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Prof. Araceli Medina Bonifant: A Rare Gem

posted Jun 27, 2012, 6:12 PM by AWM Web Editor   [ updated Jun 27, 2012, 7:09 PM ]
2012 AWM Essay Contest:
Undergraduate Winner
by Rose Matthews

With a perpetually messy head of hair, a bracelet bedazzled with rhinestones, sports shoes and Gandhian spectacles, Prof. Araceli Medina Bonifant might as well have some bossa nova music playing in her office. Instead she puts aside three papers she’s been furiously working on, and with a nod of her head and a smile that begins in her eyes, she welcomes me to her world. This was not the first time I had been subjected to her contagious enthusiasm. Over the course of a semester, like some live wire Prof. Bonifant had managed to induce an ambitious drive in all her students. Determined to find out what motivated the motivator, I sat down with her, only to hear the tale of how a remarkable woman is sculpted. Born in the dusty provincial town of Durango, in the northern part of Mexico, a bright girl named Araceli had barely blown out three candles on her birthday cake when she was abandoned by her father. Under the guidance of her mother and grandmother, who were both elementary school teachers, Araceli grew in strength and wisdom, and shone in every subject, outdoing both the boys and girls. That was until the fateful math test of 2nd grade. The stars aligned unfavorably and Araceli scored an F. Upon noticing her distress and earnestness to perform well, her math teacher (Araceli’s mother’s friend) graciously offered her a chance to retake the test along with the boys. At the time and place, having to take a test with the boys was seen by classmates as humiliating and mortifying, but this was to be Araceli’s first trial in the science of mathematics. She passed the test with flying colors after sincerely studying and practicing.


Once she launched her heart and soul into the subject, Prof. Bonifant began to realize that math was, in fact, the only subject she could ever study. The questions that a mathematician asked, the way their arguments were structured, the discipline that mathematics endowed its students with were all qualities that Araceli had always sought in every other subject, but the relationship that math set up with her was indeed unique. Presented with the good fortune of being taught by inspiring and sincere teachers, Araceli strove ahead to pursue exactly what satisfied her curiosity.


As Durango, the city that Araceli was growing up in, did not offer her with enriching opportunities to study her chosen field, she decided to migrate to Mexico City. For a young and naïve girl to even suggest going to the robust and dangerous Mexico City to study mathematics was taboo. Tongues started wagging around town, and bets were placed on the time it would take for Araceli to end up back home with nothing but loss and stupidity to speak of. And as gossip always does, word reached Araceli’s mother’s ears, but not once did she utter a word to discourage her daughter from pursuing her dreams. In Mexico City, Araceli studied pure mathematics at the prestigious Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV) and excelled academically. But math was not exactly what Araceli had imagined it to be. When she was asked to write out lengthy and tedious proofs, the struggle began again. At an especially trying moment, she wailed about all the things that she had been asked to prove in mathematics to her mother only to hear a confident rejoinder, “Too bad, Araceli. This is what you chose to do, and you’ll soon rediscover why you loved it so much before.” And she was right. Propelled by a refreshed and increasing desire to understand complex dynamics in one and more dimensions, Araceli started her doctoral program and in 1994 she had the privilege of meeting Dr. John Erik Fornaess who became her thesis advisor. For this she had to move up to the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor, from balmy Mexico.


Along with the geographical change, Prof. Bonifant also had to tackle the issue of  communicating in American English, which she had not spoken a word of, prior to her arrival. At this point in our conversation, Prof. Bonifant abruptly stopped talking and, facing her computer, googled images of mathematicians Emmy Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya to show to me. Pointing to them, she resumed her story; she had always been inspired by two posters that she had encountered of these female mathematicians, as an undergraduate. She aspired to be like them and contribute to a science so vast and so exact that it disciplined its students intellectually. So, faced with an alien tongue in an alien land, Prof. Bonifant took refuge in the universal language of mathematics, the one thing that people of all nationalities could bond over. Always a poet, this constancy of mathematics did not miss Araceli’s heart and she was irreversibly involved in the study of complex dynamical systems in several dimensions.


The fact that dynamics drew upon so many seemingly unrelated areas of mathematics like hyperbolic geometry, topology, algebra and complex analysis opened up an exciting window of opportunity for Prof. Bonifant. In 2001, she came to Stony Brook as a post-doctoral student studying Julia and Fatou sets and their generalizations to higher dimensions, to work with mathematician John Milnor. Even after moving to the University of Rhode Island in 2004, she continues to travel to Stony Brook to continue their collaboration.


While all was sunny on the mathematics front, Prof. Bonifant could not expect such constancy from people. In 2003, Prof. Bonifant returned from a fruitful conference and found her dear friend and fellow mathematician Dr. Marius Dabija dead. Shattered and numbed, Prof. Bonifant started working inhuman hours. She plunged into teaching with a renewed passion, knowing fully well the dangers of frustration in isolated research, and discovered a new kind of satisfaction. There was something about the look of sudden insight on a young student’s face that greatly attracted Prof. Bonifant and she found herself driving students to perform at the peak of their abilities at the University of Rhode Island.


A Hispanic, unkempt professor of mathematics was not a common sight at URI and once mistaken to be a janitor, Prof. Bonifant, mischievously recalls being asked if she had “Taken care of the garbage?” to which she gaily responded, “Nope. I work on the third floor!”


Through thick and thin, it has been a passion and understanding for what she does that has kept Prof. Bonifant climbing the ladder of success. Today, she begs and encourages students to pursue mathematics if, and only if, they love it; for although it can be challenging, mathematics reserves great satisfaction for those who are willing to understand it. And like a certain inspiring teacher advised a young Araceli, “A mathematician’s knowledge should be like a healthy tree. It should branch out in several directions. A single branch alone can kill the tree”.


When research gets frustrating at times, Prof. Bonifant’s reflex action is to head towards the gym. Her interests and hobbies are an eclectic and kaleidoscopic mix of activities like salsa, reading and writing poetry, watching movies like A Beautiful Mind, and avoiding TV shows like NUMB3RS. On being asked if she was aware of all her young admirers, Prof. Bonifant modestly responded, “Oh, I think I’ve influenced a couple [of students]”. If she only knew the actual numbers she’s impacted, and the extent to which her magnetic personality has positively influenced anyone who has had the privilege, she’d know how rare a gem she is to our world.


About the Student:

As a University Scholar and first year student at SUNY Stony Brook, I am very excited to learn more about the applications of mathematics. I am a huge fan of mathematician, daughter of the mathematician Dr. George Hart and YouTube sensation-Victoria Hart (username: Vihart) who in her engaging way talks about math topics taught in schools. I hope to be a Math for America Fellow someday, as well as a pediatric oncologist. I enjoy watching National Geographic documentaries and reading P. G. Wodehouse’s works. A background in mathematics, I hope, will train me to rigorously work for my patients and look at the world through the ready eyes of a mathematician.