Mentorship played an important role in Cristina Villalobos' path to success as a math professor and founding director of the Center of Excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Education at The University of Texas-Pan American.
"Little by little these steps of mentoring led me to pursue a Ph.D. I feel that by mentoring students you are providing them opportunities and opening up the doors for them to discover that all different possibilities are out there for a career," Villalobos said.
On Oct. 4, Villalobos received the 2013 Distinguished Undergraduate Institution Mentor Award from the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at their annual conference, this year held at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio. It is the first time a UTPA faculty member has received this award from SACNAS, a 40-year-old national organization that fosters success of Hispanic/Chicano and Native American scientists in attaining advanced degrees, careers and positions of leadership in science.
Villalobos, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley after her family immigrated from Mexico, is a Donna (Texas) High School graduate and the first in her family to attend college. At The University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her bachelor's degree in mathematics, she again took advantage of summer internships and programs at UC Berkeley and Rice University, where she earned her master's and Ph.D. in computational and applied mathematics.
At UTPA since 2001, Villalobos' list of accomplishments in teaching, research, service and mentoring is long. She is the principal investigator of a $3.7 million grant from the Department of Defense - one of three awarded nationally in 2011 - to establish UTPA's Center of Excellence in STEM Education. The center focuses on strengthening STEM academic programs and increasing the number of STEM graduates, particularly from underrepresented groups through activities centered on faculty professional development, pre-college student outreach, and undergraduate research. Villalobos is also a co-principal investigator of a $3.1 million award received in 2012 from the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE Program that supports the University's development as an exemplary Hispanic Serving Institution in attracting and nurturing women, especially Hispanic women, in STEM fields and careers.
Her nominator for the SACNAS award, Dr. Richard Tapia, Maxfield and Oshman Professor in Engineering and director of the Rice Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice University, described her as a leader in her discipline and in the Latino community.
"Cristina teaches excellence, recognizes talent and plays a role in bringing this talent with guidance and preparation to fruition. She has become a respected national leader in her understanding and outreach to underrepresented minorities at both the local and the national level," Tapia wrote.
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen called the award to Villalobos well-deserved and yet another indication of the high quality of faculty at UT Pan American.
"Christina has an unparalleled passion for providing mentorship and professional career development for underrepresented students, for our students in the Rio Grande Valley. As an outstanding educator and a national leader in STEM, she will continue to serve as an important role model leading more students to pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM, which is vital to our community's future, to our state's future and to our nation's future," he said.
The SACNAS awards, which are selected by a committee of peers from nominations submitted nationwide, were also presented in the following categories: Research Mentor, Scientist, Community College Mentor, and Professional Mentor. Since the SACNAS Distinguished Awards program was initiated in 1997, the Society has honored more than 80 scientists, educators, and program directors for their commitment to and personification of the spirit of the SACNAS mission.