Mathematics (Combinatorics) the Colombian Way: ECCO 2018

By Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, graduate student at the University of Kentucky

The names of many ECCO 2018 participants

“How do you do mathematics the Colombian way?”  This was the question posed by Federico Ardila at the end of the first week of the 6thEncuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria (ECCO 2018).  The question my master’s thesis advisor asked motivated me to write a reflection of ECCO 2018 as a non-Colombian attempting to answer the question. I hope that this may also serve as an invitation/motivation for anyone interested in combinatorics to participate in future ECCOs.

Two years ago, in 2016 I participated in the 5thEncuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria (ECCO 2016), an experience that changed my perspective and approach to doing mathematics and has motivated me to shape the inclusive mathematics community that I want to see. After her ECCO 2016 experience, Viviane Pons (Université Paris-Sud) wrote a wonderful blog post detailing and reflecting on many aspects of the conference. I encourage you to read the post here.

What is ECCO?

The Encuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria is a conference that runs every two years. More than a standard conference, it is a school and a gathering of mathematicians of all academic levels who bring their passion for learning and sharing combinatorics. In 2003, the first ECCO was organized by Federico Ardila as a resulting effort of his SFSU-Colombia Initiative. One goal was to build closer ties among students from Colombia, the USA, and other countries to provide a space for collaboration in person, especially for students who have limited access to such an experience. In 2016, Federico Ardila wrote an article for the Notices of the AMS, titled, “Todos Cuentan: Cultivating Diversity in Combinatorics,” where he shares more on the creation of ECCO and his approach to creating spaces for students to grow in their mathematical learning, primarily in combinatorics.

ECCO 2018

ECCO 2018 was hosted by the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, Colombia from June 5thto the 16thand also served as a CIMPA School.  There were over 100 participants and about half were Colombian and the other half foreigners.  This year’s theme was “Combinatorics meets Algebra, Geometry, and Optimization.”  The two weeks consisted of four minicourses, which highlighted the theme.  Two minicourses were delivered per week, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  The first week’s minicourses were led by Günter Ziegler (FU Berlin) and Vic Reiner (Univ. of Minnesota).  For those of you familiar with polytopes, you have probably encountered Günter Ziegler’s book, “Lectures on Polytopes.”  I fanboyed as he signed my copy of the book. Günter Ziegler’s lectures presented us with extremal examples and combinatorial parameters of polytopes.  Vic Reiner delivered his lectures covering q-counting and representation theory.  The second week’s minicourses were led by Lauren Williams (Berkeley/Harvard) and Rekha Thomas (Univ. of Washington).  Lauren Williams’ lectures provided us with an introduction to total positivity and cluster algebras. Rekha Thomas’ lectures took us into the world of polynomial optimization.

The style and presentation of this ECCO was similar to the previous years, but one change was that this was the first year that Federico Ardila was not directly involved in the organizing committee.  Now organized by a committee of former participants, this change highlights the sustainability of the event and the strong foundations that Federico has laid for ECCO’s success. Many joked that Federico was like the proud grandfather sitting around watching the fruition of his efforts.

After each lecture we took a coffee break where we had some great (and incredibly hot) Colombian coffee and pastries.  Then we gathered again in the lecture hall where each day we had two graduate students or post-docs give a research talk. These students and post-docs were from institutions around the world (Chile, Colombia, Finland, Germany, Mexico, USA, etc.).  After the talks, we then split into groups and participated in exercise sessions where we worked on problems related to the content of the minicourses that day. Each week also had a plenary talk and a session on open problems.  The first week we had the pleasure of hearing from Mauricio Velasco (Universdad de los Andes) and the second week we were honored to have Sara Billey (Univ. of Washington). Viviane Pons and her team also led a SageMath tutorial per week. A new addition to ECCO was a poster session, where many undergraduate and graduate students (including myself), presented their work. The conference ended with a panel, which I had the pleasure of participating in, where motivations, struggles, and social issues within mathematics were discussed.

Math the Colombian Way

Panel (Left to Right): Carolina Benedetti (moderator), Sebastian Sierra (undergraduate from Colombia), Gretter Dominguez (faculty from Cuba), Federico Ardila

We often hear of the French, German, American, or Hungarian way of approaching mathematics, but how do you do mathematics the Colombian way?  Home to Federico and many of the ECCO organizers, Colombia now has a strong combinatorics presence.  The Colombian approach to doing mathematics (combinatorics), as I see it, places a strong emphasis in community building.  To many mathematicians it is clear that mathematics is a collaborative effort, but there is more than just collaboration to building a community. In building a community, there needs to be a sense of friendship and accountability.  That sense of friendship and accountability allows everyone to actively participate in mathematics in a comfortable setting, without a fear of mistakes and also acknowledges that as a group there is no success if any person is left without understanding the mathematics occurring.

At the beginning of ECCO, participants were asked to read and share their thoughts of the Community Agreement.  By laying down the expectations of respect, we assured one another that this would be a rewarding and welcoming experience for all.  Many of the things on the Community Agreement seem like “common sense,” but as present times have shown us, common sense is not so common.  Many participants shared that the Community Agreement set mental expectations and reduced any anxiety they may have had in realizing interactions with other participants.

