When Gabriel Zayas-Caban arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering in 2017, he was already familiar with the campus. His sister, Teresa, had earned her PhD from the department a little more than a decade earlier.
The siblings followed in their parents’ footsteps in attaining doctoral degrees, and Gabriel used to rely on his sister—who’s six years older and now assistant director for policy development at the National Library of Medicine—to proofread his graduate school admissions essays. Suffice to say, the family was well-acquainted with academia.
“You kind of see how the system is navigated,” says Zayas-Caban, “and that helps a lot.”
But he realizes many students, particularly those from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, don’t approach college with those same advantages. And he’s keen to play his part in opening the pathway to an advanced education to a broader swath of students, including those from underrepresented identities and rural Wisconsin.
In between teaching and applying data science methods such as causal inference to hospital admissions decisions and other healthcare research questions, Zayas-Caban has prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion outreach at the intersection of industrial engineering and applied mathematics.
He’s recruited students in new places, such as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and at the Math Alliance Field of Dreams Conference. In 2019, he developed a bootcamp, with funding from the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), to expose undergraduate students from smaller schools to research work and graduate-level courses in both industrial engineering and math at UW-Madison.
He currently advises three graduate students from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, the city where he was born on the island commonwealth. One of those students, Fernando Acosta-Perez, is part of the college’s Graduate Engineering Research Scholars program for students from underrepresented backgrounds and recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.
“One of my goals really is to question those beliefs that people have about merit,” says Zayas-Caban. “Some people have been pushed out of this world. Does that mean they’re less capable? I fundamentally don’t think that’s the case.”
For his efforts, Zayas-Caban received the college’s 2023 PPG Industries Inclusion, Equity and Diversity Award, to go along with an early career honor he garnered from the Minority Issues Forum of INFORMS in 2020.
In 2022, Zayas-Caban joined the Wisconsin Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP) as co-principal investigator. He’ll be overseeing the grant renewal for the NSF-funded program, which connects colleges and universities across the state in an effort to bolster representation in the STEM workforce.
“It’s a country full of talent, it’s a state full of talent,” he says. “It’s just a matter of looking for that and giving them the chance.”
Top photo caption: Assistant Professor Gabriel Zayas-Caban (right) works with PhD students Valerie Odeh-Couvertier (left) and Fernando Acosta-Perez. Photo by Joel Hallberg.