Logic and Love

The path to Baylor for professors Dorina and Marius Mitrea was forged by the pursuit of the American Dream and the desire to propel the University closer to R1 status

Logic and Love

When Dorina Mitrea tried to leave Romania to join her husband in the United States, she and her two young children were stuck in an airport for 20 hours. The 1990 Gulf War had started the day before, and flights were significantly delayed.

When Mitrea and the children eventually got to New York, Dorina didn’t have enough money for them to fly to Columbia, South Carolina, where her husband Marius was working on his PhD at the University of South Carolina. So, she and her children instead endured a 15-hour bus ride so the family could be reunited.

Fast forward from that stressful beginning emigrating to the United States to 13 years later, when Dorina was at the White House, being honored by President George W. Bush for her work with a prize-winning middle school math team from Missouri. “It’s the American dream, isn’t it?,” her husband Marius said. “It’s a world of extremes, from the bus ride all the way to the White House.”

And the couple’s journey has now brought them to Baylor. On Aug. 1, 2019, Dr. Dorina Mitrea became chair and professor of the Department of Mathematics. Dr. Marius Mitrea is a professor in the same department. Before coming to Baylor, they had taught at the University of Missouri for more than 20 years, and became interested in Baylor when they attended a conference here in the fall of 2018.

“We were very excited to be here to collaborate with people, and in the process, we learned they were looking for a new chair, and they invited me to apply,” Dorina said. The Baylor mathematics department “has a very nice trajectory and had been building and growing very nicely under Lance Littlejohn’s chairmanship.”

Dr. Littlejohn served 12 years as chair and professor of mathematics before stepping down as chair. He continues to teach in the department.

Change of plans

The Mitreas never considered leaving Missouri until they learned of the opportunities at Baylor, Marius said.

“It wasn’t like we were trying to leave but never had a chance,” Marius said. “After all, all our friends are in Missouri. But Baylor has a nice vibe to it. It is pursuing a higher ranking as an academic institution, and that brings in new challenges. It’s always exciting to be part of that when it happens.”

Dorina said the fact that she’s chair of the department where her husband teaches isn’t a problem.

“My theory is that we all work together,” she said. “There might be some roles that the chair has, but in the end, we all pitch in. Otherwise, it is not possible to do anything.”

In an introductory newsletter she wrote to her new colleagues in the department, Dorina said she planned to “build on its traditional strengths and strategically invest in new areas of research and service.”

She also said the department is hoping to grow its PhD program, especially in applied mathematics, so that its graduates are ready for roles in academia or industry.

“A PhD in applied mathematics opens doors in many industries in many, many places,” Dorina said.

A logical love of math

Dorina earned her PhD in mathematics at the University of Minnesota in 1996, but when she was in high school, she had debated about pursing either math or engineering in college. Math won out, she said, because “it’s more logical at the end of the day.” “At times in engineering, people might take a more approximate route coming up with theories, then they check experimentally,” Dorina said. “In mathematics, it’s either correct or it’s wrong. The theories that were established in mathematics many years ago — they’re still valid.”

And even though those theories are still valid, the married mathematics professors often have lively dinner conversations about the subject.

“She’s very opinionated, so sparks are flying,” Marius said.

So what is there to argue about when discussing theories that have been in place for thousands of years?

“There are new models and new problems and we have to solve them,” Dorina said. “You have to take a fresh, new look at the problem and come up with the right perspective. So then one has one idea, the other has another one, and then we start checking. One says, ‘This is obvious.’ The other says, ‘No. I don’t see why that is. I don’t agree.’”

Marius earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of South Carolina in 1994 and held a postdoctoral position at the University of Minnesota before going to Missouri. His fascination with math began with geometry, “a very intuitive discipline in which you have pictures that have lines and circles and triangles, and they combine in an absolutely fascinating way,” he said.

Escaping communism

Dorina and Marius were both born in Romania, under a communist regime, “and that communist regime overlapped with our adolescent life all the way to our mid- to late-20s,” Marius said.

In 1989, they were both teaching school, and “there was a sort of chain of change throughout Eastern Europe that started in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania. And that was actually the first chance we had to leave. We had a passport,” Marius said.

That’s when the Mitreas decided to pursue advanced degrees. Marius made a connection at the University of South Carolina and was accepted to its PhD program. His family pooled money to buy him a one-way ticket on Pan Am.

“I came to the United States with $15 in my pocket, and I finished the PhD in record time, in three years,” he said. “That was a huge opportunity and a huge challenge, to pursue a PhD, because we had a family by then.”

The family at that time consisted of two-year-old Diana and her younger brother Adrian, who was born only two days before Marius left for the United States.

“It was hard, but I trusted that things would work out,” Dorina said. “We were a loving family,” and her mother and mother-in-law in Romania were able to help with the children until Dorina and the kids left for the U.S. a year later.

Daughter Diana is now a bioengineer who works as a marketer for a tech start-up in New York, and son Adrian is an aerospace engineer working on satellites in Los Angeles.

When Dorina has free time away from mathematics, she can often be found at the McLane Student Life Center, taking part in yoga or F45 classes. “And I’ve tried weightlifting in the weight room,” she said.

“She can basically bench press her own weight,” Marius said. “It’s a sight to behold. She puts me to shame.”

Marius grew up with soccer and will watch a match on television whenever he has the chance. He also bikes and fishes, “and he joins me at the gym,” Dorina said.

“She made me, and now she’s my boss. I can’t say no,” Marius said.