Elena Martinez traces her love of mathematics to starting her education as an English learner. “I gravitated toward math because I didn’t need English to understand it,” recalls Martinez, a rising senior double majoring in mathematics and computer science at Loyola Marymount University. “It was a universal language that made sense to me.”
In high school, Martinez realized that through research, she could apply her passion to tackling societal problems. Hoping to better understand her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, she began reading everything she could get her hands on. “I found one paper on mathematics and the brain, and as I was looking at the graphs, I finally could see what was happening,” Martinez says. “In that moment I saw the power of these skills I had.”
Martinez has immersed herself in research at LMU, with the intention of pursuing a Ph.D. and becoming a professor at a research university. Recently she received the ultimate validation of her ambitions when she was awarded a 2021 Barry Goldwater Scholarship. The prestigious national scholarship, which supports college sophomores or juniors “who show exceptional promise of becoming this nation’s next generation of research leaders in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics,” comes with a stipend of up to $7,500 for educational support.
A turning point in Martinez’s LMU experience came the summer before her freshman year, when she participated in LMU Seaver College’s Google Computer Science Summer Institute. “I had never done any computer science, and through that program I learned to love it,” she says. “I decided to double major, and to do research using computer science to apply mathematics to different fields.”
As a sophomore, Martinez embarked on the first of a series of studies she has conducted under the mentorship of Anna Bargagliotti, professor of mathematics. With fellow student Jack Mauro, Martinez took a data science approach to examining proposed strategies for combating homelessness in L.A. County — research that won the American Statistical Association’s Fall Data Challenge.
From there, Martinez became involved in a National Science Foundation project using millions of data entries to identify ways to improve diversity in the computer science pipeline. In the summer after her sophomore year, she conducted research at Stanford University on cardiovascular biomechanics — work she continued at LMU, and now hopes to make her focus in graduate school. Martinez was recognized as an Edison International Scholar at the Great Minds in STEM Conference. She is also a McNair Scholar, which has helped to fund a number of presentations Martinez has delivered at scientific meetings.
Martinez has also taken advantage of opportunities outside the STEM realm, whether it’s pursuing an interdisciplinary liberal arts education through her membership in the Phi Beta Kappa society or participating in Mexican folklore dancing through Grupo Folklórico de LMU. Through LMU’s Center for Service and Action, she volunteers her time as a tutor for ESL students and works as a tour guide for admissions. “I could talk for hours about how grateful I am for the experiences I’ve had, and how LMU really educates the whole person,” Martinez says. “And as a tour guide,” she adds, smiling, “I do a lot of that.”