Season 3 - Episode 330
Thirty years ago, Dorina and Marius Mitrea left everything behind in Romania to come to the United States and pursue a career in higher education. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Dorina Mitrea, Chair and Professor of Mathematics, and Dr. Marius Mitrea, Professor of Mathematics, share their story of life and work together, the drive to teach, research and impact students, and the factors that brought them to Baylor after more than two decades at Missouri.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guests today are Doctors Dorina and Marius Mitrea. They came to Baylor in 2019 after over two decades teaching mathematics at the University of Missouri. Dr. Dorina Mitrea serves as the Chair of the Department of Mathematics at Baylor as well as Professor of Mathematics. In 2003, while at Mizzou, she was recognized in the Oval Office by President George W. Bush for her work with middle school students in the National Math Counts Competition. Dr. Marius Mitrea serves as Professor of Mathematics at Baylor. Both Dorina and Marius were born in Romania, and they immigrated to the U.S. with their children in 1990. And as we said, came to Baylor just about one year ago. And what a year it has been. Dr. Mitrea, Dr. Mitrea, both of you, thanks so much for joining us on the program today. It's really great to have you both here together.
Marius Mitrea:Thank you for having us.
Dorina Mitrea:Thank you for having us.
Derek Smith:We're excited to get to know you a little more and your story. And one thing that stands out to me is you've both taught together for a long time now at the same institution. First at Missouri, now at Baylor, nearly a quarter century. Do you guys have some secrets to share for the successful melding of marriage and career? What's that been like for you all?
Marius Mitrea:I'll let Dorina go first.
Dorina Mitrea:So, if I am to be more specific, I guess, it's over 30 some years doing that.
Derek Smith:Oh, wow.
Dorina Mitrea:As I'm thinking back, I feel like forever or from the beginning. For us, marriage and career went hand-in-hand. We met as undergraduate students. We were at the University of Bucharest taking classes together. We even studied together for finals. I still recall having these long study sessions with breaks during which we would play soccer to clear our minds. And believe it or not, that was actually the first time I played soccer and we would strategize on how to position ourselves so we would be able to increase our chances to score. So that was the beginning. And we actually married in college. A lot of our wedding guests were our fellow students. And we just kept on going like that through our years that we've been together. And I'm just happy to say that we are here now. And maybe somehow, the silver lining would be that I will admit it, we argue plenty of times like any couple does. But, and in our case, it might arguing about mathematics or mundane things or both of those. But whenever we are faced with a dilemma, our approach is constructive. We adopt a problem-solving attitude, analyze the situation, brainstorm about what to do to solve the issue at hand with the resources and knowledge we have. So, this would be the approach that I would share as far as what we've been doing since we got together.
Marius Mitrea:I would just add that, like they say for a marriage to be successful, one spouse should be boring and the other spouse should be crazy, okay? I think in our case, we're more like half and half, okay? Well, all right. The secret is to set lofty goals, okay? That's going to force you to work like a team and there's no time to argue about petty stuff. Okay? So, that's how we've always been.
Dorina Mitrea:If I am to add, I guess I would be the more boring one.
Derek Smith:I don't know. You both seem really nice, talking to you off the air. And very interesting as well. So excited to dive into that. Dorina, after a year at the helm and seeing what the mathematics department at Baylor is like, how would you describe it? What would you tell us is unique about the mathematics department here at Baylor?
Dorina Mitrea:There are so many wonderful things. But if I am to look at my experience in the department as a whole, most of all, I really love the people in the mathematics department. They welcomed me from the beginning and the department is a vibrant department. And I'm really happy and proud to be part of the Baylor family. That's it, really. When I think of the department, I think about the wonderful people that are my colleagues and now my friends in the department.
Derek Smith:You both taught at Missouri for a long time, had a really good setup there at Missouri. So what at this point, in your lives at this point, in your careers, brought you to Baylor? What attracted you to Baylor from Mizzou?
Marius Mitrea:If I can just chime in. Yes, as you pointed out there, we proved ourselves quite successful in Missouri and we happen to be at a stage in our careers where we can look for a new challenge. And there's that question in the back of your head, "What else is out there?" Okay? And we are fully committed to the success of Baylor's programs, of the math department in particular. We are excited to be part of what Baylor tries to accomplish, and we are fully committed to bring into play our resources, our networks, and our expertise.
