Personal reflections from the 2019 JMM- Yen Duong

When I first met my husband, he had just attended the wedding of his ex-girlfriend of six years.  He told me about that unsteady Sliding Doors– type feeling during the toasts and comments about the bride, because he knew all of those inside jokes and funny quirks that make her so lovable (and she is great!) It’s a “that could’ve been me” feeling- not a “that should be me”, but just, if the sun came out a minute later one day or the toast wasn’t burned another day or you had stopped to talk to that student, everything could’ve been different.  That’s an approximation of how I’ve felt at these meetings.

Hi! I’m Yen, professional writer and JMM 2019 blogger and also math Ph.D. An old REU friend I hadn’t seen in ten years asked me yesterday what piece I am most proud of, and I told her it was this one in the Notices:

So, true to form, I’ll write about my innermost personal thoughts in a public forum.

Each day at the JMM I’ve lost one object: a scarf one day, a hat the next, my water bottle on Friday (Yes, I checked the lost and found). Not to get too poetic about it, but I’m losing something today too–regret.

When I see my friends giving talks and organizing sessions and waiting in the employment center filled with invisible Dementors stealing all hope (not my original metaphor), I see the life I could have lived. Had I decided to stay in academia and apply for postdocs and keep up research, I would be at JMM as more than a blogger and past AAAS Mass Media Fellow. Leading up to this trip, I was slightly anxious about what I’d do here and what I’m doing here and how I’d feel.

A red sign that says "Welcome Mathematicians"

Am I welcome too?

As a student, I took part in so many programs designed to keep people like me–a woman of color–in academia through that coveted faculty position. I was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, which let me study mathematicians and mathematics as an undergraduate and paid for my first JMM trip in 2009 to San Francisco to present my REU research. Next I participated in the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education program for women in mathematics–the 100th Ph.D. from that program should be graduating sometime this year!

Some of us now… (including EDGE co-founder Rhonda Hughes)

Some of us seven years ago

I was pretty active with the Association for Women in Mathematics, attending and organizing conferences and events, and I also went to the IAS Woman And Mathematics program for three years in a row (once with a baby!), and I even spoke at the Underrepresented Students in Topology and Algebra Research Symposium.  But for all that mentorship and community and support, I’m still not an academic mathematician. As an organizer myself, I know each program is built on the voluntary work and initiative of very dedicated people.  So I can’t help but ask,

Did I let you all down?

The AWM fellows

But that was in my head, a place that neuroses tend to hang out. When I talk to actual mathematicians at this conference, I can see that twinge of concern and regret on mentors’ faces turn into joy and pride at my new path.

At Sarah Koch’s Wednesday talk, I ran into an old professor of mine whom I hadn’t seen since 2012. He very gently said, “I would think that you’re a person with a mathematical inclination…” implying that I might miss math. And I responded that another professor at that same institution had once told me, “Just do what’s fun for you, and ignore what other people say.”

Writing is fun for me. This kind of personal essay is fine and enjoyable, but I really love learning about new phenomena or trends and asking questions and then translating that into something that lay people can understand (examples: peanut allergies, using polio to cure cancer, artificial dog noses). And my old professor said, “Well that’s exactly right. You’ll be doing it a long time, so you might as well do something that you like.” And he continued:

Research is just satisfying your curiosity.

He (and presumably you, dear blog reader) is curious about certain mathematical structures and the things they do and why and how they do those things. And I’m curious about the things people are curious about. We’re still asking questions and digging in and learning things.

So that made me feel better.

Here at the JMM I’ve seen a number of people I hadn’t seen in a decade, and met many others whom I’ve only known on the internet or not at all. Part of aging is learning that FOMO (fear of missing out) is just part and parcel of choosing your path and growing up. I won’t ever feel the joy of watching my students defend their theses, or have students of their own. I won’t run incredible experiments to improve pedagogy, I won’t inspire undergraduate students every day, I won’t do cool interdisciplinary math research.

But I am excited about what I will do. I feel like I did as I finished my undergraduate years–like pure potential– but tempered by ten years of wisdom and knowledge and faith that it’s all going to work out.

I hope you too will choose your path, no matter what stage you’re at now. Be brave, be bold. Read one of my favorite comic strips. Consider applying for a AAAS fellowship, or spend a semester at sea, or go work on a fishing boat in Alaska for a summer. Solve a cool problem, make math more inclusive, inspire a student, share your story, fight alternative facts, make an art, ditch a session to eat fried chicken with old friends.

Thanks for reading and letting me be part of the JMM this year, I had a wonderful, if tiring, time.

Feel free to reach out to me or keep up with me.

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