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Photo Credit - Kathleen Atkins

Cecilia Aragon

Professor

University of Washington

And - Author

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Follow your curiosity.

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WHAT DO YOU DO?

I’m a professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the author of fiction and nonfiction, including Writers in the Secret Garden and the memoir Flying Free.

 

I’m also an aerobatic pilot.

 

As a professor, I study how people make sense of vast data sets, using a combination of computer science and art.

 

As an author, I write about how to use math to overcome fear and expand your life until it becomes amazing.

 

President Obama honored me with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), and Hispanic Business Magazine named me one of the Top 25 Women of 2009.

 

I’m a co-founder of Latinas in Computing and a passionate advocate for girls and women in STEM.

In September 2018 and March 2020, I was featured by KUOW for my work to bring more Latinas into STEM fields and how to conquer fear.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?

When I was a child, a teacher said, “Why are you working so hard in math? You should be getting a boyfriend.”

 

And, as a first-generation Latina whose parents spoke with thick accents, I was always placed in the slow reading groups in school.

 

Even though I loved math and science, I internalized others' expectations of me and began to believe that I wasn't smart enough to do scientific research. I was afraid of failure, so I dropped out of school.

 

So how did I become the first Latina full professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington?

 

I took a detour — into the air!

 

I overcame my fears, learned to fly and became an aerobatic pilot. Then I applied what I learned from flying to my technical career.

HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?

The daughter of a Chilean father and a Filipina mother, I grew up as a shy, timid child in a small midwestern town during the 1960s. Targeted by school bullies and dismissed by many of my teachers, I worried that people would find out the truth: that I was INTF. Incompetent. Nerd. Terrified. Failure. This feeling stayed with me well into my twenties when I was told that “girls can’t do science” or “women just don’t know how to handle machines.”

 

Then one day, a friend offered me a ride in a small airplane. I almost said no. But then I realized that living a "safe" life defined by fear was dangerous to my spirit.

 

And by learning to fly, and overcoming my fear through mathematical techniques, I began to overcome many other limitations. I broke free from expectations and rose above my own limits by combining math and logic with my passion for flying.

 

 

WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"

I wish I had been able to read a book like my memoir, Flying Free: My Victory over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team, when I was 12 years old. I wrote the book so that any discouraged young person will be inspired and activated to choose a STEM career.

WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?

Being a professor is my dream job. I get to do data science research, teach students, and have impact in the world. I wake up every morning looking forward to interacting with students that day. I love exploring creative ways to address some of the world's most pressing challenges involving algorithms that process vast amounts of data and affect everyone's lives, such as developing new medicines and vaccines trusted by the public, ameliorating hunger and poverty, and creating defenses against climate change. Every day is different, fascinating, and exciting.

BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?

Math and science open so many doors for girls and women. Yet I've met many women who say things like, "I'm not a math person."

 

Then I say: "If you took a math class and had trouble with it, it's not you, it's the teacher." I believe strongly that every teacher can kindle passion in their students. A math or science class taught at the inappropriate level can discourage any student.

 

Students should not give up — instead, they should find another teacher.

INSPIRATION

"Doing something incredibly difficult gives you incredible strength. The easy choice may be more deadly in the end."

 

— from Flying Free