigious and competitive award says about UT Pan American.
"I think that the fact that I received it is a reflection of the University as a whole - a changing University, with a great department and very supportive people," he said. "Any recognition I receive should go to them because I am one of their products."
Cavazos credited Lawton, an assistant professor of math, with pushing him to "work harder" and "shoot higher" to reach his goals. Cavazos also praised the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, administered at UTPA by Dr. Cristina Villalobos, an associate professor of math who also directs UTPA's Center of Excellence in STEM Education. He said that program, designed to encourage and support students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, provided him stipends during the fall and spring academic semesters and summer school enabling him to conduct intensive research rather than work to fund his education.
During his time at UTPA, Cavazos presented his research at conferences statewide and nationally and helped manage the Experimental Algebra and Geometry Lab on campus.
Lawton, who has guided Cavazos in their research on mathematical objects - called moduli spaces - which classify different ways geometry can exist, described his student as not only brilliant but extremely hardworking and passionate about his subject. The NSF award he received is extremely prestigious and rare, Lawton said.
"Samuel was competing among all graduating seniors and first year Ph.D. students from across the United States. Across the U.S., there were only 67 awards made in all of mathematical science and only 23 in his discipline called 'Algebra, Number Theory and Combinatorics,'" Lawton said.
When Cavazos describes his interest in pure vs. applied mathematics, he's quick to note that pure mathematics can also evolve into significant applications.
"For instance, number theory, was once considered one of the most pure math field studies and considered for centuries not applicable to anything. But it was found that you can use number theory for encryption, which is used to secure computer data," he said.
Once he receives his Ph.D., Cavazos said his "secret" desire is to return to the Rio Grande Valley and teach as a professor of mathematics, by then, at the anticipated "new university," which will be created with the merger of UT Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville.
"I am excited about the new university. The pure math program will grow and, hopefully, the research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students will increase," he said. "I want to give students a chance to see the beauty in mathematics and get more of them involved in the subject."