Last week, I attended the 17th Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS), which was held at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM), at UCLA. As the CAARMS website says, “[these] meetings provide a forum where minority researchers in the mathematical sciences can meet each other and find out about their work across different mathematical fields. This forum also serves as a place to meet and mentor minority graduate students as well as encourage them to obtain doctoral degrees.” In this post, I will recount my experiences at the conference.
The first thing you may be wondering, dear reader, since I’m not African American (I’m not even American!), is what I was doing at this conference in the first place. The short answer: networking. The long answer is as follows:
Bates College has a large grant from the Mellon Foundation , which I have already mentioned in a previous blog post. We call this our “Mellon Innovation Fund.” A call for proposals went out last year to the college, inviting us to apply for a “Diversifying Recruitment and Searches” grant. It said that “departments or programs may apply for support from the Mellon Innovation Fund (MIF) for increasing the diversity of candidate pools in faculty recruitment and searches.” We won’t have a tenure-track search for a couple of years, but the grant period ends Fall 2011 and the math department thought we should take advantage of this opportunity now. I thought it would be a good idea to attend a couple of conferences, meet people, “scout” for talent, and mostly just get the word out that Bates exists, we will have jobs soon, and we are committed to increasing the representation of women and minorities in math. The conferences we (me & my chair, Bonnie Shulman ) identified as great opportunities were the SACNAS * national conference, and CAARMS. We were also hoping that these connections would lead to other benefits, like inviting people to visit our campus and speak, and in so doing maybe inspiring some of our students to pursue mathematics and academic careers. Here is an excerpt from the grant application (in case you are wondering what one would look like):
“[SACNAS and CAARMS] are also two of the organizations identified by the American Mathematical Society as key in the efforts of increasing diversity in the mathematical sciences. At the meetings, we plan on attending social gatherings for mathematicians, postdoc and graduate student poster sessions and talks, and round tables or panels about creating more jobs for underrepresented minorities in the mathematical sciences.”
An abbreviated version of all this was my usual answer to the question “and what brings you here?”, which I enjoyed answering, as you can probably tell.
And now I will talk about the conference itself. The first day there was a reception (pictured above, with me scratching my face very elegantly) and a workshop for undergraduate and graduate students. I did not attend the workshop, but I did hear a great quote of the introductory talk (by William Massey). He made the point that people are more likely to give up on math than other things. For example, nobody says “well, I’m bad at reading, so I will stop reading.” Maybe people don’t like to read, but they definitely don’t decide that they are incapable of doing it (at least not college or high school students!). I may use this next time a student tells me they’re just bad at math.
During the reception, I had many interesting conversations, and I may have spoken more to undergraduate and graduate students than the grown-up mathematicians. Maybe this is just a reflection of how much I like to teach, but I love answering questions about research, graduate school, the job search, etc. And I definitely enjoyed getting to know these future mathematicians better. One graduate student from Princeton even told me how once in college he had decided he could prove the Riemann Hypothesis, and actually tried. I mean, however misguided he may have been, that’s the kind of student you want as a math major!
Days two and three were pretty similar, with many invited talks, with topics ranging from applied mathematics (modeling, math bio, simulation, epidemiology, optimal control theory, queueing theory) and pure mathematics (PDE — which some might argue is applied, but I disagree –, number theory, geometry). And this might be my number-theoretic sensibility talking, but one standout talk was the one given by Sean Paul , entitled “Orbit closures, Hyperdiscriminants, and Lower bounds on K-energy maps”. It was just a pleasure seeing him reveal more about this geometric topic (and I think in large part it was his use of the blackboard that really made the talk dynamic and exciting), even though he didn’t get to talk about hyperdiscriminants, and I didn’t understand everything. There are some talks that just capture your attention, and I think everyone in the audience felt the same way.
Also enjoyable were the “lightning poster sessions”. In these, the students were given two minutes to give a description of their posters (to be presented later in a poster session/reception). It was great to get to see them all giving their summaries, and some of these students’ research was truly impressive. One of the most memorable lines from these sessions was given by a student who works in modeling of malaria in Africa. He said (I’m paraphrasing): “The main reason you should care about my research is this: we’re all here to support/increase the number of black PhD’s. But how can black people get PhD’s if they’re sick?”. On day three, during the banquet, five of these students were selected to receive “poster awards” in different categories. The prize, though, was sort of sneaky: they got a book (OK, this part is not sneaky), and the chance to give a 20 minute presentation of their research on the last day. I don’t know about you, but getting back to my hotel room on Friday night to write a talk for the next day is not necessarily my idea of a “prize”. (Of course, I’m kidding, it was a great honor I’m sure, but one of them did say that he was up until 2am writing the talk). The presentations were all quite good (but that’s what’s great about having a poster competition, the very best are selected to give a talk!).
During the conference, there were also three tributes to African American mathematicians who passed away in the last year: J. Ernest Wilkins, David Blackwell, and Angela Grant. The two former mathematicians left a real legacy of a life’s work, and their life history was really inspiring. But the Angela Grant tribute, because of the tragic nature of her demise (she was only in her thirties when she lost her battle with cancer last September), was incredibly moving. The CAARMS organizers also decided they would name the poster competition in her name for future conferences, which is a great tribute indeed.
In the end, I did make great connections, I have a few ideas for possible guest speakers, and will be encouraging some of my students to attend next year. Honestly, I just had a great time. My favorite thing was that there was an even stronger link between the participants beyond being African American: everyone’s pure love of mathematics.
* I attended this conference in October 2010, so I will not be writing about it here. I will say it was a science conference, not just a math conference, so it was a bit different (like the Joint Math Meetings in size, but much more diverse in topics).