Academics and Research / News

Lopez named John Evans Professor

Mario Lopez was named John Evans Professor at DU’s Convocation on Oct. 5. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

University of Denver Math Professor Mario Lopez couldn’t speak English when his father helped him enroll at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The El Salvador native’s father had never completed high school himself, but the older man saw something in his son that compelled him to act.

“He flew with me [to the United States]. He gave me a couple of thousand dollars and said, ‘now survive,’” Lopez recalls.

Lopez did more than simply survive. He enrolled in a graduate-level Spanish literature and taught himself English.

“When you have to learn you have to learn,” he explains.

He also triple-majored in mathematics, statistics and computer science, but he credits his father for his initial success.

“He changed my life,” Lopez says of his dad.

The affable math whiz spent the first five years of his academic career in El Salvador creating the country’s first computer science program. He eventually returned to the United States and found his way in 1991 to the University of Denver, where he’s taught both math and computer science.

Lopez’s array of interests include computational geometry, algorithms, and mathematical music theory. No matter the discipline, he’s always loved breaking things down for others. Even as a child, Lopez loved explaining things to befuddled classmates.

“They came to me for help often,” he says.

But like most professors, Lopez was nervous during his initial time with students.

His hands shook during that first class, and some of his 90-plus students played practical jokes on him. But that rookie quickly found his confidence, and his zest for the material took over.

Today, Lopez is a John Evans Professorship winner, an award given for outstanding research in his field. Part of that research involves the storage of massive amounts of data used in GPS devices and websites like

Somehow, he squeezes in time to help his fellow Denver residents. Three years ago, he helped create Kids-Play-Math, a computer program crafted along with DU Professor Alvaro Arias designed to reduce math deficiencies for children ages 3–5.

The program lets children learn critical math skills without even realizing it. It aligns with Lopez’s over-arching teaching principle: There’s never just one way to give knowledge. Kids-Play-Math is currently used in Denver and California, and there are negotiations for a national launch.

“I want to bombard that kid with the same idea from different context and different problems,” he says. “I try to make them active participants in the class. I throw questions at them all the time.”

Asst. Prof. Sharolyn Anderson recalls first arriving at DU and getting paired with Lopez for a joint teaching assignment for an advanced Geographic Information System (GIS) class. During their semester together, Anderson discussed exploring cellular automaton, a mathematical structure which Lopez admitted he wasn‘t well versed.

That didn’t stop him from doing the leg work needed to get fully up to speed, she recalls.

“He comes in and gives the greatest talk on cellular automaton that I had seen. He was willing to say, ‘I don’t know. But I’ll learn.’ He took it and ran with it,” she says.

Ricardo Iznaola, director of the conservatory program at DU’s Lamont School of Music, has been working with Lopez on a project designing a web-based interactive training tool for musical sight-reading on the guitar.

Iznaola calls his colleague a “Renaissance man with a total mastery of his main area of expertise, but capable of making deep connections among the numerous domains of the life of the mind that spark his interests.”

And Lopez’s latest task typifies his intellectual curiosity, Iznaola says. Lopez is studying music for yet another degree to add to his collection.

“Mario has sat in class and taken lessons with the rest of the music students, providing an unexpected source of intellectual stimulation to his ‘peers’ on both ends of the classroom,” Iznaola says. “Having taught Mario in guitar lessons for a while was great fun … and not a little intimidating, as is true for other colleagues that have had him as a student.”

Lopez says he doesn’t give much thought to how often his pursuits cross into his fellow professors’ paths.

“I never separate the disciplines. I do what I like,” he says.

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