Math Train: 64 Hours of Amtrak and AMS Southeastern Spring Sectional

Math beer: custom-made for the AMS Southeastern Spring Sectional!

This blog comes to you from near the end of an epic train trip to/from an excellent AMS Southeastern Spring Sectional Meeting at the College of Charleston. Train time is not a novelty to me—I spend a lot of time on the SEPTA commuter train from Philly to Villanova, grading and writing illegible comments on my students’ papers.  This trip is 12 hours each way, though, long enough that I have considered that it might warrant its own epic poem. That’s the kind of weird thing you can think about on a really long train trip. The epic poem is not happening, but my blog today is devoted to some thoughts on/about this trip.

Taking the train to a conference is awesome. I am one of those weird people who just really like trains, which is why I decided to spend 24 hours on a train to spend 40 hours in Charleston. I was looking forward to looking out the window and enjoying the conductors old-timey uniforms.  And that was great. Unfortunately, I also had to get some work done, including writing my talk for the conference. Fortunately, it is a lot easier to work on a train than on a plane or in the airport.  The seats are comfortable, Amtrak trains have reasonably dependable wifi, and the food in the café car is not really special but is way better than anything I have ever bought on a plane. The coffee is not amazing but holy cow it is amazing that trees and the ocean and neighborhoods are going by as I sit here in this rolling coffee house!!  On the train, I just look up once in a while and get really happy, then go back to work. And work and work and work.  Which brings me to my next thought:

Should it take me this long to make slides for a 20-minute talk?  I gave a 20-minute talk in the Coding Theory, Cryptography, and Number Theory Special Session (which was really nice).  Twenty minutes speaking, twelve hours making slides for the talk. I couldn’t believe it—how can this take so much time?  Especially when I’ve spoken about this work twice already, so had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to say before I started.  My slides were good, but they weren’t that good.  How did that happen?  It must have been the tikz diagrams… Ugh! Which brings me to a question:

What about a 20-minute chalk talk?  There is certainly a whole blog to be written about when to give a slide talk and when to give a chalk talk.  Any 20-minute or shorter talk has always been an automatic slide talk in my mind, and I think almost every 20-minute talk I’ve ever seen has used slides.  But my colleague reported that there were some really nice chalk talks in the Commutative Algebra Special Session of this meeting, so I’m reconsidering my approach.  Not for this talk, mind you: I want to use these slides many, many, more times to justify the 12 hours I put into them. Please, invite me to give this talk somewhere. I may give this talk in the park as a sort of performance art, come to think of it.  Next time, though, I will really consider chalk.

After giving my talk, I settled in to enjoy the rest of the session.  The talks were really good. I got to see my name on someone else’s slides, maybe for the first time. In a different talk, I asked a somewhat vague question about whether some codes from a talk could be considered algebraic geometry codes.  The next person to ask a question prefaced it by saying that their question would “probably be even worse than that last one.” Oh well. Overall the session great, and particularly a hit for me because I connected with a few really nice people interested in the same sorts of questions I care about. And I also met people outside of the session, at lunch.

Everywhere I go, I hear about this intriguing gerrymandering workshop. In a restaurant at lunch, I overheard some people at the table next to me talking about applying for a summer workshop.  Something made me wonder: could they be talking about the Geometry of Redistricting Summer School at Tufts? The workshop I have heard about everywhere, which must be completely swamped with applications, including mine, because it just sounds like such a great idea? Even my non-mathematical friends are sending me links like this story about Moon Duchin, one of the organizers.  I awkwardly interrupted the conversation at the next table to ask, and indeed they were. They were really nice about my interruption and it turned out that one of them lived in Philadelphia and another in Colorado, my two main haunts, so that was also neat.  That’s a win for taking the awkward social chance.

Custom made conference beer—such a great idea.  The Saturday talks ended at 6 PM and everyone converged on a big reception for snacks, wine, and beer.  This was one of the best math conference receptions I have ever attended, and while I’m not sure I can fully pin down why, it had something to do with being outside in the beautiful Charleston evening and the freely-flowing Vorticity Ale, brewed just for the conference by Holy City Brewing. What a good idea!  Bravo to the organizers.

I love sectional meetings.  The AMS sectional meetings hit a sort of sweet spot between highly focused meetings and the giant conferences like the Joint Math Meetings.  Regional meetings mean many people don’t have to travel as far for these meetings, so people with family obligations, tight travel funds, or who for whatever reason just don’t travel as much can come.  The special sessions are good venues for specialized talks, but there are people around from a whole range of disciplines, so the perceived hierarchy in any one discipline seems less important.  I think this all combines to make it easier meet and talk with people, which is certainly the most important part of any conference for me.

Back to the train, this time just out to Villanova for work.  Your thoughts? What’s the best way to get to a conference?  What would make a good custom conference beverage?  Is 20 minutes enough to give a good chalk talk?  Let me know in the comments.


Posted in conferences | Tagged | 4 Comments


Brilliant strategy by Jason Ya!  See related blog post here…

Where do I send this?!?!  I have found myself working with this question often, lately, which is great! Finding a good problem is hard, and figuring out the math is hard; often it is actually impossible, as when you try to prove something that is not true (ask me how I know!).  When you do find something true, and manage to prove it, writing it up is also incredibly time consuming, but somehow you manage. Great! You have produced a manuscript! This is a great victory! But still, here you are, wondering what to do with it.

