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The look of a scientist - Math skill leads a cool kid to career success, HENAAC award

HENAAC award winner Edward Jimenez (9525) says applied mathematics lets him look for challenging problems in areas that don’t necessarily overlap. “The common language between them is math,” he says.

HENAAC award winner Edward Jimenez (9525) says applied mathematics lets him look for challenging problems in areas that don’t necessarily overlap. “The common language between them is math,” he says.

Growing up in the southern California farming community of El Centro, the time came when Edward Jimenez had to fess up to his pals. He was good at math. Not only that, he liked it.

“I lost some friends. They said I changed, that I wasn’t the same guy anymore,” he says. “But I didn’t worry about it. You have to find what makes you happy. It sounds clichéd but it’s the absolute truth.”

And just as his high school friends were surprised, so were his peers at San Diego State University. He interviewed with the dean of the College of Sciences for a spot in the Minority Access to Research Careers, or MARC, program. At the orientation the dean walked straight past Edward and into her office.

“She said she had to ask her secretary who I was,” Edward says. “When she first interviewed me I was in a suit with my hair pulled back. At orientation I wore long hair, earrings, black shorts, and an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt. She thought I was an academic probation student.”

But Edward knew who he was. “I can look however I want and it doesn’t mean I have to be a certain type of person,” he says. “Not a whole lot of scientists I know have the goatee, shaved head, and earrings. But I don’t feel I’m disregarded in any way. I and others know what I’m capable of.”

Edward (9525) was recently named a 2014 HENAAC Award winner as Most Promising Engineer/Advanced Degree by Great Minds in STEM. He joins other honorees at the 26th annual HENAAC conference in New Orleans Oct. 2-4.

HENAAC, formerly the Hispanic Engineering National Achievement Awards Corp., honors the best STEM minds in the country. Each winner is peer-reviewed and chosen by representatives of industry, government, military, and academic institutions. Great Minds in STEM promotes those fields to underserved and underrepresented communities.

A mother’s firm hand

The award makes Edward a role model for young people, but he says he wasn’t always a great student. “There were peaks and valleys from daycare through high school,” he says. “I didn’t do well as a freshman because I was obsessed with what my friends thought of me.”

A constant was his mother’s emphasis on science, technology, and math. “She showed me how to add and subtract before kindergarten,” he says. “I loved all the science shows like Mr. Wizard’s World and Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

He was interested in everything from biology to astronomy to physics, and wanted to be an astronaut or scientist when he grew up. But in high school, friends and girls got his attention.

His mom pulled him back.

“She was very tough on me,” Edward says. “I was grounded on a weekly basis. But what she was saying eventually stuck. I realized I wasn’t trying. I set small goals. Let’s see if I can turn in my homework for all my classes this week, then for a month. Let’s see if I can get As on the exams for all my classes. Little things like that.”

Slowly but surely he quit goofing off and focused on what he wanted to do in life. “As a senior I looked back and saw that I consistently had an A in math. It came easy to me,” he says. “When I told my pre-calculus teacher, who was in his 70s, that I had declared math as my college major, he did cartwheels he was so happy. There weren’t a lot of math majors.”

How to be a college student

Edward says he didn’t know what he was getting into and had no intention of going to graduate school. He was the first member of his family to go to college. “I had the mentality of ‘Cs get degrees,’ in college,” he says. “I thought I would just get a job after I graduated.”

But then he was contacted by the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, a national STEM outreach program that offered him the chance to enroll in a calculus introduction course the summer before his first semester at SDSU. “They paid you to participate and gave you a graphing calculator, the most advanced technology I had ever used. That program played a huge role in putting me on the right path, to plan past a bachelor’s degree. It put me in touch with people who showed me how to be a college student.”

Edward carried a 4.0 grade-point average his first two years and caught the attention of the McNair Scholars Program, a US Department of Education initiative to increase the number of PhDs among groups historically underrepresented in graduate programs. McNair placed Edward in a summer program that allowed him to do research under faculty guidance.

“I did scientific research as an undergrad on a new way to distill petroleum to make gasoline, and had the opportunity to publish in journals and present at conferences,” he says. “It was a great experience. I was so eager to do research. It prepared me for graduate school in terms of what’s expected of a researcher and how to be a scientist.”

In 2004, Edward earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with an emphasis in computation science from SDSU followed in 2010 by a PhD in applied mathematics from the University of Arizona. He interned at Sandia starting in 2007 and was hired after graduation from Arizona.

“I love Sandia,” Edward says. “It’s exciting every single day. Management is supportive. The culture is just great.”

He says applied mathematics lets him look for challenging problems in many areas. “I can work in high-performance computing one day, radiography and tomography the next, and follow up with holography,” he says. “Areas like these don’t overlap, but the common language between them is mathematics.”

Edward is a team member on a Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) project in radiography, leading an effort to develop a way to identify the composition of a material from an X-ray image. The three-year project has produced several papers and patents. A previous Early Career LDRD, in which Edward was the principal investigator, developed ways to reconstruct big data using computer tomography and multiple processors, cutting a process that can take years down to less than a day, and conserving energy. The project, which has four patents pending, wrapped in 2013.

“Early Career LDRD helped me dive into the research at Sandia as an entry-level employee,” Edward says. “It let me take advantage of the skill sets I had while gaining others more in line with Sandia’s mission and values.”

A message to young people

He hopes to stay in research for at least another decade. “The type of work I do is intriguing,” he says. “I tackle problems nobody else in the world gets to do.”

Edward was nominated for the HENAAC award by Sandia President and Laboratories Director Paul Hommert, who described him as “continually demonstrating integrity, technical knowledge, innovative research, excellent communication skills, and superb leadership and teamwork, especially in nurturing the development of future scientists and engineers while making his own impressive accomplishments.”

Edward, who says winning the HENAAC was humbling and a high point in his career, reaches out to high school students in Albuquerque through programs including Sandia’s Manos. “I tell them that the fact you’re sitting here interested shows you have some level of potential, and you need to pursue that,” he says. “Yes, some of my friends didn’t want to hang with me anymore once I started doing well in school, even though nothing about me changed. But what’s more important to you, having a friend now or being successful the rest of your life?”

Edward, who is married with a 3-month-old son, found what makes him happy. “It’s science. I’m motivated by finding problems people have either never thought of or have not been able to solve. I try to instill in scientists of the next generation that to make any contribution is great. At Sandia we push boundaries, increase capacities, decrease limitations, and advance science.”