At Berkeley, math major — and soon-to-be doctoral student — María Guadalupe Martínez swapped one dream of helping people for another

María Guadalupe Martínez had long dreamed of getting on the pre-med track when she started at Berkeley four years ago. As a child and teenager, she had served as translator at the doctor’s office when her parents, who spoke very little English, sought help for their frequent health problems.

María Guadalupe Martínez

María Guadalupe Martínez went from being intimidated by math to finding a passion for proofs. (Wendy Edelstein/NewsCenter photo)

“I wanted to remedy the disparities I saw by becoming a doctor and returning to help my community,” says Martínez, who planned to major in public health.

But during Summer Bridge, a six-week residential program to prepare incoming Berkeley freshmen for the rigors of academia, she took Math 96, a pre-calculus course. Even though she initially struggled in the class, it ignited a passion for math in Martínez, one that has continued to grow.

“Math hasn’t been easy. It’s a difficult subject for me,” acknowledges Martínez, a diminutive woman who appreciates the challenge of her chosen field. “I can spend hours working on a problem. The feeling of reward I get when I solve it doesn’t compare to any other feeling.”

This month, Martínez graduates from Berkeley with a bachelor’s of science degree in mathematics. In the fall, she will return to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in math. Since 2006, she has returned to campus each summer to tutor incoming Summer Bridge students. And since her sophomore year, she has taught supplementary math courses for the Student Learning Center, where she got help with her math.

“Maria has been one of our stars as a mentor,” says Mike Leong, math coordinator with the Student Learning Center. “I think she identifies with the learning process of other students, because of where she started.”

Mike Wong, who tutored Martínez in Math 96, told her he knew she would choose to study math. Martínez recalls, “He said that I’m so theoretical that he could never see me doing anything else.”

The heart of the equation

Martínez’ parents and her two older brothers will be cheering her on when she graduates later this week. “They’re really proud,” says Martínez, the first in her family to go to graduate school.

Initially, she says, her parents were surprised she chose math, a subject that troubled her in high school. “Like most parents, at heart they want me to do what makes me happy,” Martínez says.

Born in Los Angeles in 1988, María is the youngest child of Leonel and Zeferina Martínez, both of whom emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico.

At North Hollywood High School, Martínez, who excelled in biology and English, was intimidated by math but managed to earn Bs by learning and plugging in formulas.

An attractive financial-aid package helped her choose Berkeley over UCLA. Martínez also wanted to “go somewhere different.” Her parents encouraged her to move away from home so she could “grow in different ways.”

After Martínez returned from Summer Bridge, her father told her he had lung cancer. “My dad wanted me to make the best choice without thinking I had to stay home and take care of him,” says Martínez, whose parents had withheld the news until she decided where to go to college.

She says it was a “tough decision” to return to Berkeley: “My mom and dad have always wanted me to get an education so that I wouldn’t have to work long hours in a factory like they did,” she says.

Although her father’s tumor was removed, he has had medical complications, including two strokes. Her mother has battled joint problems. Martínez felt pulled in different directions.

During her four years at Berkeley, Martínez’ father was so sick a few times that she felt torn about staying in school. She sought guidance from Mike Wong, and Rudy Elizondo, her math tutors at the SLC. “Their goal was always to get me back to finish,” says Martínez, who never left Berkeley and instead periodically headed to L.A. to check on her parents.

A logical progression

Martínez kept taking math classes, all the while hewing to her pre-med path. Then, in the spring of her sophomore year, she enrolled in a logic class and learned about proofs and logical statements, the stuff of upper-division mathematics. She was hooked.

“Working with proofs, math isn’t so much about computation any more,” says Martínez, who found math in the more theoretical class “like building a puzzle. You can’t just randomly place a piece and try to make it fit. It has to hold logically every step of the way.”

The summer between her sophomore and junior years, Martínez attended an eight-week program for pre-med and pre-dental students, during which she took classes and volunteered at a hospital. She returned to Berkeley still intent on pursuing medicine.

It wasn’t long before Martínez realized that if she followed the pre-med course, she would have to forsake math. “I couldn’t see myself not doing math, not teaching it or working with it,” says Martínez.

After obtaining her Ph.D., she plans to teach math at a university, in part so that she can work with an organization that encourages underrepresented students in the subject.

“As soon as you mention math, so many people make a face,” she says. At Berkeley, Martínez met students whose goal required passing a math course. She saw many of them change plans after struggling with the subject.

“It’s just a matter of how you’re being taught and learning how to study math,” says Martínez, who wants “to give people who aren’t comfortable with mathematics a chance to learn it.”

Her goal is “to help people out” so they can find their “real passion,” just like the SLC’s Leong, Elizondo, and Wong did for her. “I changed my mind so many times” about whether to pursue a career in medicine or math, says Martínez. “I’m thankful I finally found what it is I want to do.”