CROSSWORD! (or: Diversion as a vehicle for conversation on power and usage)

There is so much that is peculiar, irregular, silly, or downright twisted in mathematical verbiage that, certainly, we could all benefit from some soul-searching on the language of our culture. Some of mathematics usage is confusing (e. g. overuse of “normal” and “regular”) and some irritating (personal peeve: persistent classroom use of “guy” to refer to mathematical expressions – I know anthropomorphization makes things friendly and all, but I’m not sure that thinking of all mathematical objects as “guys” is good for our ongoing gender problem). And then there are other things that just floored me the first time I heard them (um, “clopen,” anyone?), not to mention our obsession/affliction with eponymy and its discontents. There is a dissertation in linguistic anthropology waiting to be written on mathematical usage, and perhaps several that already have been.

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Mathematics at 2019 SACNAS

Below I share some details about SACNAS and some of the mathematical events that happened at this year’s SACNAS National Conference.  I hope that this may also serve as an invitation/motivation for anyone interested in diversity and mathematics to participate in SACNAS at any level.

About SACNAS:

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) is a society that aims to further the success of Hispanic and Native American students in obtaining advanced degrees, careers, leadership positions, and equality in STEM.  SACNAS was founded in 1973 by underrepresented scientists to address the representation of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in STEM.  Diverse voices can expand scientific and mathematical knowledge as well as bring creative solutions to scientific problems.  This is one of SACNAS’s motivations for building an inclusive, innovative, and powerful national network of scientists, which now includes over 6,000 society members, over 115 student and professional chapters, and over 20,000 supporters of SACNAS throughout the USA.  Contrary to the name, the society is welcoming of people from all backgrounds, identities, fields of study, and professions. SACNAS is the largest multicultural STEM diversity organization in the US.

SACNAS has programs and events that train and support the diverse STEM talent that is found in this country.  This is done in partnership with the student and professional chapters, the leadership programs, Native American programs, regional meetings, and policy and advocacy initiatives.  SACNAS also hosts THE National Diversity in STEM Conference.  This year’s 2019 SACNAS National Conference in Honolulu, Hawai’i brought in over 5,000 participants!  Next year the 2020 SACNAS National Conference is in Long Beach, California!

Math at SACNAS:

Mathematicians and mathematics have always been a strong part of SACNAS.  In fact some of the founders of SACNAS include mathematicians, such as Dr. Richard Tapia (Rice University) and Dr. William Vélez (University of Arizona). I am fortunate to have met these two great mathematicians, who at different times in my academic journey have shared their wisdom and thoughtful advice.

Dr. Richard Tapia and I at the 2011 National SACNAS Conference.

My first SACNAS conference was in 2011 in San José, California.  I was a second-year undergraduate student attending his first scientific conference.  I was eager to learn and excited for all the opportunities that would be presented at this conference, but I did not know what to expect.  Fortunately, I found a community of mathematicians who share similar goals for diversifying mathematics and who genuinely care in supporting the success of students.  I trace my interest in combinatorics to the 2011 SACNAS National Conference, where I had the opportunity to attended the NSF Mathematics Institutes’ Modern Math Workshop.  That year’s keynote lecture on “Counting Lattice Points in Polytopes” was presented by Dr. Federico Ardila (San Francisco State University).  As an example of the power of networking, community, and mathematics at SACNAS, four years later Federico became one of my master’s thesis co-advisors.  More than that, I found an unconditional mentor, friend, and research collaborator and I owe part of this to SACNAS for providing a space for a student like me to grow academically and professionally.

Students from the UC Berkeley Cal NERDS program (including me)  with Federico Ardila at the 2011 SACNAS National Conference.

The Modern Math Workshop is a two-day workshop that takes place in conjunction with the national meeting of the SACNAS conference and showcases the contemporary research happening at NSF-funded mathematical sciences institutes around the country.  It became a collaboration with SACNAS in 2006 and has been jointly organized by the Mathematical Sciences Institutes since 2008. Since 2011 this event has been funded by the NSF through the Mathematical Sciences Institute Diversity Initiative. The workshop is a mix of activities including research expositions aimed at graduate students and researchers, mini-courses aimed at undergraduates, a keynote lecture by a distinguished scientist, and a reception where participants can learn more information about the Mathematical Sciences Institutes.