Dorina Mitrea:Let me just add to this. From my perspective, assuming the leadership role in the math department at Baylor. At this time, it is a great opportunity and challenge for me. Lance Littlejohn, the former chair of the department, has dedicated over a decade of his career in growing, building and shaping the department into what it is now. Lance has passed the baton to me, and I'm very excited to continue his work while also taking part in the new effort. This is the effort aimed at Baylor achieving research one, tier one recognition. And looking back at my academic record, I feel that having it built at the research institution for over 20 years, places me in a unique position with the math department at Baylor in this pursuit. And I'm really proud to be part of Baylor as its faculty striving for excellence under the leadership of President Livingstone, Provost Nancy Brickhouse and Dean Lee Nordt in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Derek Smith:You've talked about research and Baylor's R1 push through Aluminate. And I want to ask you both. I'll start with you, Dorina. From the standpoint that most of us are a layman when it comes to mathematics, and for those of us who, the last time we actually took a math class might've been a while, how would you briefly summarize your research focus? And then I'll ask you the same question, Marius.
Dorina Mitrea:Sure. So I am an analyst. And part of what I do is to solve boundary value problems. So what that does, typically you have a physics system occupying a certain region in space. And it is governed by certain laws of physics. These are expressed in language of what are called partial differential equations. And then the idea is to fully determine the system by only taking measurements on the boundary. And that's why they're also called boundary value problems. So for example, think of heat conduction inside the body. In principle, one would like to predict with full accuracy, the temperature at any point inside the body, just by simply knowing the temperature on the surface of the body. Now, the rougher the surface, the harder the problem. And part of my research is to see how far can this theory be pushed down along this road? And if you want to see some examples, some type of question that can be asked in relation to this sort of phenomena, think for example, electromagnetism. In electromagnetism, we the governing equations that are called Maxwell's Equation. And they relate to electromagnetic waves. Think propagation of life, where another example would be acoustics capturing. And I think in relation to this, a propagation of sound. Though, this is in general, the general aspect, the practical aspect of what my research is about. And I studied this. Your ethical aspects of such problems, understanding them, and precisely from this perspective of the actual body, making it rougher and rougher in the process.
Derek Smith:So many applications. What about you, Marius?
Marius Mitrea:Well, thank you for asking. This is one of my favorite questions. To put matters in perspective, I'm just going to say that let's all remember that mathematics is the business of understanding how deep the human mind can go. Okay? This is what we are in the business of. And mathematics can offer solutions and answers to some of the most complex questions that life throws at us. Okay. I, myself, happen to be an analyst, as well as Dorina. I work at the interface between harmonic analysis and partial differential equations. And for example, harmonic analysis, as the name suggests, this is like the process of composing a sound or a signal into simpler harmonic waves. Okay? I do the same, but working with functions and operators and all sorts of complicated spaces, okay? I'm much more like a mechanic. Okay? I've learned my trade, how to take those objects apart, analyze them separately and then interpret this local information into a global coherent conclusion. Okay. And this has a model of application, some of which Dorina has already touched, but something that we can relate to. Image compression. Denoising, eliminating inessential details in a beach or a sound, okay? Reconstructing the shape of an object or reducing its physical characteristics simply by knowing the way electromagnetic waves bounce off this particular scatter. And this very interview would not be taking place had we not master those aspects of mathematical physics. Okay? So, that's really exciting.
Derek Smith:That's great. That really puts that in perspective as well, very much. Thank you very much as we talk to Dr. Dorina and Dr. Marius Mitrea. And I want to talk to you a little bit about your background, a very interesting story. And it's been 30 years now, correct? You immigrated to the US in 1990. We mentioned at the top of the show, you're both natives of Romania. Came here and built really a fantastic higher education career. But going back 30 years, what are the factors that led to the decision? You had two small children to think about. The factors that led you to come here to the US.
