By Andrea Lopez-Villafaña
Her passion for education began at a young age and now as a full time professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego, Sonia Martinez Diaz is practicing what she loves.
Originally from Spain, Martinez Diaz lived with her mother, father, and younger sister before moving to the United States.
Martinez Diaz said that because of the school system in Spain, she was able to attend public school at the University of the Basque Country and become the first in her family to attend college.
Her father played a large role in influencing her to pursue a higher education despite her family not being able to afford a private university, she said.
“He didn’t go to college and he would have wanted to go but at the time it was not possible,” Martinez Diaz said. “He really loved learning.”
Martinez Diaz eventually received her doctorate in engineering mathematics from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in 2002 and joined the Jacobs School UCSD faculty in 2005.
As a professor, Martinez Diaz combines her interest in education with research.
Her work looks at what it takes to influence systems, such as those found inside robots or computers, to achieve desired functions and performance.
Martinez Diaz said that she always liked theory and math, and since developing her interest in these, she has been working in applications of these in the field of robotics.
“It’s challenging,” Martinez Diaz said. “Intellectually challenging but it is rewarding because you can see the application and also the impact that it can have.”
She said teaching is a rewarding experience for her because she can motivate her students that way.
“When you’re a professor you have the chance to work with very smart people, including students,” Martinez Diaz said. “That’s very rewarding to see how the students develop and grow.”
She said she always liked learning new things and that as a professor it allows her to continue learning and also gives her the opportunity to advance the state of the art and knowledge by doing creative work through research.
One of her favorite aspects of being a professor is the amount of freedom she has in the questions that she can explore.
She said her main motivation in her career is being able to learn more and completing research.
“It’s a good job,” Martinez Diaz said. “You also have a lot of flexibility in how you can manage your time.”
Despite being able to manage her time, Martinez Diaz is constantly busy.
“It’s very demanding because you have to keep thinking about (work),” Martinez Diaz said. “At some point you have to leave it especially if you have family and children, which is my case.”
Martinez Diaz has two children with whom she tries to spend time with when she is not working. She said they often go hiking or go to concerts because her oldest is interested in music.
Before she had children she enjoyed painting but she said her projects move “really slow” now because she is occupied with her family.
Her parents still live in Spain and it is difficult being apart because they are very close, she said.
“Family is a lot of support and I miss that,” Martinez Diaz said. “I wish they were closer.”
Her mentors at the university also provided her with a lot of support especially going into a field where women tend to be a minority.
She encourages younger women to not be intimidated by entering a career because some do not even apply for those kinds of positions for fear that it will not work out.
“It can feel like it is more difficult but you have to prove yourself and demand more things from yourself,” Martinez Diaz said. “It feels like you can’t do it but yes you can.”