In addition to the Modern Math Workshop, there are scientific symposia organized by mathematicians, there are oral graduate presentations, and both graduate and undergraduate poster presentations.

Math at 2019 SACNAS:

I do not know if it was because we were in the beautiful city of Honolulu, that the sky was much bluer and the ocean water much clearer, but there was certainly an extra revitalizing energy present at this year’s SACNAS conference.  Below are some of the mathematical events that went on (and that I participated in) at this year’s SACNAS conference.  I am sure there were more that I missed out on.

This year’s Modern Math Workshop was organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI)  There were two mini-courses aimed at undergraduate students. One was lead by Dr. Wilfrid Gangbo (UCLA)  and Dr. Anastasia Chavez (UC Davis).   The workshop also included research talks aimed at graduate students and faculty and were delivered by representative mathematicians from each of the NSF Math Institutes.  Additionally, there was a panel which addressed topics such as: imposter syndrome, how to choose a graduate program, how to stay motivated, how to choose a mathematical field, etc.  Below are some of the speakers and panelists.

  • Katherine Breen (Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM))
  • Xinyi Li (SAMSI – Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute)
  • Gabriel Martins (California State University, Sacramento)
  • Robin Neumayer (Northwestern University)
  • Marilyn Vazquez (Mathematical Biosciences Institute (Ohio State University)Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM))

I was able to sit in Dr. Anastasia Chavez’s mini-courses, which was “An introduction to matroid theory.”  My discrete mathematical mind was very happy to hear and learn from my friend on a topic that is incredibly interesting.  You can find her slides here.

Anastasia Chavez delivering her mini-course on matroids.

Apart from the Modern Math Workshop there were three great events/experiences that I would like to share with you all.

  1. Dr. Rebecca Garcia (Sam Houston State University)  and Dr. Kamuela Yong (University of Hawai’i – West O‘ahu) organized the very first “Pacific Islanders in Mathematics” session.  This was a historic event (the organizers are writing a more detailed article to be shared with the public) and it featured amazing speakers including:
    • Kyle Dahlin (Purdue University): Avian Malaria & Hawaiian Honeycreepers – Modeling of the Effectiveness of Vector Control
    • Dr. Marissa Loving (Georgia Tech): Determining Metrics using the Lengths of Curves
    • Ashlee Kalauli (UC Santa Barbara): Solving the Word Problem for Artin Groups
    • Dr. Efren Ruiz (University of Hawai’i – Hilo): Rings Associated to Directed Graphs

      “Pacific Islanders in Mathematics” organizers and speakers (Left to Right): Rebecca Garcia, Efren Ruiz, Kyle Dahlin, Marissa Loving, Ashlee Kalauli, baby Kamuela, and Kamuela Young.

  2. Dr. Pamela Harris and I co-organized, “Latinxs Count!”, an algebraic and geometric combinatorics research talk session at SACNAS. It featured a talk by me and three amazing speakers :
    • Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez (University of Kentucky): An Invitation to Ehrhart Theory
    • Laura Escobar (Washington University in St. Louis): Polytopes and Algebraic Geometry
    • Ryan Moruzzi, Jr. (Ithaca College): Exploring Bases of Modules using Partition overlaid Patterns
    • Rosa Orellana (Dartmouth): The Combinatorics of Multiset Tableaux

      “Latinxs Count!” organizers and speakers (Left to Right): Ryan Moruzzi, Jr., Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, Pamela Harris, Laura Escobar, and Rosa Orellana.

  3. Dr. Pamela Harris was also one of the featured speakers at the SACNAS National Conference.  Her featured talk titled, “DREAMing,” shared her story as DREAMer and her mathematical journey into research and mentoring.

A snapshot of Pamela Harris’ featured talk.

 

I am blessed to have such a supportive mathematics/SACNISTA familia.  To end the blog post, I want to share something I mentioned at the conference. I overheard several people say that the math they do is not useful, but I want to challenge each of us to think more about the meaningfulness of our mathematics.  Sure, my math may not be applicable (at least right now) to anything “useful”, but it is meaningful to me.  It has given me a career path, it has allowed me to make wonderful friends and connections, and I get to share the beauty and meaning of it with people all over the world.  But, that’s a whole other topic for a blog post (too deep for this blog post), so I hope that you got a glimpse of the mathematical events that I experienced at this year’s SACNAS National Conference!  I look forward to seeing and meeting some of you at the 2020 SACNAS National Conference in Long Beach, CA!

