ASU's Erika Camacho wins prestigious presidential award for excellence

Monday, July 2, 2018

On June 25, President Donald Trump announced the recipients for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) and the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) programs. 

Among the 41 individuals and organizations receiving a PAESMEM is Erika Camacho, an associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. She is being awarded as a 2014 PAESMEM awardee for her contributions up to that year. Since 1996 there have been only four women mathematicians awarded, including Camacho.

The PAESMEM program awards, administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), is the highest honor bestowed upon mentors who work to expand talent in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — fields. 

"On behalf of the White House I am honored to express the nation’s gratitude for the tireless dedication that these men and women bring to educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians,” said Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Each day more and more jobs require a strong foundation in STEM education, so the work that you do as teachers and mentors helps ensure that all students can have access to limitless opportunities and the brightest of futures."

The PAESMEM recipients announced by President Trump join more than 240 individuals and organizations that have received the honor since the program’s 1996 inception. Together, these mentors have influenced thousands of students, from K–12 to PhD candidates, many from underrepresented groups — including minorities, women and people with disabilities.

“This is the highest award of its kind given in our nation and words cannot express my excitement and gratitude for my mentors who believed in me even when I did not believe in myself, and when all the signs around me seemed to indicate that I would probably not make it," Camacho said. "My mentees who allowed me to be part of their journey, and everyone else who took part in my incredible journey from the ghettos of East Los Angeles and South Central to a top-tier undergraduate education at Wellesley College and an Ivy League graduate education at Cornell University to Los Alamos National Laboratories as a postdoctoral researcher and finally joining the academic ranks of faculty, by creating and providing the necessary opportunities and resources for me to develop as a scientist and be competitive.

"In order to build scientific capacity and develop a strong workforce, we need selfless mentors so that our students can thrive and be able to be scientists without neglecting their identity: who they are, what they have experienced, their background, and both their culture and global perspective. New students need solid mentoring to have a fair shot at doing science. Without extraordinary individuals who make many sacrifices to advance those who don’t have the opportunities, many of us would not be scientists.”

When asked about the road to where she is now, Camacho said, “I have been a benefactor of great mentoring and extraordinary opportunities for many years; thanks to my mentors and my support communities, I have overcome many challenges and have persevered. … All my mentors starting with Jaime Escalante have carved the path that I have followed and continue to stay on. They instill in me a great sense of moral responsibility to give back and put others first and the resilience to never give up even if the obstacles seem impossible to overcome.

"For years, I felt that I would never do justice to what Jaime Escalante (aka Kimo) had given me and be able to show him that he not only transformed my life but he empowered me to transform the lives of many others that, like me, had witnessed too many drive-by shootings, had been victims of many injustices, and had suffered overwhelming hardships, and were desperately waiting for an opportunity to escape this reality. This PAESMEM award allows me to show everyone, by example, what Kimo did for me and the tremendous cascade that one single mentor can do by impacting a single individual’s life and academic trajectory.”

During a visit to the nation's capital, award recipients received a presidential citation at a ceremony and participated in discussions on STEM and STEM education priorities led by OSTP and NSF. Recipients will also receive $10,000 from the NSF, which manages the PAEMST and PAESMEM programs on behalf of the White House.