Student Spotlight: Meet PhD Student Adela DePavia

August 6, 2021

First year CAM PhD Student Adela DePavia was selected for the Physical Sciences Division Student Spotlight! Learn more about Adela below:

Adela DePavia was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and Northern California’s East Bay Area. After finishing undergrad in 2019, she spent a year on a research fellowship before joining the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics (CCAM) program at UChicago. Soon starting her second year, she studies connections between discrete and continuous time optimization, and optimization on manifolds.

Why did you choose the University of Chicago?

I was struck by the friendliness and openness of both students and faculty in my department. Collaboration is one of my favorite parts of research, and I wanted to find a place where people could bounce ideas off each other. On top of that, I feel the CCAM exemplifies the intersectional approach to research, which I enjoy. Recent trends in data science and theoretical machine learning show us that perspectives from many fields—including mathematics, statistics, and dynamical systems—can complement theoretical computer science, and I think the CCAM reflects and is conducive to that kind of work.

Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.

To be completely honest: I (and all of my fellow classmates I’m happy to say) passed our program’s qualifying exams in late June, and I personally found that to be a very meaningful milestone. As someone who has definitely struggled in the past to feel like they deserved to be in the room, there were times when I doubted I would make it to graduate school. Qualifying exams, which are traditionally associated with the potential to “fail out” of a program, exemplified that intimidation.

I found our qualifying exams were a helpful opportunity to review and solidify our knowledge of an important set of fundamental topics. They provided validation that I learned something over the past year; I am competent with these useful toolboxes; and I am ready to start focusing on research.

What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?

Gardening. I only have a balcony garden at the moment, but it has brought me a lot of joy and comfort, especially during COVID.

What are your plans post-UChicago?

I’d like to continue working in research: whether that’s through academia or other industry or government research positions.

What support have you received at UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?

All of the CCAM faculty have gone above and beyond to extend support for the first year students, checking in with us periodically and making time for one-on-one conversations. I’m particularly grateful to Professor Mary Silber, the director of our program, and Professor Daniel Sanz-Alonso, who was my first-year advisor and taught a very enjoyable class about Monte Carlo sampling.

If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?

I would encourage them to reach out to individuals—whether that be faculty or graduate students. One of CCAM’s great strengths is its positive and collaborative environment. In my experience, one-on-one conversations are the best way to gauge a research community’s climate.

How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?

Growing up with my dad’s family, who immigrated from Mexico a few years before I was born, helps me be sensitive to the unique challenges faced by our international colleagues—which might include language or cultural barriers, or simply the loneliness of building a new network of friends and family. Additionally, I would like to think that my personal background and experiences help me remember that the interpersonal side of our academic life is just as important as the intellectual side; during undergrad I often struggled to feel like I belonged or was good enough to be in my classrooms.

Over time I had the pleasure of becoming friends with many stellar researchers—students I consider the absolute best and brightest, who were from underrepresented groups—and I was really shaken to hear that they also struggled with similar feelings of doubt, alienation, and self-consciousness. Those conversations serve as a reminder that it is important to check in with our peers, even those who appear to be succeeding effortlessly, and to always extend invitations even if we think we’ve already implicitly welcomed others to our circles.

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