Mathematicians after Pamela Harris’ talk! Building community.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

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Solvitur Ambulando

An algebraist, a finitist, and a determinist walk into a statistics classroom. They are all the same person and worse: the teacher, so the joke is on the students.

For reasons still partly obscure to me, my department has given me the opportunity to teach an introductory probability and statistics course for a second time. People often speak of impostor syndrome in mathematics, but this is something more like double agency. I feel like an embedded resistance fighter, my mind at intervals crafting subtle acts of sabotage, constantly wary that I might be found out.

I won’t deny the usefulness of adopting a probabilistic perspective, but its utility is also my chief complaint. Continue reading

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Interviewing New International Math PhD Students

En route to my first year of graduate school, I packed up the three good pillows I have, moved a couple hundred miles, and planted myself in an apartment I had only seen in a grainy Face Time video. Hopefully in five or six years, I thought, someone will begrudgingly call me Dr. Zell.

Then, the start of graduate school felt something like:

Welcome! Everyone here is looking forward to seeing you succeed. Now, let’s not waste time. It is graduate school after all. Undergraduates waste time, but not us thrifty graduates! Are you ready to teach? Not quite? Well, up and at ’em anyway! Oh, and expect to be challenged in all your classes. Bon voyage!

Even though the transition from Virginia to Michigan felt gigantic to me, I quickly realized my immense privilege as I befriended peers who only recently arrived in America. It’s hard to compare the international students at Michigan, because they are so obviously different. At the same time, they do agree on a handful of things: it’s confusing (and sometimes intimidating) applying to graduate school in America. Getting a visa is annoying. Family should be closer than they are. And of course, American food is way too sweet.

While the transition to graduate school may be confusing, and at times stressful, the international students at Michigan prove that graduate school is ultimately worthwhile. In order to share a little bit of the international student experience, I found some interview victims.

Anyway! Here’s what they had to say (split into two parts):

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Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for (Part 2)

For Part 1 of “Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for,” click here.

We like to think that our life stories have happy endings, perhaps that we can carefully partition our lives into fourths of each year, and successfully say, “Well, after I learned this, my life was great!” But anyone who has lived life — so, I suppose, anyone reading this — knows that that is not what life is like. Life is a continuous (not discrete!) story with continually changing hurdles. The gist of this series called “Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for,” is that if anything has, grad school has shown me how much truth the quote “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” holds. Every quarter of my first year had some unexpected obstacle or victory and sometimes both, and sometimes the victory turned into an obstacle. The following is the story of my second quarter as a math Ph.D. student at Oregon State University, along with some thoughts that stay with me from that time.

The day I turned in my Partial Differential Equations final, I left my first term of grad school to visit my analysis mentor at my alma mater, Central Washington University. I returned to Corvallis in mid-December. Naively, I hoped that I’d come back and feel “normal.”

It has been nearly fourteen months since I started graduate school, and I am still learning that normalcy doesn’t exist.

I thought “back to normal” meant returning to my thinking processes and mathematical maturity level of my undergraduate days. I thought it meant returning to the childlike joy I found in the concepts of analysis. Instead, I came back to Corvallis to find the bitterness of the last three months still chipping away at my heart. I still felt only frustration and oppression when I tried to study analysis. I was disgusted with myself and my inability to focus and work long hours.

I was meant to take my first crack at qualifying exams in April. I had started studying in September, before I was overcome with depression and barely had the energy or time to complete my homework assignments, let alone anything extra. Because qualifying exams were coming up all too soon, I should have spent December deep in the grip of linear algebra and real analysis — but I was angry with mathematics and the hand life had dealt me, and I threw in the towel on studying, telling myself I needed to recuperate from fall quarter.

Classes started again in January. The early days of winter quarter were highly reminiscent of some of my better days in November — going to bed pretty sure I was going to tell the graduate chair I was dropping out in the morning, knowing I wasn’t good enough for grad school, and wondering why the hell I was here in the first place.

