President Obama names SF State math professor a top young scientist

Mariel Vazquez receives the nation's highest honor for early-career scientists


SAN FRANCISCO, July 23, 2012 -- President Barack Obama has named an SF State mathematician one of the nation's most promising young scientists. Associate Professor of Mathematics Mariel Vazquez has been selected to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the U.S. government's highest honor for researchers in the early stages of their careers.

A photo of SF State Associate Professor of Mathematics Mariel Vazquez.

SF State Associate Professor of Mathematics Mariel Vazquez.

Vazquez is a pioneer in an emerging field called DNA topology, which applies pure math to the biological mysteries of DNA. She is also the first SF State faculty member to receive the prestigious PECASE award.

"This tremendous honor recognizes Mariel Vazquez's research at the frontiers of scientific inquiry and her passion for teaching, mentoring and community outreach. She embodies the model of teacher/scholar that San Francisco State University values so highly," said San Francisco State University President Robert A. Corrigan.

Vazquez is among 96 researchers selected for the award this year. PECASE recipients are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service. Federal departments and agencies nominate researchers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for keeping America at the cutting edge of science and engineering.

The PECASE award citation states that Vazquez is being honored for her "excellent interdisciplinary and international research at the interface of mathematics and biology, and for creativity and dedication to recruiting, training, and mentoring, and helping students from underrepresented groups achieve their goals."

"This amazing honor is a real certification of the high quality of Mariel Vazquez's work," said Sheldon Axler, dean of the College of Science and Engineering. "She does research at the highest level, using sophisticated mathematical tools to answer important biological questions. She is also a wonderful mentor and does exemplary work with students from underrepresented backgrounds."

Vazquez uses knot theory to study the entanglement of DNA as it packs tightly into living cells, and her findings may inform the design of antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. The National Science Foundation nominated her for the PECASE award.

In addition to her research, Vazquez is passionate about showing young people how mathematics can be used to address tangible problems. She mentors college students and teaches DNA topology to children through SF State's Math Circles -- math clubs for elementary school students.

"I'm honored and humbled to be selected for the PECASE award," said Vazquez. "I hope this recognition will put the young field of DNA topology into the spotlight. DNA is the molecule of life. Understanding how DNA is packaged in the cell and how it interacts with proteins is important for understanding how essential biological processes work."

This is the third time that Vazquez has been honored at the national level. In 2011, she received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER grant. Earlier this year, she was named one of the nation's top "Emerging Scholars" by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, a national higher education magazine.


SF State is the only master's-level public university serving the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin. The University enrolls nearly 30,000 students each year and offers nationally acclaimed programs in a range of fields -- from creative writing, cinema and biology to history, broadcast and electronic communication arts, theatre arts and ethnic studies. The University’s more than 212,000 graduates have contributed to the economic, cultural and civic fabric of San Francisco and beyond.