Scientist found success in U.S., hasn't forgotten his homeland
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Four decades ago, Cipriano "Pano" Santos would put aside his crutches and sit in front of his family's television set in Mexico City, entranced by the sight of American astronauts blasting off. A Mexican boy wasn't supposed to look north for heroes, and boys with polio weren't supposed to dream at all.
But Santos dreamed anyway.
"I wanted to be an astronaut," he said recently, sitting in his cubicle at Hewlett-Packard Labs in Palo Alto, Calif. "But, as you can see, that goal was not going to be too realistic."
In the rarefied atmosphere of high-technology science and mathematics, Santos shines like a lone star.
"In the world he's in, he's a very rare individual, and I'm not talking about just Hispanic scientists," said Ray Mellado, chairman of the Hispanic Engineers National Achievement Awards Corp. "He's a world-class scientist."
The organization recently gave Santos one of two top awards for technological achievement in 2004.
Santos specializes in mathematical optimization. To explain, he took a piece of paper and drew a simple graph showing a product's upward sales, then its fall.
These "optimization engines" help engineers and managers plan months in advance for changes in demand, sales, competition and their own inventory, production capacity, marketing and pricing.
When he's not optimizing, Santos does plenty more. The signs of an eclectic and idealistic mind are all over his cluttered cubicle.
Fell in love with numbers
A large, early childhood photo of him and his father sits next to his computer screen. There's one of his mother and snapshots of his two sons.
Stricken by polio at age 3, Santos said his parents treated him as if he were any active child. They took him everywhere, on walks throughout the city and hikes in the hills, carrying him only when it was necessary.
At age 7, spinal surgery forced him into bed for three months. A math tutor hired by his parents discovered he had a gift for math and gave him advanced material.
"By the time I got back to school," Santos said, "I was ahead of everyone else."
He gradually fell in love with numbers, graduating in 1980 from Mexico's National Autonomous University with a degree in applied mathematics.
He went to work on a project to allocate oil profits to agricultural development. That work won him the President's Excellence Award but, ironically, the experience convinced him to leave the country.
"The politics in Mexico made it very difficult for science to help the situation of the people and country."
He wasn't the first Mexican techno-refugee. The World Bank two years ago warned Mexico to energize innovation and entrepreneurship or watch jobs and brains drain away.
Helping Mexico advance
Mexico's technological output, Santos said, has been abysmal for decades. It has been hamstrung by institutional complacency, an old-boy scientific network and by scant research funding and entrepreneurial incentives.
In patent awards and spending on research and development, the nation lags behind its main competitors, Chile, Brazil, India and China.
In 1982, Santos moved to the University of Waterloo in Canada, where he earned a doctorate with a paper on mathematical optimization applied to production scheduling.
That's about the time HP's Shilendra Jain was recruiting for an elite team of applied mathematicians. Santos joined HP Labs in 1990.
If Santos did nothing more than optimize production, he would cement his legacy at HP and among Latino techies. But he can't forget the beloved country he left behind.
For now, Santos' top priority is to train young Mexican scientists to lead a technology revolution in Mexico.
"Of all my projects," he said, "that is my real passion."