It’s all About Connecting

April 26, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Like most CUNY students, Jasmine Osorio had to work full time in the summer to make some extra money. She had a $10-an-hour job lined up at a Harlem clothing boutique not far from her home in the Bronx.

But Rishi Nath, a York College professor of mathematics and computer science, thought that she should be doing math research instead. So he made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: Participate in a five-week math research program at York and receive a $3,000 stipend, plus invaluable experience.

“Retail was a safe bet and I wasn’t sure what research in math was,” says Osorio, a York senior, of her initial reaction to Nath’s offer. “The fear of not knowing made me skeptical, but the stipend money was more or as much as I was going to make at the boutique.”

A math education major, Osorio spent the summer of 2010 working with Nath on partition theory and combinatorics.

Math professor Rishi Nath, left, mentors students Jasmine Osorio and Anthony Garces by listening as well as guiding.

“I said, ‘Listen, you’re very bright,’” says Nath, who has been Osorio’s mentor since her freshman year. “‘CUNY is a great school, but when you think about going to graduate school, you’re competing against students from all over the country. Some of them are from fancy private schools, so you have to take the education that you have here and you have to maximize it, and summer is the time to do that.’”

That research experience opened the door to other opportunities.

Last summer, Osorio spent six weeks at the University of California, Berkeley, doing research in applied mathematics on a $3,100 stipend from the Mathematical Science Research Institute (MSRI). Nath had encouraged her to apply and wrote her a letter of recommendation.

Now Osorio, whose goal was to become a high school math teacher, is planning to pursue a doctorate in mathematics and hopes to work for NASA one day.

She recently got accepted at Smith College’s prestigious post-baccalaureate program in math, designed to place women students in top Ph.D. programs. She will receive a tuition waiver plus a $12,500 stipend.

“I think I would be lost, I wouldn’t have anyone to guide me to where I want to go if I didn’t have professor Nath,” says Osorio. “I would only think about teaching and I wouldn’t have all the research opportunities I had. Having him as a mentor showed me that I can do other things with math.”

Nath, who is director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Honors Program at York, joined the college in 2005 and in 2010 took over the program. That year he organized York’s first Annual Student Research Day, where students from various programs showcased their work to the college community.

“It was a big success and very surprising because people had no idea that there are hundreds of students doing these research projects,” says Nath, who continues to organize the event.

He serves as a mentor to Osorio and two other students: Vishwas Chouhan, a sophomore interested in mathematical game theory and cryptography, and Anthony Garces, a junior majoring in communications technology.

Nath’s door is always open to them: They come to talk about schoolwork, research and their personal lives, too. Nath pushes them to take on new challenges, urging them to take advantage of the resources available to students who are doing research.

Along with another York professor, Nath coordinates the York Tensor Scholars Program, aimed at increasing the diversity of women in mathematics. He brings in speakers to talk to students about their careers, and everyone goes out to eat together.

“When you’re at a restaurant you’re more relaxed. I get to know the speakers and talk about my interests on a more intimate levels,” says Osorio, who’s a member of the Tensor program. “Meeting these speakers makes me see that I can do things with math other than teach.”

Nath first met Osorio when she was a senior in high school participating in the teachers academy program at York. Over the years, he has helped her apply for scholarships and fellowships, and advised her to join different programs and clubs on campus. They’re still working together on a research project.

“I think the [2010 research experience] was really eye opening for her because she applied for a fellowship and she won money, and she began to realize that there is money out there,” says Nath. “This is something that all students — even faculty — should look at. There is a lot of funding out there, but my father used to tell me, if you don’t apply, you definitely won’t get it. I always encourage students to apply.”

Nath says he decided to be a mentor because students do need someone to encourage and guide them. His parents played that role in his life. They encouraged him to do better when in high school a physics teacher told him to stay away from science because he didn’t do his homework, and they supported him when he had a hard time understanding calculus.

“There were certain things that were said that in a way could be taken as discouraging,” says Nath, but “I had other people like my parents who encouraged me, and said just keep going, you’ll find your abilities or your strengths later.’’

Nath went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics from Brandeis University and his doctorate in the representation theory of the symmetric and alternating groups from the University of Illinois. Calculus was never his favorite, but he likes teaching it now because he knows how to break it down for students who have a hard time understanding it, as he once did.

And while mentoring can be rewarding, becoming someone’s mentor isn’t easy. It’s all about connecting, says Nath. When he sees potential in a student he always thinks about advice he received from a former York administrator.

“He used to say that you have to be like Velcro. When a student catches your attention you have to stick — you don’t let them go. But they have to feel that too.”

Osorio felt that connection.

“I wouldn’t have been able to succeed at York if it wasn’t for Nath,” she says. “It’s good to have support from a professor. It’s pretty cool.”