Ayala: Coronavirus prediction guru has another story to tell, his own remarkable one – San Antonio Express-News

Juan B. Gutiérrez, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
For over a year now, mathematician Juan B. Gutiérrez and his team at the UTSA Biomathematics Research Group have received local and national attention.
Rightly so.
They designed predictive models to calculate the spread of COVID-19.
Their predictions have been deadly accurate.
Under his Twitter handle, @biomathematicus, Gutiérrez, 48, has held fast to this fact: Carriers of infectious disease spread illness while showing no symptoms themselves.
Along with the unvaccinated, asymptomatic carriers have kept the pandemic viable. Transmission rates will remain steady through the year.
But that focus, vital as it is, has overshadowed his personal story, an extraordinary immigration story that put him on a trajectory to become chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s math department.
Gutiérrez, a native of Colombia, arrived in Florida in January 2001 to work for a U.S. company as a computer programmer.
When the firm first hired him in Cartagena, he said anyone who could write two lines of code could land a job there.
He was desperate for work after having published three books, two of them experimental electronic ones that garnered him national awards in Colombia. Those works have been studied and, to date, have inspired about a dozen academic dissertations, he said.
His third book, titled “Extreme Conditions” in its English translation, was a work of science fiction and was predictive, too, describing the environmental degradation we’re seeing today.
But by 1999 and 2000, he couldn’t make a living amid his country’s most violent period. He’s part of a generation of Colombian exiles scattered around the globe.
In February 2000, Gutiérrez had $10 left when he got that job in Cartagena. It was risky to travel there, given he’d likely face guerrillas and roadblocks, which were common then.
Instead, he found deserted roads and a river on fire, black smoke everywhere. The scene was surreal.
Ultimately, the company asked if he wanted to go to the United States.
Gutiérrez had applied for visas to several countries, but his U.S. visa, reserved for what he called “an alien of extraordinary ability,” arrived first. He laughed at the absurdity.
He arrived in Florida barely speaking English but fluent in computer.
Gutiérrez was still interested in a literary career and applied for a master’s program in creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He had to list a second option.
A month after being rejected from the creative writing program, the math department welcomed him. His master’s degree was in biomedical mathematics.
He studied all the time, sometimes sleeping in the library. He also drank a lot of coffee.
He waited patiently for his permanent residency card, which he needed to create a company already poised to obtain a contract to create an app for the Spanish ministry of industry, he said.
The contract was worth $100,000, half of it up front. He celebrated by quitting his job and happily headed to the library. He bought coffee.
The barista told him he looked radiant. They were married in 2012 and have two kids, ages 3 and 7.
Life became normal. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics.
Before 2020 and the coronavirus, Gutiérrez was researching asymptomatic infection in the context of malaria, “the queen of infectious disease complexity,” he said.
In February 2020, the Biomathematics Research Group built a predictive model that included every county in the country.
In July, it projected 50,000 to 200,000 additional coronavirus cases and 750 to 3,500 more deaths by year’s end in the San Antonio area.
Since July, the area has seen 67,000 new cases and almost 600 new deaths. Those numbers are likely to rise as temperatures cool and more people gather indoors for holidays and events.
Several members of his family have survived COVID. Two have died.
Gutiérrez has begun a new research project on disinformation, which he said has accelerated COVID infections, fueled by those defying safety measures and refusing vaccines.
The United States was targeted with disinformation by foreign, state-sponsored actors with “incendiary ideas” on social media, he said. It’s why the United States has racked up such death rates.
He said “the evil” of disinformation has prevented people from making sensible conclusions even when presented with accurate data.
On Twitter recently,@biomathematicus called disinformation “the biggest scourge of our time.”
Elaine Ayala is a Metro columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. A newspaper journalist for almost 40 years, she has held a variety of journalism jobs, including news reporter, features editor, blogger and editorial page editor. She has worked for six metropolitan dailies – the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the Arizona Daily Star, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, the Austin American-Statesman, El Paso Times and the Express-News, where she has worked since 1996.
Her Metro column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays on Page 2 of the Express-News. She covers San Antonio and Bexar County with special focus on communities of color, demographic change, Latino politics, migration, education and arts and culture.
The San Antonio native graduated from Memorial High School on the city’s West Side and the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English. She is also a graduate of the Maynard Institute’s Editing Program, in which she also taught.
She has been involved in several journalism organizations throughout her career, most focused on increasing the number of minorities and women in U.S. newsrooms and fundraising for scholarships for students pursuing careers in the news media
She’s past president of the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists (SAAHJ), the Austin Area Association of Hispanic Journalists and the El Paso Association of Hispanic Journalists. She has served on the board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and has been a member of two other journalism groups, formerly known as the National Conference of Editorial Writers and American Association of Sunday and Features Editors.
Ayala is the recipient of several awards, including the Henry Guerra Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Journalism, awarded by SAAHJ; the Phillip True Award for Reporter of the Year, given by her peers at the Express-News; the inaugural Mission Heritage Award by the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions; the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural Community Voice Award; a role-model award from the Martinez Street Women’s Center; the IMAGE of San Antonio Award given to women leaders and mentors; and the Governor’s Yellow Rose of Texas Award.
She has been inducted into the Edgewood Independent School District’s Hall of Fame, the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame and, most recently, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Hall of Fame.


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