Hispanic Heritage Month Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Cynthia Anhalt

Sept. 22, 2022
Cynthia Anhalt

The College of Science is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by featuring some of the College’s outstanding faculty with Hispanic roots. Our next featured faculty member is Dr. Cynthia Anhalt, an Associate Research Professor in the Mathematics department

The College of Science spoke with Dr. Anhalt to learn more about her journey to the University of Arizona, her passion for mathematics education research, and the importance of family support. Dr. Anhalt has been recognized with two awards, which include the Instructional Faculty Teaching Award in 2010 and the Latinxs and Hispanics in Mathematical Sciences Award in 2019. You can learn more about Dr. Anhalt and her work here

Dr. Cynthia Anhalt

Associate Research Professor

College of Science: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and your journey to the University of Arizona.

Anhalt: I earned my bachelor’s degree in mathematics and science education and became a teacher for several years, which led me to design professional development in teaching and learning mathematics for teachers. This motivated me to pursue a doctorate and get engaged in mathematics education research. I became involved in conducting research with the College of Medicine and College of Nursing here at the University of Arizona. Our research team consisted of a medical doctor, a neuropsychologist, a pediatric nurse research scientist, and me, a doctoral student in mathematics education. Our study analyzed cognitive declines in children who were undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a common childhood cancer whose survival rate went from 33% to 80% within 30 years of medical advances, and thus the surviving children grow up to become adults. Autonomously, I developed curriculum for teaching mathematics in a hospital setting for 7–15-year-old patients who came for medical treatments for their cancer. They spent one hour per week with me doing mathematics prior to their chemotherapy treatments, and as a result, our intervention proved to be successful, and we published the results in an article, “Mathematics intervention for prevention of neurocognitive deficits in childhood leukemia,” in the Pediatric Blood and Cancer medical journal.  I was grateful for this opportunity to work in a medical setting, and I elaborate on this experience because I learned of the depth and breadth of mathematics education research, especially in interdisciplinary contexts.

My advisor, Maria Fernandez, was my role model in that she was the only Latina faculty member in mathematics education, and we developed a life-long friendship. She inspired me to become familiar with the research literature in mathematics education, which consisted of research in teaching and learning of specific content areas, such as algebraic thinking or quantitative reasoning in addition to understanding social issues within the K-12 school system and undergraduate education.  It was through experiential research projects, discussions, and analysis that brought the scholarship in the field of mathematics education to life for me.

In working as a post-doctorate with Marta Civil, who at the time was the principal investigator for the NSF-funded project, Center for Mathematics Education for Latinos/as (CEMELA), I became heavily involved with research literature in sociocultural perspectives for teaching and learning mathematics from an asset-based orientation. I stayed at the University of Arizona in the Department of Mathematics as an Assistant Research Professor to become the faculty director of the Secondary Mathematics Education Program. Besides directing the program, I continued publishing the findings of federally funded research projects, teaching, and providing scholarly service. I was promoted to Associate Research Professor in 2018.  I’m currently working on three grant projects that are funded from the National Science Foundation: (1) MODULE(S)2 project, a research collaboration with four other institutions; (2) AZ Noyce Mathematics in preparing highly qualified mathematics teachers; (3) Teacher Education for Equitable Mathematics Instruction:  An Exploratory Study of Noyce Program Impacts; and was most recently funded by the UArizona Provost Investment Award in collaboration with the Early Academic Outreach Office.


COS: When looking back on your childhood and spending time with family, are there any favorite traditions or memories that stick out to you?

Anhalt: As a child, traveling to visit beaches in Mexico and California are wonderful family memories.  Additionally, speaking two languages, Spanish and English, was a natural and organic part of my life. I spoke and read Spanish with family, while English was reserved for school and other events outside the home. This practice became a form of diglossia, which became my parents’ mantra for the two languages we spoke; each language played a role in different social contexts for performing different functions. My parents believed that they were responsible for teaching their children the heritage language. 

