Before coming to Washington University, Atzimba Martinez faced daily challenges as a woman of science. At her small, liberal arts college, she often found herself sitting in a classroom where she was the only female student. But participating in a head start program at the community college in her town during her last two years of high school helped prepare her for the challenges of majoring in math at Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash.
“It was just me and a whole bunch of other guys,” Martinez said. “I always felt like the professor would never really talk to me. He’d just be talking to other students, but I’d always be like ‘No. I’m going to prove you wrong. I am going to be better than these students.’
“That drove me to keep pursuing math,” Martinez said. “I think math is a very difficult subject, and I like being challenged. It’s very frustrating when you can’t solve something or prove something, but then the feeling when you finally prove it or solve it beats the feeling of being frustrated.”
Now, as a post-baccalaureate student in the Department of Mathematics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Martinez is up to the challenge – which ultimately may result in a PhD in math.
The challenges Martinez faced as an undergraduate did not stop her passion for math; on the contrary, they boosted her confidence and pushed her to walk further and reach higher.
“Being the only woman in the classroom was very intimidating, but it was also encouraging,” she said.
Unlike what she had previously experienced in a community college classroom, WashU’s post-baccalaureate program gave Martinez a whole new understanding of what it means to be a woman of science. Not only was she exposed to a new academic environment, she has also had opportunities to join on- and off-campus organizations to help students who face similar challenges.
At Heritage U., Martinez was an active member of her community, participating in many activities and becoming president of her sorority. She continues to take initiatives and contributes to her new community here as a member of the WashU chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) and the Math Alliance.
AWM is a national organization whose mission is to help and provide guidance to women working in the field of mathematics. “We are doing a lot of great things right now,” Martinez said. “We provide mentoring for students who are in mathematics, for students who don’t really know what classes to take or don’t know who to take them with.”
Martinez also works with Math Alliance to help underrepresented students. “Whether that be ethnicity, race problems or being female in mathematics,” she said, “or students who come from small schools who do not have the background to necessarily do well in a program but have the potential to do well.”
Growing up in a Spanish-speaking family, Martinez said her Hispanic background has greatly shaped both her academic and personal life. Unlike many other Hispanic women who may lack opportunities to receive an education, Martinez, with great support from her parents, is the first person in her family to have graduated from college.
“One thing that makes me special here is that I am a post-bac student,” she said. “I am in neither the graduate life nor the undergraduate life. I am in my own area, where there’s just me. I get to take both graduate and undergraduate classes, so I get to see what these two academic parts are like.
“I feel like I kind of get the best of both worlds,” Martinez said. “It’s fun. I get to learn a lot.”