Marius Mitrea:Oh, if I can jump in first, because this was an idea and a gamble that I sort of had to convince my family, my young family at the time, that we should go down this road. As a high school student, I had the privilege of being a part of an international mathematical competition that took place in the United States, in Washington, DC in 1982. The International Mathematical Olympics for Students. And it was a life changing experience for me. Okay? It was my very first trip abroad. Okay? From communist Romania. I was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain at the time. Okay. So I traveled with no money. And I'm speaking French at the time. Okay? So, that was the only language in which I can dabble a little bit. Okay. And returning home, it was like an impossible dream. So, that's how the seed of the idea that we should try to immigrate to the U.S. So I was born ironed. And just like any impossible dream, you have to work hard to turn it into reality. Okay? And that meant many sacrifices. The whole family had to chip in for a one way ticket with Pan-Am. I don't know if you remember that, Derek. Okay? The Pan-American. Okay? Flying over the ocean for the first time and learning English right before arriving here with the coda of 100 words a day. Okay? I was using yellow sticky notes to label everything in the apartment. Okay? This is a ceiling. This is the hat. This is the chair. This is the cat. The cat will not always cooperate, but failure was not option, just this is how this whole thing was born. I had my ticket in my hand and we were waiting for our second child to be born. And mercifully, Adrian was born two days before I left. So I got to hold him in my arms for a few hours. And then we said our goodbyes. Yeah. So these were the beginnings.
Dorina Mitrea:Yeah. Maybe I'll just jump in to continue from there. So when the possibility for Marius to come to the U.S. finally materialized, I was pregnant with our second child. So it became clear that I would have to wait a bit for our son to grow to be able to join Marius. We were determined to make it work. And it was really nice that Marius's left. When he left for the West, he said, "I will do everything in my power to be back together as soon as possible". And he did indeed. Six months after he left, I was able to join him with two kids, a six month old son and a three year old baby girl. And yeah. Ever since we've been together.
Derek Smith:You mentioned coming here and the other side of the Iron Curtain. How much pressure were you under time wise to do that? Or did you feel?
Marius Mitrea:Well, the thing was as follows. It was impossible to leave Romania before nobody would have a passport. Okay? I wouldn't be allowed to leave, okay? So, first of all, a change in regime had to take place for us to even be able to contemplate the possibility of immigrating. Okay? So let's put it this way. The regime at the time would not look kindly upon someone who would openly express the desire to just leave. So it was a matter of the planets lining up and you being able to sort of be ready for that opportunity. So a big chance, unique window. And it was our last chance, to be honest, because we had already two kids. We were settling in our ways. And just to leave everybody behind, the whole family and just getting enrolled in a PhD program. Just to give you an idea, just to enroll in the PhD program, we did not have the money at the time to pay the processing fee for the application. So essentially the idea was that I will go to any university that would waive the $20.00 Fee for the processing of my application. Okay? My credentials as a student were very good. I was top of my graduation year in Romania. So it was a unique combination of factors.
Derek Smith:It seems obvious that both of you had, obviously not only in addition to your mathematical chops and abilities, you had a great deal of resilience. As you both got here and pursued your postgraduate degrees and began searching for career in higher education, were there moments along the way or incidents along the way that were particularly pivotal or factors that were pivotal in you reaching some of the goals that you had for yourself academically?
Dorina Mitrea:I would say that a pivotal point was when we bought or now earned our PhDs. And at that time, it was a situation where we had decided that we were going to apply, both of us, for jobs in the U.S. And it was essential, of course, that we secure jobs together. And that worked out and it was wonderful. And again, it allowed us to proceed with our research and interest in mathematics, while being together and raising our family.
Marius Mitrea:Yeah. I would just add that, let me tell you, when failure is not an option, you are a lot braver than you would otherwise be. Okay? You're ready to confront the issues head on without any hesitation because you only have one way forward and you are fully committed to that.
Derek Smith:How did those experiences and being in that position, whereas you say failure was not an option? How did that shape you? And in what ways are there threads from that experience that still impact the way you, say, interact with your students, approach your discipline, anything in that regard?
