Michael Ortiz Defines his Niche

Dr. Michael Ortiz, Associate Professor of Mathematics

By Laura Nelson

Michael Ortiz, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Sul Ross State Univ. in Uvalde, traveled an unconventional and difficult path to find his career.

He wanted to be an artist. His parents both taught school and they encouraged him to explore art, so following graduation from Medina Valley High School in Castroville, he enrolled in the renowned art program at the Univ. of North Texas. In one art class, the instructor showed a film about geometry. He was hooked and immediately changed his major to mathematics.

This is astonishing considering Michael said he was a solid "C" math student in middle school and his dad taught physics, but he had zero interest in math. In high school, his freshman algebra teacher took an interest in him. The teacher asked if he could obtain one of the old big, ugly satellite dishes that dotted the backyards of households who used them to access free pay channels before cable companies started encrypting them. Through his dad, Michael found one, but the teacher was not ready to use it, so he stored it until he was in the same teacher’s calculus class as a senior. The teacher split the dish into halves which were set up about 100 feet part opposite each other in an open area. Students could whisper into one half and someone listening at the other half could hear what was said, but no one in between could hear it.

Once he switched majors at UNT, he turned to cosmology, the study of the origin and development of the universe, as well as physics, high energy particle physics, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. He wanted to understand these things and could not get enough knowledge. Dr. Ortiz said he learns slowly, and to him, his progress seemed delayed, but he felt he had a good grasp on cosmology by the time he graduated with his bachelor’s degree. When he decided to pursue a Ph.D., he knew he lagged behind his peers. He had the potential, but not the background, to learn at that level.

Following his acceptance to the Univ. of Texas in Austin, the pressure mounted. The rigorous elimination process meant passing three qualifying exams. After hours of independent study that included a high level of reasoning, he passed the exams two years into graduate school, a typical time frame. More pressure arose when he learned he was paired with the dissertation adviser he wanted. He knew he had problems with social skills, especially communication, and the one hour, one-on-one weekly meetings with his professor were intimidating. The young doctoral candidate was impeded by his inability to talk and communicate about math and felt bad about himself. Then he stumbled upon an article about Asperger’s Syndrome and finally began finding answers for questions that were difficult to articulate. It was not until his last year at UT before he was diagnosed with Asperger's, but he gained self-awareness and was ready to chart a career that made use of his talents.

He knew a position in research where he would have to publish and collaborate with peers was not for him. He loved teaching, students liked him, and he is patient, so he began to look for positions in higher education. He said, "I’ve always loved Sul Ross. My family visited Alpine frequently while I was growing up. We would tour the campus and the Museum of the Big Bend. So I sought out Sul Ross when I was about to complete my doctorate, and discovered the job opening at Rio Grande College. I’d never heard of Rio Grande College, despite having grown up in south Texas. But since coming here I’ve taken pride in our unique mission, which is to serve our historically underserved southwest Texas communities using innovative techniques and technologies to bring knowledge to students where they live." He said he learned when he interviewed how important Sul Ross Rio Grande College is to the community and wanted to be a part of it.

RGC’s Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Patricia Nicosia, was the chair of the committee that hired Dr. Ortiz and she recalls bugging the department chair to hire him. Dr. Nicosia said that she and her husband Pete consider Michael and his wife Becky dear friends. One of his watercolors, The Garden Tomb, hangs in her home.

Michael continues to paint. He admits it is difficult right now due to stress, but he continues to make art saying, "I do it because I can." He now teaches a class that connects art and math entitled Humanistic Math, a study of math as a human endeavor. He said RGC is a unique part of Sul Ross State Univ., but is also its own thing. He is also a distinctive part of Sul Ross and helps make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.