Beyond the Numbers: Connecting Data Analysis to Cultural Roots

Amanda Delfino
February 2, 2024
Pace University's Mathematics student Lulu Moquete '24
Lulu Moquete ’24

After about a year of analyzing Dominican identity from a social formation perspective, Lulu Moquete ’24, Mathematics, approached Associate Professor of Mathematics Emilio Fernández, PhD, with a dilemma that many students face as they head into their final year of undergraduate study—what should she do after graduation?

Throughout Moquete’s time on Pace’s Westchester campus, Fernández has become a trusted mentor who shares many parallels with Moquete—both have a deep-seated love of mathematics and critical thinking, and both are part of the Dominican diaspora living in the United States. It was these similarities, and Moquete’s eye on her future, that encouraged Fernández to suggest that she apply for the Provost Office’s Undergraduate Summer Research Grant.

With the grant, Moquete worked alongside Fernández engaged in multi-level cultural analyses to explore the impacts of colonialism on people living in the Dominican diaspora (a term used to refer to Dominicans living outside of the Dominican Republic, often in the United States and Spain). Through the immersive analysis of multidisciplinary texts, Moquete investigated the social structures at work, as well as the psychological and sociological impacts of colonialism on Dominicans and society as a whole. Moquete and Fernández’s ultimate goal, as a result of this work, is to persuade the University to offer an introductory analytical course for students to understand the “formation and operation of culture.”

“When Lulu became my mentee, I realized that she already had a lot of people teaching her math, so I thought, ‘What are the ways I can better serve her?’” said Fernández, noting his belief in the liberal arts notion of exploring a breadth of knowledge, rather than specializing solely in one topic. “As fellow Dominicans, I didn’t have to think much about it. A lot of the challenges she faced were cultural issues, as when I was in her shoes.”

The Intersection of Data Analysis and the Humanities

Pace University's Mathematics professor Emilio Fernandez
Associate Professor of Mathematics Emilio Fernández, PhD

The project centered around the critical reading of three cross-disciplinary pieces of literature. The first was the Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, a fictional story of a young Dominican boy living in New Jersey who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien.

“I felt that this book was going to be an easy read for Lulu,” said Fernández, “because if you’re a Dominican living in the diaspora and you happen to go to school, there is no way that you’re not going to find yourself immersed in this character.”

The next piece was more challenging: French Marxist Louis Althusser’s essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In it, Althusser argues that social institutions such as school, the church, and family have the capacity, through seemingly compulsory, albeit unconscious, rituals and customs, to promote a worldview of bourgeois domination.

“As a math student, reading this kind of essay was a very new thing for me,” said Moquete. “I just started taking it slowly and rewriting it in a way I could understand. I realized then that I was analyzing it like a data scientist would analyze quantitative data. This was me analyzing qualitative data.”

Moquete’s final reading was Black Skin, White Masks, a 1952 book by the French-Martinican psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon. Having served in the French Army and having experienced several hurdles as a Black medical student, Fanon’s doctoral thesis was rejected, as the faculty deemed it was not valuable to the field. After graduating medical school and solidifying his theories with the empirical evidence of his practice, he published his work. The book lays out a human-scientific approach to how colonialism imposes, defines, and replicates the psychology of the colonized. The book also engages in a systemic analysis and provides a historical critique of the effects of colonialism on the human psyche.

“It became very clear to me that, because she does not mainly study the humanities, Lulu needed very specific examples to connect to,” said Fernández of selecting Fanon’s work. “This book is more of a sociological, scientific analysis, so I thought this was the most applied theoretical framework that Lulu could utilize to begin to make sense of all of these texts.”

Their emphasis in employing these three vastly different texts was to contextualize both qualitative and quantitative data on the effects of colonialism. Fernández mentioned that the statistician and the sociologist often work separately—the statistician supplies the numbers, and the sociologist contextualizes them. His hope is for his students, in this case particularly Moquete, to understand the connection from both sides.

The Outcomes

This fall, Moquete presented her work to members of the Pace community at an event hosted by the Center for Undergraduate Research Experiences for students who participated in summer research programs. Fernández noted his pride in Moquete’s presentation, particularly in her ability to speak eloquently and analytically about information outside of her declared discipline, mathematics.

Moquete and Fernández have laid the groundwork for the course they hope will one day become a staple of social analyses at Pace, noting that conversations have begun to add their course to the academic catalog, a legacy that Moquete can leave at Pace even after she’s crossed the stage in May.

“I really hope that once this course is created, it can influence many other minoritized students to get involved in programs and departments like this,” said Moquete. “You don’t usually see a lot of minoritized students in a math program, but I hope that in the future, more will know that they’re capable of being in programs like this.”

And as for her post-grad plans, her work with Fernández did, in fact, provide her with clarity on her next step: she plans to pursue a PhD in applied mathematics or data science.

“Having this mathematical background has helped me think more eloquently in a lot of different fields,” Moquete said. “So, imagine having a higher degree in that, how many more windows it would open for me to be able to see the world in a different way.”

Above all, Moquete will graduate with a life-changing connection with Fernández.

“The one topic that Lulu and I have never discussed in our hundreds of hours in my office or via email is math,” Fernández said with a laugh.

“I'm really glad that I've had a mentor like Professor Fernández, especially within the department,” said Moquete, “to help guide me through this experience of college and extend myself in ways I didn't know I could.”

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