Through difficulty, Berkeley Lab’s
Cecilia Aragon soars to the stars
Posted August 20, 2009
Cecilia Aragon is giving wing to a new way of doing science. It’s not simply an improved tool or technique. Rather, Aragon aims to launch our cognitive abilities into unexplored territory by combining the number-crunching power of computing with the uniquely human talent for pattern recognition.
That Aragon is a brilliant, creative pioneer in computer science is now widely recognized, perhaps almost routine. As a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), her most recent honor was a 2009 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. It is not the first time – nor likely will it be the last – that Aragon has been celebrated as a leader in her field.
Separate from her research exploits, she also is considered one of the nation’s top aerobatic pilots – an expert in torque rolls, tailslides, high negative “G” loops and knife-edge flight. See sidebar.
But what makes Aragon’s scientific and personal achievements even more remarkable is when one considers the obstacles she overcame to get where she is today.
“As a child, I was almost cripplingly shy and afraid of everything,” Aragon says. Growing up the child of Hispanic immigrants in a mostly white Indiana community, she regularly experienced the kind of discrimination and social isolation that tends to push, and keep, people down.
Aragon remembers local merchants refusing her family service and seeing a home taken off the market when her parents made an offer to buy. Her school labeled her “slow,” and most of the instruction she got from adults around her was focused on telling her what she couldn’t do or even aspire to.
“I was afraid to do anything that would draw any attention to me,” Aragon says. The one thing she could do, without much notice, was dream about dancing and flying. She imagined levitating and soaring into the sky, moving in graceful, glorious arcs and loops amid the clouds, free from the constraints of mediocrity imposed upon her on the ground.
These dreams eventually manifested themselves as a love for mathematics and computation, another way in which mere mortals could – through another kind of abstract expression – escape the stultifying limitations of corporeal existence.