One of Mario Magaña’s fondest memories from growing up on his grandparent’s farm in El Salvador was when his uncles would come to visit on the weekends.
“They used to play mathematical games with me when I was little kid. If I got the correct answer I would get 25 cents, but if I blew it, I would have to give 10 cents back. So, by the time I was in fourth grade, I started learning algebra,” he says.
Math was not his only focus though. Magaña’s Italian born grandfather instilled in him the value of a broad education, so he also learned to speak four languages and became an avid reader of all subjects.
He was not exempt from the farm work, however.
“It was a tough life, getting up at four in the morning everyday and going to school from 8 to 4, then coming back to help chase the cattle and bring the young calves into the stables,” he says.
Magaña certainly learned how to work hard, and when he graduated from a technical high school in El Salvador he had scholarships to study in Japan or Germany, and was accepted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead he chose Iowa State because he found the professors there to be more approachable, and graduated with a BS in three years. Just a year later, he received an MS from Georgia Institute of Technology in electrical engineering.
After working for the Harris Corporation and then Boeing Company, Magaña returned to finish his education at Purdue University where he completed his PhD in electrical engineering.
Magaña sees few boundaries to his work, and has collaborated with colleagues in Germany, Taiwan, Spain, Argentina and the US in such far-flung disciplines as microbiology, telecommunications, automatic control, civil engineering, industrial engineering and wave energy.
The underpinning to all his work, however, is theoretical math. “I think that the mark of a good engineer is when that individual observes the world that is around him or her and is able to abstract it into a mathematical model,” he says.
One of his proudest achievements is helping to solve a problem for some colleagues in the department of microbiology at OSU using electrical engineering techniques and publishing the work in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
Indeed, the freedom to have multi-disciplinary collaborations was one of the reasons he was drawn back to academia. The other was teaching.
“I can’t wait to come to work because of the work that we do. Our product is our graduates who will step out of the boundaries of the University, and we have an opportunity to make a difference in their lives,” he says.
Magaña is a senior member of the IEEE, a former NASA faculty fellow, a member of HKN, the electrical and computer engineering honor society, and a recipient of a Fulbright Professorship.
In addition to his achievements at work, he is nurturing two budding mathematicians at home. And just as his family did for him, he is encouraging their skill in math as well as a broad understanding of the world.
—By Rachel Robertson