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Interview with an international mathematics superstar!

by Wendy Auxillou, Caye Caulker Chronicles

It is a fascinating story, the fairy tale of how the curiousity of one Belizean boy, Arlie Oswald Vasquez Petters of Dangriga, Belize, propelled him into a brilliant career as a mathematician. With a Ph.D. from M.I.T., a post at Duke as Chair of the Mathematics Department, presidency of a research institute in Dangriga that bears his name, a mission to bring the wonder of mathematics to Belizean students, and a deep desire to move Belize from third to first world through the creation of "a cadre of first rate Belizean mathematics, science and technology draw upon in attracting higher technology industries", this multi-dimensional human dynamo named Arlie is a true national treasure.

Even as he makes international scientific headlines for Duke University with a theory called the Brane World Theory, Dr. Petters' heart is never far from his childhood home. The Petters Research Institute - Belize opened its doors in Dangriga in 2006. According to Dr. Petters in a May 2006 interview "...the institute is interested in focusing on math science education for students ... It will also focus on some teacher training for elementary and high school teachers."

True to his word, in July 2006, Dr. Petters was in the classroom, not at Duke University where he is a highly regarded Mathematics and Science expert, but at Price Barracks in Ladyville working with the BDF in preparing cadets to sit the SAT and ACT exams with an aim to "preparing them to take advantage of regional scholarships in math, science and engineering."

But Arlie's dedication to his dream of turning Belize into a first world nation has not stopped there. Dr. Petters was back in Belize again in November, 2006 for a strategic conference with national education stakeholders to discuss the crisis in education. It was agreed at the conference that the top three problems in education were language difficulties, teacher training and inadequate institutional support for teachers. It was also at this conference that Dr. Petters announced that he would, among other things, develop a workbook that would help Std. VI students taking the PSE (Primary School Exam).

Yet another milestone in Dr. Petters' dream was realized this Monday, February 26th when his workbook called PSE Mathematics was launched. With only two months to go before the PSE exam, Dr. Petters graciously put on hold important Duke University publications so that the workbook would be out in time. According to Dr. Petters, "...if we can get, say, ten more students to do better on the PSE, we have moved a step further...There has to be some improvement. It may not be something dramatic, fine, but you consistently stick it out and you keep improving each year. ...If you do nothing, we will continue to have very bad results. Like with any illness, you try and attack it as early as possible and you use whatever tools are available to take care of the problem."

One thing no one could ever accuse Dr. Petters of is of doing nothing. Dr. Petters is a one man wonder -- a national hero with a burning dream for Belize ignited by his own daring success. His desire to give back to the country that "raised" him is deep rooted. His fondest childhood memories are set in a country he was raised to love and which he continues to fondly call home. Make no mistake, Dr. Petters' work in Belize has only just begun. His current milestone is only the beginning of a long journey that will see Belize and Dr. Arlie Petters intertwined for years to come. Arlie's love for Belize is deep, and so is Belize's love for Arlie.

Despite his busy schedule, Dr. Petters graciously agreed to grant me an interview.


Dr. Petters, tell me about your childhood. What was it like?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

I grew up at 139 Sawai Street in Dangriga. I lived there until I was fourteen. That was the age when I went to the States. I lived with my grandmother and grandfather Bernice and Gilbert Waight. I attended Epworth Methodist School and then did three years at Ecumenical High School. My science teacher, Carlos Leal, really inspired me to do astronomy. He was a big inspiration for me to study the cosmos.

I spent a lot of time drawing / sketching. It was a very internal activity. I also used to ask a lot of questions about the universe. I would look up and see the stars. I wondered who made them and how to go there. I would look at the ants -- the "wee wee" ants. The structure of their colonies fascinated me. As a child, I also found it fascinating how they communicated by touching each other.

I used to play marbles and make toy trucks, kites, tops. When I got to high school I also began realizing that the beauty you have in drawing and painting you also have in mathematics. This was about age 12 or 13. I think it was an accidental discovery. When I was doing a lot of math -- as I did more advanced math -- I began realizing that math is a system of logical reasoning which has a rhythm that flows. Once you have begun to deal with reasoning that just flows, it fits just right. That beauty is like a unity in variety. That was a breakthrough for me because it gave a breakthrough in the knowledge that I was obtaining in school. And then I realized you experience similar beauty in music, the way the music makes you feel.


How did you end up in the U.S.?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

My mother had immigrated to the U.S. when I was a baby. In those days the educational system in Belize was better than the school system in the U.S. That was why she left me here. At least so I was told. I saw my mother, Velina James, often enough. She used to visit with my stepfather, Cecil Petters. In the beginning I had a hard time getting a visa to visit her. Finally I got to visit her in the U.S. when I was ten and then I would spend the summers there. I was fourteen when she sent for me.


I read somewhere that when you first arrived in the U.S., things did not go as smoothly for you as you had hoped. Can you elaborate on that?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

I had some family problems but the end result is that I had to fend for myself from age eighteen. This was an extremely painful period in my life, but I was fortunate to have met people who gave me a start. I had to learn survival skills from scratch. Despite all my family problems, I did not let my academics falter. So, when I met Dr. Wyche to talk about the possibility of me getting a scholarship, my academics were really good. I had done my part. It gave Dr. Wyche the ammunition to lobby for me not only to get a scholarship but also a stipend so I could afford to live in the dorms at my college. But I had to have had the academics in place. This is one of the reasons why I emphasize academics no matter how poor you are.