A funny memory I have happened at the end of first grade. I asked my teacher for all the discarded mathematics workbooks with unused pages, and she gladly cleaned up and handed me the leftover books. I remember selling the workbooks to the neighborhood kids for 25 cents each, which were required for my tuition-free summer class in the front yard of our house. My parents were supportive and got me a standing chalkboard that flipped over when I filled one side.  I recall the neighborhood parents cheering me on.  This experience convinced me that I wanted to teach mathematics.

I also have memories of sitting in the back seat of our car as a young child watching moving numbers on the gas pump as fuel was going into our car at $0.36 and nine-tenths per gallon. It bothered me that I could not understand what the nine-tenths meant after the 0.36 because after all, our money system only had up to the hundredths place value. I remember secretly predicting the gallons of fuel that our car would take after asking my dad how much money he was going to spend.  This kind of experience in combination with influential mathematics teachers helped shape my exploration and enjoyment of mathematics.

My father taught me how to hold a racket for the first time at age 12, and since then tennis became a big part of my life. I had the privilege of playing tennis during high school and competing in the state championships for three years. To this day, I continue to play tennis in the United States Tennis Association (USTA) leagues competing in local, sectional, and national tournaments.  I am fortunate to have played a national tournament in Forest Hills, NY, and then visited Flushing Meadows, NY as a guest spectator for the U.S. Open tournament.


COS: Who are some of the people who have made the greatest impact on your life?

Anhalt: My family, including my parents and siblings at early ages and my husband and children have made the biggest impact on me in making decisions and inspiring me to pursue my interests.  They have taught me how to be grounded in working hard and enjoying family time. 

In mathematics education research, my mentor from early on, Maria Fernandez, was key when I was a graduate student, and then while I was a post-doctoral fellow, I was privileged to work with the NSF-funded project CEMELA directed by Marta Civil.  Through this project, I met prominent mathematics education researchers from across universities whose research focused on teaching and learning mathematics in communities of underrepresented minority students, focusing on Latinx students across K-16 education.

Currently, my research focuses on understanding mathematics teacher candidates’ development of mathematical modeling competency and facilitating their development of mathematical knowledge for teaching specific to modeling.  The modeling curriculum and materials that I have been co-developing stems from a long-time collaboration with Ricardo Cortez at Tulane University, who is an applied mathematician. Shortly after meeting at a national conference of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), we began collaborating on several projects and publications related to mathematical modeling, teacher preparation, and development of modeling competency.


COS: What was it that drew you to your area of research and expertise?

Anhalt: I curiously remember a quote spoken by Benito Juarez, the 26th president of Mexico and the first president of indigenous origin; he said, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz,” which I interpret to mean that respect for rights of others is peace, and it is this lens that has influenced my research. I make a conscientious effort to listen to others and appreciate their stories in learning about their culture, language, and educational aspirations.  Teaching and learning mathematics with an eye on the development of mathematical knowledge for teaching specific to mathematical modeling, and sociocultural perspectives have been a focus of my research. Having students interrogate critical social and environmental issues through mathematical modeling, such as the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the melting of the Arctic Sea ice over several recent decades provide meaningful experiences for students interested in becoming mathematics teachers who will be influencing future generations of students.


COS: What is your favorite part of being a scientist?

Anhalt: My favorite part of being a scientist is getting involved with research projects that will add to our knowledge in preparing socio-critical and conscientious mathematics teachers that value mathematical modeling as an important area of mathematics that focuses on real world problem solving. Research projects that lead to meaningful collaborations with other researchers at other universities nationally and internationally is rewarding in terms of learning with more global perspectives in the field of mathematics education.  Another aspect of being a scientist that is rewarding is being able to disseminate research findings with other researchers and mathematics teacher educators to make changes and improvements to the evolving mathematical preparation of teachers across the U.S. and other countries.