Mathematics Researcher and Continental Traveler: A&M-Central Texas Professor Embraces Exploration

By Karen Clos
March 22, 2023

Mathematics Researcher and Continental Traveler: A&M-Central  Texas Professor Embraces Exploration

In the push and pull of everyday life, the things that exist for the sole purpose of vying for our attention are everywhere. Our cars’ safety and notification systems blink with cautionary warnings if tires or gasoline gets low, the devices we rely upon for convenience ping with pop up alerts or texts, and even the refrigerator in the kitchen offers consultation about its contents and what needs replenishing.

Amidst these distractions there are, however, other sounds that offer a more subtle soundtrack. University campuses are no exception.

Inside the buildings, chairs scoot and scrape across the linoleum lab floors or slide shyly against tiled carpets. In the classrooms, offices, and hallways, people share greetings, walk from one place to another, and congregate to share a lunch, review for an exam, or visit with a colleague.

For example, in an otherwise non-descript third-floor suite of offices in the A&M-Central Texas Heritage Hall, faculty in the University’s College of Arts and Sciences occupy the spaces there. In some, desks are piled high with evidence of their labors. Notebooks, yellow pads, stacks of homework, and maybe, a cup of coffee live alongside the controlled chaos.

In these offices, there is an esprit de corps unique to the faculty who share their work lives with each other. People pop in and out of common spaces, engage in friendly updates, or confer with each other on projects. There is a professional etiquette observed in recognition of those who work, research, advise, or just pause in between classes to exchange one set of lecture notes for another before going about their day.

But every now and then – not often, but sometimes – officemates or passersby are likely to hear the unexpected sound of pure spontaneous laughter and wonder where it began. In almost all cases, however, her colleagues might know precisely who the source is: She is Associate Professor, Mienie Roberts, Ph.D., the 2022-2025 Beck Family Senior Faculty Fellow from the College of Arts and Sciences. And she is every bit as unique as her laugh.

Make no mistake about it, Roberts, 45, Harker Heights resident, is perfectly serious when she has to be – and she has to be a lot. When she is not immersed in the classroom, she is the lead instructor of the University’s undergraduate mathematics program, a collaborator on an on-going medical research project, and the co-principal investigator on a five year $3.6M STEM grant.

The significant nature of her work notwithstanding, Roberts carries herself with an unassuming ease, mindful of her courtesies, unpretentious in her stance, and authentically present. There are none of the much joked about nerdy cues: no plastic pocket protecters, no eyeglasses perched on the tip of her nose, or absent-minded gazes.

She arrived at A&M-Central Texas, she explains, just a couple of years out of her graduate and post-graduate degrees at Ohio’s Kent State University. Her journey had begun years ago, she says, where she grew up literally under the equator and more than 9,000 miles away.

“My father, Gerhard, loved mathematics, and he was introducing advanced concepts to me before I ever put one foot in kindergarten,” she laughed, explaining how she became enchanted with positive and negative numbers long before the age of five, and how she was more than a little disappointed by first grade math that was – let’s just say – unready to entertain her advanced interests at the time.

“There is an incredible power to teaching,” she began. “When we love what we teach and those we teach with equal enthusiasm, there is a very real magic to how far our students can go with what they learn.”

The insatiable curiosity she remembers from such a young age never left her – nor is it likely to. Most recently, she says, she is working with math colleague and assistant professor, Chris Thron, Ph.D., to investigate the genetic expressions of bladder cancer.

One of her gifts, apparently, is not just translating extraordinarily complex mathematical phenomenon into concepts but exploring them and applying them to better understand possible medical and solar applications – and to do it simply enough for even the most basic non-mathematical minds to grasp.

“What we know about genetics is that we have access to large amounts of data that can be analyzed mathematically,” she explained, adding that the cancer research project is only very recently taking shape. “We are wondering if changes to those mathematical expressions can offer insight to the treatment and/or the disease, but it is still far too soon to tell.”

The sense of curiosity that guided her through her formal education and her research also feeds her sense of wanderlust, she admits. Over the years, she says, she has earned some serious frequent flyers mileage, visiting roughly 5 of the 7 continents in the world, and spending time in Fiji, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, South Africa, Swaziland, Hong Kong, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, Vatican City, and Mexico.

She has admired the Alps, the crystal indigo waters of the South Pacific, the Eifel Tower, the Parthenon, the Coliseum of Rome, and the sights revealed during exploration.

“Travel has shown me so many life-changing sights and has connected me to the world,” she said, her pale mint green eyes revealing the pure wonderment experienced on Mana Island where she walked into the sea directly from the beach and snorkeled unobtrusively alongside the underwater life.

“Everything opens up beneath you when you transition from land to the sea,” she said. “There is every kind of sea life you’ve ever imagined, and it is swimming alongside.” There, she encountered an enormous royal purple starfish, perhaps as large as a yard in diameter, extremely rare, given that the largest of the breed ever grow no more than one or two feet across.

She also saw plentiful fish, occasional sharks, and sleek manta rays, the later named as such because they resemble floating cloaks, as they glide effortlessly among other sea life, their ivory hued bellies beneath their floating charcoal tipped fins.

There are still places to visit on the itinerary she keeps front of mind – even, perhaps, the potential for an Antarctic expedition or research project. The latter, of course, she admits, is probably a little long for the waiting, but it doesn’t bother her.

Central Texas has worked itself into her bones, she says, ever since she arrived here in 2008 when the University didn’t yet have a built-out campus for her or the original colleagues who were there to greet her when she began.

“Back then, we started building our dreams of a university in a humble mobile building” she laughed, enjoying the atypical circumstances that she has learned is a part of both the initial charm and permanent culture of the University.

“Over the years, we watched those dreams come true as the institution evolved into an establishment of higher learning with a student-centered focus. ,” she said, laughing again as she added, “I found my happy place and I never want to move again!”

But it is both the people and the place and its students that continue to captivate and inspire her.

“Who wouldn’t want to make their career in a place where inspiration, hard work, and curiosity about what can be made possible is accepted, nourished and rewarded?” she asked.

“I feel at home in this community and am so grateful for the colleagues who have welcomed me and the students who have let me be a part of their love for mathematics and life. To infinity and beyond!”

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