Against the odds, a Dangriga boy grows up to become a world-renown mathematical physicist. It is a classic fairy tale come true. Your story gives hope to many. How does that make you feel?

Dr. Arlie Petters:


One should not be afraid to reach for the stars. Even if you don't get there you may land on the moon and still be off the Earth.


You are an international math superstar who can move mountains anywhere in this world and get paid handsomely for it. Why pick Belize to help, when surely you are grossly underpaid for your contributions here?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

Well (laughter)�I am not paid at all!! It is all volunteer work.

I said to a group of educators one time that Belize raised me. For me not to give back to the place that raised me, it would be like neglecting the parent who raised you after you have become successful.


How has your reception in Belize been?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

It has been excellent!


No one would dispute the fact that you are a highly accomplished man. Is there another side to Arlie that the public does not see?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

My effort in Belize is actually not the only thing I am doing. I am doing a lot in the U.S. in regards to under-represented minorities. The love that you see me showing for my people, I often do that for underprivileged people in the U.S., particularly African Americans and Hispanics. I don't like to see human suffering. Once I see that, I have to step in and try to help. I want to do something about human suffering whenever I see it.


If you have a free day devoid of any responsibility, how would you spend your day?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

(Laughing)...In the hammock at the Auxillous' place on Caye Caulker!

Wendy: (laughter)


Are there any final words you would like to share?

Dr. Arlie Petters:

Yes! My hope is that I could be an inspiration to our young people, and adults; for them not to be afraid of their dreams. As a nation we should not be afraid to be outrageously ambitious because, again -- (re-emphasizing) we should reach for the stars. Even if you don't get there you may land on the moon and still be off the Earth.

I have had people discourage me and try to block me, but as in the Turkish saying, the dogs may bark all they want but the caravan keeps rolling on.


And Dr. Arlie Petters, the little Belizean engine that could...and did...and will continue to do again, keeps rolling on!

Last edited by Jesse; 02/28/07 12:19 PM.
Joined: Oct 1999
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Marty Offline OP
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Dr. Arlie Petters' Solution for Poor Performance on PSE*

*You'll remember Dr. Arlie Petters as the Belizean born physicist who
made major waves in international scientific circles when he challenged
Einstein's theory of relativity. But these days, Petters hasn't been
studying the stars as much as he has been getting Belize's future stars
to study. You might not have heard about it, but since late December,
Petters has been busy compiling workbooks that will be used as study and
learning aids for students taking the PSE. Now you might say that it's
not realistic to write a serious workbook in two months, but that's just
what Petters did. They've been ready for a few weeks, and after clearing
the bureaucratic bottlenecks, were launched today and /7NEWS /was there.*

*Dr. Arlie Petters, *
"We are all aware of the disappointing PSE results in recent years.
This prompted me to write a customized PSE mathematics book, a student's
edition and a teacher, tutor, parent edition."/

These books could mean the difference for your child in the PSE. They're
developed by Belizean physicist Dr. Arlie Petters working along with a
group of professionals form the United States who produced them in a
record two months.

*Dr. Arlie Petters,*
"These books are in accordance with Belize's national curriculum
standards and are tailored to the cultural context of our nation. Indeed
the books are homegrown and are made in Belize."/

Petters wrote about a hundred of the problems himself and put two Duke
University publications he's obligated to do on hold just to get these
out in time to make a difference for the PSE in early May: personal and
professional sacrifices - and he told the media why he did it.

*Dr. Arlie Petters,*
"It was a very stressful, painful period but I felt that I do not want
to see another round without trying my very best to help our children.
But it was a lot of all nighters but at the end of the day it is doing
it out of love, as Mr. Frazer has said, nobody could pay me enough to do
this. This kind of thing, you do it because you see the potential in our
children and I know they are going to be the ones to lead our nation
someday. Education is the great equalizer, it happened for me and I do
want to give that back to them."/

And teacher's union activist George Frazer is convinced, Petters is the
real thing.

*George Frazer, Teacher's Union*
"I must on behalf of our teachers and union, give big kudos to Dr.
Petters because he has shown where caring and love comes from, from the
heart and he is going back to his roots."/

And while there is plenty of goodwill to go around, there's hardly any
time for backslapping. With only two months to go before the PSE is
conducted in early may, can there be realistic hopes that this will make
a difference in this year's test?

*Dr. Arlie Petters,*
So I think it is better to have a product available than nothing at
all and I feel that if we can get say ten more students to do better on
the PSE we have moved a step further. There has to be some improvement.
It may not be something dramatic, fine, but you consistently stick it
out and you keep improving each year. So I see this as a fixable
problem, it is not a hopeless situation."/

Not hopeless, but it is profoundly worrying. 70% of the students who
took the PSE last year failed, and the average overall score was 57%.

*Dr. Arlie Petters,*
"Our position is that if you do nothing, we will continue to have very
bad results. Like with any illness, you try and attack it as early as
possible and you use whatever tools are available to take care of the

And once they get some improvement - the education system will be one
step closer to realizing Dr. Petters' dream of moving Belize from third
to first world.

*Dr. Arlie Petters,*
"Our aim is to create a cadre of first rate Belizean mathematics,
science, and technology experts who would be part of a skilled labor
force to draw upon in attracting higher technology industries."/

That long journey begins with the small steps in this book - and the
accelerated publication of it indicates that Dr. Petters will be there
very step of the way.

*There are two workbooks, one for students and the other for teachers
and parents. They will be available at Angelus and A&R late this week,
or early next week. They are $20 each. The Petters Research Institute
will donate two thousand dollars worth to needy schools and foundations.*

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