Marcella Torres was born in Omaha, Nebraska to Tejano and Argentinean parents. She had a great early interest in literature, art and music, attending a magnet school for fine arts and later vocational school for fashion design and also performing as a first chair violist in school, state, and regional orchestra and symphony. In contrast, she took one pre-algebra course in high school, earning a “C”.
Following high school graduation, Marcella worked in a screen printing factory and machine embroidery factory for $5.15/hour while cleaning apartments for several years, the same jobs held by her mother and grandmother. No one in her family had ever attended college. When she was inspired to enroll in community college and took the mathematics placement test, Marcella scored into a course called “Fractions, Decimals, and Percents” - the first of many basic preparatory courses she would need to take with no degree credit before being able to enroll.
Marcella borrowed an algebra text and signed up for a summer bridge program for underrepresented students, retaking the placement test two month later and scoring into College Algebra. She went on to earn a Bachelors in Applied Mathematics with a minor in Physics, magna cum laude. She worked as an actuary for several years before pursuing a Masters in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Systems Modeling and Research while raising two children and running a successful personal training business.
Marcella’s research focuses on mathematical modeling of human biological systems and applying statistical methods to connect these mechanistic models to real data. One of her projects has been the development of a model of body mass change in response to diet and exercise interventions, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, with collaborators in exercise science at UNC. Currently, she is collaborating with obesity researchers at the University of Madrid who have successfully calibrated the model for use in obesity interventions. Her work also includes the development and calibration of a model of inflammation, as part of a collaboration with the VCU Department of Internal Medicine published in PLoS Computational Biology. In addition, Marcella works in mathematical modeling applications of machine learning and optimal control.
Marcella has been working with students since her earliest undergraduate days, logging many hours as a tutor and meth help center assistant over 15 years. Interacting with students as a peer and observing the interactions of students-to-instructors, students-to-tutors...taught her much about the need for humanity, dignity, and mutual respect when working in a field that is subject to so much disparity in race, gender, and socioeconomic status. She has teaching experience across the mathematics and statistics curriculum. Her current role includes teaching the calculus sequence as part of an integrated inclusive science curriculum aimed at retaining underrepresented and first generation students. Marcella is also fortunate to be a Project NExT fellow.
You can find the seeds of Marcella’s teaching philosophy in her own story. As someone who was not successful in mathematics until adulthood, she is intent on disrupting the false narrative of mathematics as a “talent” and focuses on developing a growth mindset in all of her students. Marcella uses mastery grading, which allows retakes of assessments thus allowing high standards on assessments, reflections on learning, and an inquiry-based classroom to engage students. Her favorite part of teaching is receiving comments from students that have nothing to do with herself, and instead focus on the student’s growth in their own mathematical ability. “I don't mind looking at challenging problems, they actually excite me now”. “I was so nervous coming into this class but it ended up being one of my favorites this semester, and it significantly improved my confidence in my math skills”. “[I] realize[d] that not only am I somewhat good at math, but I don't completely dread it!”. “I have struggled with math all my life and now I do it with a big smile. THANK YOU!”
In addition to mentoring underrepresented and first generation students as part of SMART (Science Math and Research Training) and URISE (University of Richmond Integrated Science Experience) programs, Marcella volunteers in the community. She co-organized a Sonia Kovalevsky Day event for middle school students from Richmond Public Schools, “Zombie Outbreak: How Math Can Save Your Life”, that introduced attendees from age 3 and up to concepts from probability, mathematical modeling, and infectious disease spread. Marcella also served as a volunteer screener and judge for the Metro Richmond STEM Fair for junior and senior division in mathematics. The Richmond Public School system primarily serves minority students and she is looking forward to serving as a role model for many years to come.
I think that a stereotype is often just an overly simple mental model of a complex human being, and that we should always be aware of this tendency to oversimplify and generalize. Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to re-evaluate the complexity of our mental model of “Hispanic-ness” and “Latinx-ness” by appreciating the diverse stories of other humans, some similar to ours and some vastly different. It also serves as a reminder that we should be willing to be vulnerable and share our own stories with our students so that they too can expand their mental models.