ASU applied mathematics doctoral grad found inspiration in high school math program

By

Rhonda Olson

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Arizona State University graduate Javier Baez was interested in chess at an early age and enjoyed solving puzzles. He liked math but did not think about studying mathematics.

He grew up in the border town of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico until he started middle school in San Luis, Arizona. He became a U.S. citizen in 2012.

His parents were both educated in Mexico, his father as an engineer and his mother as medical doctor.

Every summer during high school, he attended the Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program at ASU. The last class he took was applied mathematics, where he learned that he could model the spread of diseases, population growth and genetics using mathematics.

“That was the ‘aha’ moment when I realized I wanted to study mathematical modeling,” Baez said.

He went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in applied mathematics for the life and social sciences at ASU.

In his last year of undergraduate studies, he took a graduate level course in mathematical biology, where he met professor Yang Kuang.

javier Baez
Javier Baez (right) with professor Yang Kuang at the ASU graduate commencement ceremony. Photo by Rhonda Olson

“Through the course, I got to know him and his philosophy for doing science,” said Baez. “He inspired me to do research in mathematical biology and I decided to stay at ASU to work with him for my PhD.”

On Monday, Dec. 11, Baez earned a doctorate in applied mathematics from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

 “Javier is very adaptive and hard working,” said Kuang. “Most importantly, he is a fast learner, and a creative and experienced programmer.”

Baez has already had two real data-based publications, one on Ebola epidemics and one on prostate cancer treatment predictions. He plans to submit several more in the coming months.

He is a key author, in collaboration with the Xiao Wang Lab, of a significant manuscript on pattern predictions in synthetic biology to be submitted in a month to the journal Science

This past summer, Baez entered the Kaggle competition from Zillow to learn more about machine learning. He is using boosting and feature engineering strategies to predict the Zestimate error in a dataset of houses given by Zillow. Currently at 105th place on the leaderboard, he hopes to be in the top 100 to advance to the second round in January.

He also worked during the summer as an intern at Caterpillar, which led to a job offer. He will begin his career as a data scientist at Caterpillar in January.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective? 

Answer: During my PhD, I learned something that probably everyone experiences. As you learn more, you realize how little you know. Every field is incredibly vast, and to fully master anything you need to be a lifelong learner.

Q: What was your dissertation topic? 

A: I looked at how to model androgen deprivation therapy for prostate cancer patients. Specifically, how to predict when a patient will become resistant to the therapy in order to avoid unnecessary treatments and improve their quality of life.

Q: Why did you choose this topic to research? 

A: I was interested in modeling physiological systems. When I started the research phase of my PhD, I learned about a clinical trial done in Canada for patients undergoing androgen deprivation. I decided to work on extending previous works of my advisor with former students. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in graduate school? 

A: That would depend how early or late you are in your graduate degree. If you are starting out, don’t burn out too quickly by working all the time. If you are close to finishing, push through and finish — you are close!

Q: Why is mathematics a great major to pursue?

A: Mathematics gives you a broad perspective and the ability to work on many different things. I was able to work on spreading of Ebola, prostate cancer modeling, pattern formation in cells, and plant virus spread.  

Q: What do you think is misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: I think the general public thinks of mathematics as a set of rules and formulas that you need to memorize. Mathematics is about ideas and logic. Mathematics is used for understanding things better/precisely and not to make them more complicated.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot was Wexler Hall. I had my office, classes, and meetings there. 

Q: When not studying, what do you like to do for fun in your spare time?

A: I (have played) chess as a hobby for some years now. I try to play in tournaments when I have time. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I am very interested in medical problems, such as the problem I worked on for my thesis. However, I know preventive medicine has a greater impact than curative medicine. I know that about half a million children die from diarrhea worldwide, a fully preventable and curable disease. I think that I would implement a campaign to educate people about washing hands to prevent diarrhea and try to get them access to clean water. It would take more than $40 million to solve it worldwide, but I would try to help as many communities as possible.