Marius Mitrea:Oh, excellent question. If I may go first, so first of all, throughout the whole experience, what's looking back, one of the things that was a powerful forge into shaping our destiny was the enthusiasm for what we do. Okay? And this sort of spills over in our interactions with our students. And both Dorina and I have had many students that we have worked with, not just in a regular classroom, but also through master's and PhD programs. And essentially, once you have worked with us, you will never walk alone. Okay? So our doors remain open. We keep our ties with all our students. And this has been one of the constant sort of features of how we have done business throughout. So mathematics is about long term focus and maintaining ties with your students and sort of finding ways to help them throughout their emerging careers, which is one of the things that gives me the most satisfaction in my job.
Dorina Mitrea:Yes. And mathematics is fun and interesting at all levels. It doesn't matter whether we work with students in a middle school, high school, college, graduate students working on their PhD or mathematics with our peers. There is something fascinating, always. And this idea of understanding what has been done and then trying to push boundaries to come up with maybe new ways of looking at things that have been known for a while, getting new perspective. And then in the process, sharing that type of passion with our students. This is how I would describe what we've been doing since we started doing mathematics, whether it was as students ourselves, or as working as professors at the university. Or even in my role now as chair, trying constantly to share this passion and knowledge with the others and amongst each other,
Derek Smith:You both have received some great honors in your career. But Dorina, I want to ask you about one in particular. I saw a picture of you and your students in the Oval Office in 2003 with President George W. Bush. Could you tell us about that honor and what led you and your students there?
Dorina Mitrea:Sure. Thank you for asking, actually. This is one of the things that actually is an example of what I just mentioned earlier. Mathematics done in school, in middle school, can be quite fun, challenging in a math club. The same way as students play games, play sports. Some of them like to participate in competitions or be part of math clubs. So what I have done, I feel that in general, as faculty and mathematicians, we should be playing a leading role in this type of activity. So I volunteered at the local school in Missouri to coach the sixth and seventh grade there's for a competition, which is called Math Counts. This is a wonderful way to get students to work mathematics problems and puzzles with their peers. And there is a structure in place. So that for a semester you train the students in a particular school. I worked with a group of students in that school. And then they start competition at various levels within the school, the city, the region, the state, and finally at the national level. So I trained our students. I became the coach for the state because our team has won the first place on the state competition. And then the team was an all star team. I continued working with the students that made up the team. Some from San Louise, from Kansas city. They came to Columbia each weekend for a couple of months. And then we went to the national competition and we won second place there. Missouri won second place. And the cherry on the top of this was that we were honored by President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. So this has been a wonderful experience, but again, it was working mathematics and the passion of the students that I worked with that led to this particular recognition.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great working with students at every level in mathematics and helping them grow. I'm sure some students might someday be pursuing some of the same sorts of things you are as we visit with Dr. Dorina and Dr. Marius Mitrea from Baylor Mathematics. And as we head into the final couple of moments here on the program, winding down here, obviously we talked about the fact that you all have been here about a year now. A few months have certainly been a strange ending to your first year here at Baylor. But curious as you look forward here, what are you both most excited about, about the opportunities ahead for you and your students and Baylor?
Dorina Mitrea:Well, I have immediate goals, some related to my research and others will be as my role in the department as chair. But overall, I'm just happy to be part of this wonderful institution. And really, I just look forward to the opportunities that are waiting for us. I share that always the secret is really a search for such opportunities and seize them as they come. So this is what I plan on doing as I look forward for the coming year.
Marius Mitrea:Yeah. And I'm just going to add to that, that I'm very happy to be part of the Baylor family and I really want to see this university succeed. Okay? I really do. I love that it aims high. I love that it wants to go places. And speaking from experience, it's not easy at all to be the top institution. Okay? It takes a lot of time and resources and a great to leadership. But it's an effort worth pursuing.
Derek Smith:Well, that's fantastic. Well we're excited to have you both on onboard with that here at Baylor and really appreciate the chance to get to know you better. Thanks so much to both of you for joining us today on the program.
Marius Mitrea:Thank you for having us.
Dorina Mitrea:Thank you, Derek. Have a nice day.
Derek Smith:You as well. Thank you. Dr. Dorina Mitrea, chair and professor of mathematics at Baylor. Dr. Marius Mitrea, professor of mathematics. Our guests today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.