Hispanic Heritage Month: Pano Santos, a Beautiful Mind

Our special Ailes Apprentice Program series celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month continues. This week we traveled to Mexico City to bring you the story of a most remarkable man.  

A senior researcher at Hewlett-Packard, Pano Santos, has fought polio to bring his beautiful mind to America where he’s achieved success of the highest order, but he’s never forgotten where he came from or the kind of world he wants to leave behind.

Born in Mexico City to a typical middle-class Mexican family, Santos embodies the spirit and richness of the culture embedded in the capital.

"It was the capital of the Aztecs, they used to call it the heart of the unique world," Santos said. "This was like the center of the Universe...in my case I get the sense of doing something important, not for myself but for society, for humanity, for the world."

Santos uses intricate numbers and baffling equations to solve some of the world’s trickiest problems.

There is beauty in math. And in a way it is the language of nature. It's the language of God.

— Pano Santos, HP Senior Researcher

"Many people think that math is accounting and arithmetic, but the fun part is about the patterns," he explained. "It’s about learning how things work....so at some point when the math start talking to you in a way that you didn’t expect."

Santos passion for numbers is unmistakable.

"There is beauty in math. And in a way it is the language of nature. It's the language of God," he said.

The youngest of five, Pano was an unexpected but welcome surprise to a house filled with four older sisters.

"They always wanted a boy so when my mother learned that I was coming she was so proud and my sisters they were teenagers so they were kind of say mom the baby is yours," he said with a grin.

But with so much promise in the air, the unthinkable happened when he was just 3 years old.  First came the high fever, and then Pano started to lose the feelings in his legs. Eventually, Santos would lose a leg.

"I used to say I was blessed with polio," Pano said. "For my parents it was really devastating, they were very, very sad."

With the support of friends and family, Santos used the loss of his leg to his advantage.  As a teenager he needed surgery to insert a rod in his spine, bedridden, his parents hired a tutor who discovered his gift with numbers.  Math became his obsession, of course, when he wasn’t racing around in a wheelchair.

"We broke about 5 wheelchairs and the owner of the wheelchair came here and say I'm not going to rent wheelchairs for you anymore," Santos said of racing with his friends. "But that's the kind of attitude...and they way that everybody treat me and I think something happened inside me,  I never felt as victim."

Those friendships remain strong today, when Pano returns to the neighborhood, the band gets back together.

"After a hard day of math," he said. "I like to play Rock and Roll."

Julio Cesar Mendez-Rubio, a friend of Santos finds inspiration in him.

"Not because his situation," he explained. "He [Santos] inspire me because of his brain and his imagination and his will to do something."

That eventually drove him to the U.S., where he caught the eye of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

"I ask should I address him as Mr. Hewlett and he said no, Bill," Santos explained how refreshing it was to see an attitude that wasn't so hierarchical like in Mexico. At HP, Santos said sometimes ideas fail, but the important thing is to bounce back fast.

"You need to fail, but you need to learn from your failures...failing is not bad, not learning from your failure is horrible."

At HP, Pano’s done innovative work inside the healthcare and transportation industries creating models to make them more operational and efficient, but it’s his work on the outside, nurturing future mathematicians and researchers that is solidifying his legacy.

"And what drives me to do this thing is this, is this idea that people believed in me and gave me an opportunity," Santos said. "There were a lot of odds against me but people give me the opportunity.//2:10:30 and I want to say that I am not a religous person but I got the sense of something sacred and I feel that the process of creation is not finished."

Santos continues to live by what Bill and Dave used to tell him,  "I want to make a difference. I want to, through HP, make a difference in society. Create a better world."

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