From immigrant to doctorate: Math instructor overcomes odds, achieves success

By Rogelio Alvarez

East Los Angeles College professor Luis Soto-Ortiz, Ph.D., knew very little English when he first arrived to the United States at 10 years old, but his passion for learning would later reward him with a bachelor’s, three master’s and a doctorate degree.

“I picked up the (math) book in Spanish and read it on my own and learned mathematics on my own. I loved it,” Soto-Ortiz said.

After his father lost his job in Mexico, Soto-Ortiz and his family migrated to East Los Angeles.

His father worked in loading and unloading sacks of potatoes while his mother was a seamstress.

Soto-Ortiz’s family did not have a car while he was growing up.  Instead, his family relied on public transportation to commute.

“Fortunately, there was a bus, Metro line 65, that ran to Cal State LA,” Soto-Ortiz said.

Soto-Ortiz received a work permit that allowed him to work legally and landed a job as a math tutor at the California State University Los Angeles.

When he was not assisting students with remedial math or Calculus 3, Soto-Ortiz worked toward his bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics.

He later returned to CSULA and obtained his master of Science in biomathematics.

Soto-Ortiz was the recipient of ELAC President Martinez’s $5K-Innovation award on March 15.

“I’m very happy because with that I’ll be able to get students involved in biomedical research,” Soto-Ortiz said. Students will work on computer-aided analytical math programs that are used in studies to combat cancer.

“My grandma from my mother’s side had breast cancer. She died of breast cancer. That’s one of the inspirations for all of this,” Soto-Ortiz said.

He’s a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and a Member of the Biomedical Engineers Society.

ELAC Math Department Chair Joe Kazimir, Ph.D., said he was very happy when he received an email stating that someone from his department won the award.

“It just goes to show you that we hired the right guy,” Kazimir said.

His love for math continued to grow and motivated him to obtain his Doctor of Philosophy degree in biomedical engineering from University of California Irvine.

Soto-Ortiz began teaching math at David Starr Jordan High School after graduating from CSULA.

“If you taught at Jordan High, you could teach anywhere,” former nuclear engineer and retired math instructor Carlos Carossino said.

“I learned to drive at 25 since we never had a car. I met an instructor at Jordan High School who taught me how to drive,” Soto-Ortiz said.

Carossino taught Soto-Ortiz how to drive when they worked together at Jordan High School.

Carossino later sold his car to Soto-Ortiz, who still drives that car to this day.

“We were going to go eat lunch and I said, ‘I’ll go in my car and you’ll go in yours,’” Carossino said. “I was shocked that he didn’t have a car because he didn’t know how to drive.”

Soto-Ortiz is a self-described car enthusiast and has a fondness for muscle cars.

In his spare time, Soto-Ortiz enjoys reading. Some of his favorite books are by Charles Dickens.

“Growing up in Buenos Aires, I hated reading. He’s the only person I know that reads for fun,” Carossino said with a smile on his face.

Soto-Ortiz will teach Math 110, 241, 245 and 270 for the upcoming Fall semester.

“Be persistent with your goals. Don’t let anybody tell you that you cannot make it because you don’t have a work permit or because of your race,” Soto-Ortiz said.

Soto-Ortiz is scheduled to continue teaching math for Fall semester.

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