In December, I spent a week strictly Paleo. I’ve done bouts of the Paleo/Whole30 diet before, and found it to be tremendously helpful in controlling my anxiety and depression. The problem is that Paleo can be really difficult to maintain long-term and take a lot of prep time — and time isn’t something one has much of in grad school. I wanted to go Paleo completely, but it didn’t seem feasible, especially when one of the major stressors in my life was a shallow, manipulative roommate who I avoided as much as possible. I spent about fifteen hours on campus daily to prevent myself from crossing paths with her. (It can be surprising how much those little irritations and anxiety-inducing moments wreak havoc on your well-being.) So instead I took a step I didn’t think I’d ever be willing to take: I went to the student health clinic and was prescribed anti-depressants in February.

The effect was almost immediate. The change wasn’t enormous, but I slowly started to find more joy in my work again — until the week I found out I failed my PDE II midterm (which is still my favorite of all the classes I’ve had at Oregon State — any other distribution and Sobolev space fans out there?) . . . and my real analysis midterm.

Yet more crushing than the fact that I failed my PDE II midterm was the fact that my PDE professor was the woman I wanted to be my Ph.D. advisor. In late November, I had walked into her office and asked her a question on my PDE homework. I walked out of her office with a sense that I understood her — and that I would do anything to be her student. In January, I asked her only other Ph.D. student about working with her, and subsequently set up a meeting with her to chat about her work and let her know about my interest in being her student. Barely a week later, I found out that I failed my PDE midterm.

I tried to talk with my professors about my exams and figure out how to put in more hours of work. I started forcing myself to be more disciplined (getting up at 7 a.m. and basically working all the way till 11 p.m. if I could muster it), but couldn’t keep up sixteen-hour days for very long; I was too mentally and physically exhausted, and having chronic insomnia didn’t help matters any. Like many have, I found that the more I forced myself to try to be perfect, the more poorly I managed to do a lot of things, but my inability to do everything well only discouraged me more. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I started skipping a lot of classes, especially real analysis. I had very little hope that I could understand enough to do well on finals.

But if nothing else, I had to really try in PDE, because I knew I ultimately wanted to work in analysis, and I knew I wanted to work with my PDE professor. So on Friday, March 1, after my PDE class ended at 1:50, I asked her a question about the proof of the Mean-Value Property, and then blurted out, “I really want to work with you but I was afraid my exam score would affect your decision.” She looked at me and said, “No, it was one exam score.”

I reread the above couple of paragraphs, and think that subconsciously, I must have been astonished that anything good would happen after I had decided I was a failure. But yes, it is true that even if you are not perfect, people will still accept you. I have heard all too many horror stories of advisors who lack patience, empathy, and tact, and mine has exhibited only kindness and understanding. “She has to be the calmest person in the department,” said my graduate chair at one point to me — me, probably the most consistently high-stress person in the department.

You might call that irony, or coincidence, or a miracle — and no, I didn’t end that quarter with the best grades in my life, and no, life still was not perfect after that. I don’t think I did very well on my PDE final either. But I did find an exceptional advisor, successfully start medication, and make some amazing new friendships — and I did start walking out of the intensity of the flames of mental anguish into a valley where the smoke had begun to clear. It won’t ever clear completely, I’m afraid, and such is life — but I wouldn’t trade the refinement of this fire for a valley with less putrid air.

I said in the first part of this series that I served on a panel for incoming first-year grad students and that I shared with them that I was so happy I would never have to survive parts of my first year again. I also told them that I am living proof that one can make it through. You might have failed an exam or two (or many). You might feel you have disappointed people you respect. You might be overwhelmed by how much life has thrown at you. You might be exhausted and trying to be brave. But just because you don’t meet a numerical requirement on an exam doesn’t make you a failure — and I know that sounds trite, but it really is true. I have failed more exams than I can remember in grad school, and guess what? I passed my real analysis qual in September — and that’s the exam that actually matters! You are probably harder on yourself than anyone around you is. If you are overwhelmed with how hard life is, know that there are others out there who know what that feels like — and I’m one of them. It might not help you feel better in the moment, but it does mean you’re not alone. And I don’t know what you think, but living as a grad student is the most courageous thing I’ve ever done. Get some sleep and if no one else tells you this today, you’re one of the bravest people around. Oh: and when you’re struggling, don’t force yourself to be better. As my dear friend and office-mate said to me once as I agonized over my impending thesis/reading meeting, “You are enough as yourself.”

 

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

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