In my first projects, I worked with more experienced researchers, who came up with good journal ideas and kindly took that part of the process out of my hands.  Also, I had some papers that came out of workshops with proceedings volumes, so the question of where to submit was easily answered.  More recently, I have been working on a wider variety of projects, alone and with other early-career researchers, meaning none of us are quite sure what to do once the manuscript is finished.  How do I know what journals are reputable and rigorously peer-reviewed?  How do I know what journals will impress people reading my CV enough that they will offer me a job or approve my tenure application?  There are a lot Google-able answers for these first two questions; here are some nice ones I found on the question of reputability and comparing good journals.

The harder questions for me are: What are good journals for smaller results? Expository work?  Research with undergraduate students?

Smaller results often fit well in regional/single university-based journals.  For example, my math brother Jeremy Muskat and I have a paper in the Rocky Mountain Journal of Mathematics.  I had a really wonderful experience working with David Grant, an editor for RMJM.  Others I have heard are good things about:

My colleague Katie Haymaker and I recently wrote a mostly expository article, something I had been wanting to do for a long time. In the process of searching for the right venue, I discovered many journals I hadn’t known about.  These journals aim at many different audience levels, so it is worth looking at their recent papers to get a feeling which one is right for a given paper. At the middle/high-school level, the Girls’ Angle Bulletin is great (email to inquire about submitting). The MAA publishes two college-level expository journals that I knew very little about before this search. The College Mathematics Journal publishes articles a really interesting array on topics relevant to the college mathematics curriculum, especially the first two years. They seem to be perhaps aimed more at the educator than the student.  On the other hand, Math Horizons specifically targets these students: “We target undergraduate students who are enthusiastic about mathematics and have some mathematical training, but may be early in her or his college career. Imagine writing the article for a math-loving first-year student who is midway through the calculus sequence.”  For those aiming for graduate students and PhDs in all areas, the Notices of the AMS accepts article submissions, including for the “WHAT IS…?” column.  For higher-level, more focused expository writing, here is a nice MathOverflow thread which gives many options.  I notice that the thread mentions the above-listed Rocky Mountain Journal of Mathematics, and some of the other smaller journals also publish expository work.

Other great expository journals:

Work involving or written by students can be hard to place.  These projects may not be advanced enough to work in most research journals, but may be substantial and well-crafted enough that they really cry out to be published. Ursula Whichter also wrote a great post about publishing work involving undergraduates.

Involve is a journal specifically for papers that involve undergraduate or graduate students.  For really outstanding undergraduate projects, that may or may not involve any new results, there are a few journals for papers fully written by undergraduates: SIAM Undergraduate Research Online and Rose-Hulman Undergraduate Mathematics Journal.  Also, many links on this page are good resources, though not all are still active.

More ideas? Other good venues for publishing work that is a little different?  Let us know in the comments!


Posted in submitting a paper for publication, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments


Surely there are more important things that unite mathematicians with those in the humanities, but to me one of the big ones is that we will go well out of our way to visit the graves and monuments of our famous predecessors.

I’ve seen so many slides of professors next to Gauss’s statue with his 17-pointed star; or poor Jacob Bernoulli’s plaque, where the engraver mistakenly added an Archimedian spiral instead of the logarithmic spiral requested by the deceased. If there’s a better way to torture a mathematician in the afterlife, I don’t know it (as an aside: I’ve always been oddly commitment-phobic about putting comics on my office door, but this one finally pushed me over).

A couple years ago, my physicist husband and I had a day in Dublin. Of course we saw all the usual tourist sights too, but we had our eyes on one stop in particular. My first time driving a manual transmission on the “wrong” side of the road brought us to the Broom Bridge, in a completely unremarkable suburb. We almost missed it entirely, and wandered around a for awhile before finding the stairs to a little path along the canal, where a woman sat knitting in the sunshine. I’m not sure if she knew why two sleepy Americans stopped for a photo and then got back into the rented Peugeot, but she was too polite to say anything.IMG_9144

This winter, we made a trip to Scotland, with a longer list of stops. My husband wanted photos with James Watt, James Dewar, Lord Kelvin, and a statue of Maxwell if we got around to it (we didn’t). I had John Napier, Colin MacLaurin, and James Stirling on my list, and rounded out my collection with Adam Smith becau
se close enough, right?

John Napier, discoverer (inventor?) of the logarithm, is buried in St. Cuthbert’s church beneath Castle Rock in Edinburgh. Sadly, the church itself was closed the day we were there so I didn’t get a good look at his plaque, but the churchyard had a IMG_9199nice sign bragging about him. James Dewar was also somewhere around there, but we couldn’t find him. We’ll pour out some liquid nitrogen for him next time we get a chance.

Maclaurin and Stirling were up the hill in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Maclaurin has a place of honor on the side of the church itself. It’s tough to see my picture in the fading Scottish winter sun (at probably 4pm), but there’s a nice photo and video from someone else’s walking tour here. My husband fondly remembered an old Irish professor of his who insisted on referring to any Taylor series as a “Maclaurin series centered somewhere other than 0.”

Stirling was harder to find, as unsurprisingly there’s more than one Stirling buried there, but we eventually found the plaque dedicated to the “famous Venetian mathematician.” I didn’t know he’d worked in Venice, but researching that made me realize the guy led quite an inteIMG_9209resting life: expelled from Oxford for collaborating with the Jacobites, he went to Venice and became a professor. While there he discovered a trade secret of the Venetian glassblowers and fled to London with Newton’s help before he was assassinated. And then he surveyed the Clyde to help make Glasgow a seaport just for good measure.

It was a lovely trip with a few other nerdy diversions that will probably make it into a column or a class or a math tea at some point. And it reminded me that I should really hunt down a few of my academic ancestors closer to home: after all Emmy Noether is just up the road from me at Bryn Mawr. Student AWM chapter road trip?

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments