Talking Math Life with Christelle Vincent (now for something slightly different, part I)

Christelle Vincent and her pet icosahedron.

Readers, I realize that you may be tired of hearing about my life.  I mean, PhD+Epsilon is about early-career mathematical life, but when I write, it’s usually about my life/career, which is only one of many options. Thus, this week we have a blog experiment—I ask someone with a slightly different job a few questions about their life.  In this first installment (hopefully there’s more!), I check in with Christelle Vincent. She was in town last week to talk math (torsion points on the Jacobians of Picard curves) but we also talked math life. Christelle and I met in 2013 at a Sage Days workshop and have been part of many workshops together since.  After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2012, Christelle spent three years as a post-doc at Stanford.  She then spent a semester at ICERM before starting a tenure-track position at the University of Vermont in January 2016. She’s at a state school, is currently supervising a Masters student, and will be taking PhD students sometime in the next couple of years.  I asked Christelle a few questions, and here’s what she had to say:

Have you realized anything surprising in the last few years of your math career?

I remember vividly being in the audience of a career panel the year after I graduated and someone asked how one thinks of new problems to work on. That was an anxiety that I very much shared. I felt that the biggest threat to my budding career was to run out of problems and that one day I would just not be able to publish anymore because I ran out of problems to solve. Five years later, that is not an anxiety I have anymore. I do worry about working on problems that are “hard enough” to get grants and recognition from the community, but even that doesn’t feel so bad. I think it’s because having the experience of progressing from working on exactly one problem (my thesis) to working on enough problems that I feel that I could keep going on for a few years at this point, I feel like it’s likely that naturally, if I keep working and doing what I’m supposed to, I will find myself working on harder problems and developing more of a program.

What’s the best part of your job so far?

I feel very valued at my job. As a professor, I am more involved in the department life and I feel that I am really contributing to making our department a better place for my colleagues and our students. My colleagues value my research, ask me about it, and support me when I need to travel. My students enjoy my classes and what I do for them. I feel like I’m coming into my own a little bit more, I’ve shed a lot of the insecurities I had about being good enough to “make it” in academia. For me, being a math professor has been the endgame for a very long time, and finally getting there is really enjoyable.

What are some big issues in your math life/career?

As much as I am enjoying taking some time to enjoy where I am after getting a tenure-track position, I know that very soon I will start to worry about getting tenure. Right now I feel like I need to find time to do even more research, to carve out and protect that time. It’s something that I’m struggling with a little bit. It’s easy for me to get caught up in a bunch of little things that leave me exhausted and research has to happen before all of those little things. I’m still very new at my job so I think the rhythm will get easier with time.

Thanks to Christelle for taking the time to talk with me (math and blogwise)!

So, now my questions are for readers—what kinds of early-career math lives would you like to read about, and what would you want to ask? Let me know in the comments!

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Growing Roots


I don’t have much to say about math at the moment. Classes are proceeding. Papers are too. Committee work has continued to intensify. Hiring for two positions has taken an enormous amount of time and energy from the whole department. But I have to admit these things haven’t really been at the front of my mind.

In speaking to many of my other early-career colleagues, one of the strangest things about the tenure track is its semi-permanence. Sure, people change schools sometimes. There’s a open letter or blog post every other week about somebody leaving academia entirely for greener pastures. And there’s always the looming worry that “tenure track” won’t turn into “tenured.” But I think most people don’t start their tenure track job with one foot out the door. We mean to take off our coats and stay awhile.

Which is the polar opposite of the lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to. Our entire adult lives are spent as transients: off somewhere for undergrad, somewhere else for grad school, and increasingly a series of postdocs or visiting positions or adjunct gigs. No time to put down roots or develop a real sense of community, at least outside the walls of the department. Little time or energy for volunteer work. No money for a house to fix up, or a garden to plant. Your friends are a revolving door of graduating PhDs, fresh-faced new grad students, and faculty members at schools where you’ll spend a year or two at best.

A colleague in another department realized last spring that the reason she was getting anxious as summer approached was because it felt like it was time to move again, since that’s what she’d done over so many summers before. And I’ve felt that way once or twice too these past couple of years, like it’s automatically getting to be time to move on.

I loved the nomad life while I lived it, and given the academic job market I don’t think I ever really thought it would stop. But now I also love my job and my colleagues and my students and my city. Even though I’m getting itchy feet out of pure habit, I can’t imagine leaving.

Monday afternoon, we close on a house. Our first. I honestly don’t think I ever thought we’d own a home. I figured we’d end up in a large-ish city with a too-high cost of living, or we’d be so transient that it would never be worth the investment. But then we moved to Frederick, where, at least compared to neighboring DC, a house is pretty reasonable. And we have no plans to leave anytime soon. So next week we’ll have a home, with a garden and a tire swing (really!), and maybe we’ll finally get around to finding furniture that didn’t come from the Ikea scratch-and-dent section or off of somebody else’s curb.

I’ve also thrown myself into the community. I used to do a ton of volunteer work when I was younger, but then graduate school took up all my energy. Even during my postdoc I didn’t do much, though I had the time. I just wasn’t compelled to invest a ton of work in a community I’d be leaving so soon. But now I’m planting trees and pulling invasive plants in the park near my house. I’m getting involved in local politics, even organizing educational events in town. I think I even promised to go to a city budget meeting to advocate for a cause in a moment of weakness. I’ve met almost every one of my political representatives, from the local to the federal level. I feel a part of this town in a way I haven’t since I was a kid. I can’t even go to the grocery store without bumping into somebody I know, and somehow that doesn’t sound as bad as I would have thought it was a year or two ago.

So we’re fighting the weird career wanderlust for now. None of this fixes the worries about disaster striking come dossier time. But I don’t see a reason to spend the next five years with my bags half-packed. And I think I’ll be even more productive now that I can take breaks in my sweet tire swing.

Posted in balancing research and teaching | 1 Comment

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.


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