The odds were against Rodrigo Bañuelos. Born and raised in the 1960s in rural Zacatecas, Mexico, in a community without formal education or even books, the chances that he would go on to an academic career seemed very small indeed. But as Bañuelos himself points out: improbable is not the same as impossible. And the mathematician and Purdue University probability theorist is living proof.

After a chance encounter polishing fenders for a community college teacher at a California car wash, Bañuelos embarked on an unlikely journey through the ranks of academia, eventually earning a PhD from UCLA, a postdoctoral fellowship at Cal Tech and a professorship at Purdue University. Today, the farm kid from Mexico is a fellow at the Institute for Mathematical Statistics and the American Mathematical Society, and a recipient of the prestigious Blackwell-Tapia Prize. He credits his success not to random chance—but to the teachers and mentors who took a chance on him, encouraging, inspiring and supporting him on his way.

“For me, acknowledging the contributions that others have made to my career is extremely important,” he says. “Otherwise it gives the message…that I pulled myself up from my bootstraps. Well, I didn’t even have boots to pull, much less bootstraps.”

Latino USA contributor Valerie Hamilton caught up with Bañuelos at the Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference at UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics to learn how he made it—and how other aspiring academics from non-traditional backgrounds can make it too.

Cover image via Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics, UCLA.

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