Three Questions with Dr. Josef Sifuentes

October 13, 2014

Dr. Josef Sifuentes is a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M University. We were very excited to have him give a talk at our Houston office last week. 

Q: Why did you become a mathematician?

A: I became a mathematician for many reasons. One important reason is Dr. Richard Tapia, a mathematics professor at Rice University where I attended as an undergraduate. He had a huge influence on my academic decisions. I started working on a research project with him that got me very interested in mathematics, specifically what was under the hood of the math software that I was using in the project. I presented my work on the project at a conference at University of California, Berkeley. After seeing how well-received that talk was, I decided to make a career out of research.

Q: We’ve heard that your research project involved heavy metal, muscle cars, art AND math. What was the project?

A: I was a mechanical engineering and art double major when I started at Rice University. Dr. Tapia found out that I was an artist with some interest in math as a mechanical engineering major. He told me about a 1970 Chevelle Super Sport he had that was fully customized and showed in car shows all over the country. He wanted a music video that featured the car with the theme of heavy metal because heavy metal and muscle cars were both elements of the 70s. But he did not just want any special effects for the video. He wanted the special effects to be made with math software. As an artist, I tried to capture the themes of heavy metal and muscle cars, but with the palette of math software, like the Computational Flow Fluid Simulation software.

Q: Part of our work at Reasoning Mind is to get students interest in math. Were you always interested in math?

A: When I went to college, I said, “Well, I like math and I’m good at it. I should pick a major that requires you to be good at math and sounds like a good job”, so I picked engineering. I figured as an engineer, you have to apply math to real situations. I never considered majoring in math. I confided to my ordinary differential equations professor that I was thinking about changing my major to math, rather than engineering. He replied, “Oh, you are finally getting your head out of the clouds.” I said, “No I want to keep it there. That’s why I’m choosing math.” When I started school, I had always viewed math as a way to compute a certain number or a function. This professor recommended that I take a proof-based course, so I took Number Theory. I realized in that course that math is very different from what I thought it was. Math is about finding the truth in an axiomatic system. Math is essentially applied logic, and therefore more akin to applied philosophy. This is when I knew I needed to change majors.

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