Academic success despite an inauspicious start

When Armando Solar-Lezama was a third grader in Mexico City, his science class did a unit on electrical circuits. The students were divided into teams of three, and each team member had to bring in a light bulb, a battery, or a switch.

Solar-Lezama, whose father worked for an electronics company, volunteered to provide the switch. Using electrical components his father had brought home from work, Solar-Lezama built a “flip-flop” circuit and attached it to a touch-sensitive field effect transistor. When the circuit was off, touching the transistor turned it on, and when it was on, touching the transistor turned it off. “I was pretty proud of my circuit,” says Solar-Lezama, now an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

By the time he got to school, however, one of his soldered connections had come loose, and the circuit’s performance was erratic. “They failed the whole group,” Solar-Lezama says. “And everybody was like, ‘Why couldn’t you just go to the store and get a switch like normal people do?’”

The next year, in an introductory computer science class, Solar-Lezama was assigned to write a simple program that would send a few lines of text to a printer. Instead, he wrote a program that asked the user a series of questions, each question predicated on the response to the one before. The answer to the final question determined the text that would be sent to the printer.

This time, the program worked perfectly. But “the teacher failed me because that’s not what the assignment was supposed to be,” Solar-Lezama says. “The educational system was not particularly flexible.”

At that point, Solar-Lezama abandoned trying to import his extracurricular interests into the classroom. “I sort of brushed it off,” he recalls. “I was doing my own thing. As long as school didn’t take too much of my time, it was fine.”

So, in 1997, when Solar-Lezama’s father moved the family to College Station, Texas — the Mexican economy was still in the throes of the three-year-old Mexican peso crisis — the 15-year-old Armando began to teach himself calculus and linear algebra.

Accustomed to the autonomy of living in a huge city with a subway he could take anywhere, Solar-Lezama bridled at having to depend on rides from his parents to so much as go to the library. “For the first three years that I was in Texas, I was convinced that as soon as I turned 18, I was going to go back to Mexico,” he says. “Because what was I doing in this place in the middle of nowhere?” He began systematically educating himself in everything he would need to ace the Mexican college entrance exams.