Salsa Dancing! Rekha Thomas, Federico Ardila, Lauren Williams, Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez

Part of the community building was also not in the classroom, rather it was centered around music and the dancefloor.  The introduction of dance to a professional setting, such as a mathematics conference, may seem strange to many, but it is engrained in the Colombian way of mathematics.  Dancing tears down the hierarchy and power dynamics that we often see in mathematics classrooms and conferences. At ECCO we had leading researchers seeing participants struggle with mathematical concepts, but we also had those participants see the leading mathematicians skirmish to learn some salsa moves on the dancefloor.  Indeed, dancing with each other allowed for everyone to foster an inclusive and lively environment, as well as a cultural understanding of our host country and its people. The dancefloor was a space where many participants who were unfamiliar with the dances and music of Colombia soon were cheered on and supported by the local students to the point where there was a feeling of security. This spirit of support transferred to the conference, especially for the problem sessions.

At ECCO, the participants solidify their understanding of the concepts presented during the lectures by working on exercises that were written by the minicourse instructors.  During the problem sessions, the groups consisted of participants from all levels, normally a professor/post-doc, a graduate student, and several undergraduates. Many of the problems were challenging yet rewarding once the groups worked together to reach a solution.  As with many approaches to learning mathematical concepts, by working on complex problems there is a building of perseverance and reflection.  The exercises were mathematically meaningful, but what is noteworthy is that all group members played an active role in reaching a solution and understanding of the concepts.  I observed that the more experienced mathematicians went directly to thinking about the abstraction of the problems, where the younger students emphasized a more concrete approach to exemplify the theory occurring in the problem, of course both ways of thinking are valuable.  An overarching outcome from every problem session is that everyone can engage, be excited about, and contribute to mathematics.  After working on the problems for an hour or so, volunteers presented their group’s solutions.  Here we saw wonders of how working in a supportive environment can contribute to mathematical understanding beyond what we have been exposed to. For example, we had students who had never had Abstract Algebra presenting deep results from Representation Theory. Experiences like these are a result from the wonderful exposition of the minicourse instructors, but also the patience and guidance of the more mathematically experienced group members.

Another aspect of the Colombian approach towards mathematics is the celebration of all successes and contributions, no matter how big or small.  During the panel, one of the panelists joked that we clapped for everything to the point where it became second nature to clap after someone spoke.  In spaces like ECCO, every participant had a role of being a motivator.  By clapping after a solution was presented, after a lecture or research talk was delivered, we encouraged one another to be the best mathematician we can be, while showing our support and attention.

The Colombian approach, as I have interpreted it, may not seem all too different compared to other approaches towards doing mathematics. But I can assure you that when we have all done our best to build a community that is equally professional, welcoming, inclusive, and excited about mathematics we can see our potential as mathematicians and can observe that mathematics can provide a life that is both academically and socially fulfilling.

The last day of ECCO 2018


Posted in General, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections of a first year postdoc

By Luis Sordo Vieira

I recently heard Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez talk on “Rehumanizing mathematics: A vision for the future” at IPAM during the Latinxs in Math conference. So before I begin on my reflections, I want to include a picture of me, a human being, and not just a set of words that might or might not make sense, such as we often find in math papers.

Luis Sordo Vieira and Ivy

I am Luis Sordo Vieira, a Latino postdoc at UConn Health Center for Quantitative Medicine using mathematics for my profession. I am much more than a mathematician.  This is my doggie Ivy; my other dog Glenn (named after Canadian pianist Glenn Gould) would not pose for the picture. So he doesn’t make an appearance.  Below, is my best friend and wife, Sarah Sordo Vieira, M.A. in mathematics too. She went to grad school and decided that a PhD in mathematics was not for her and she is my favorite mathematician.

Sarah Sordo Vieira

I just finished my first year as a postdoctoral fellow at UConn Health in the Center for Quantitative Medicine, so I have had the privilege of living through my undergraduate and graduate years and a whole year as a postdoc. Before I forget how difficult grad school is (very difficult), let me share some of the most important lessons that I have encountered in my (yet academically inexperienced) career so far. I wish I had such a set of notes early in my grad school career and that several faculty members had read these notes as well, to get an idea of what grad students struggle with. These notes come without any sense of authority and, as is all advice, it is to be taken at your own risk!

Almost everything that you succeed at looks easy in retrospect.

Of course, this does not mean that it was. I got so angry when I would hear situations such as:

  1.  Graduate student John tells undergraduate Stacey “Undergraduate is nothing compared to graduate school.”
  2. Post-quals grad student Donald tells the first-year terrorized student Marcos that writing a thesis is much harder than quals.
  3. Early faculty Michelle trying to get tenure tells poor graduate student Robert that graduate school is some of the most fun years of your academic career, and nothing compared to the difficulties of pre-tenure.

These insensitive comments are more harmful than helpful. They degrade the difficulties of others and enable the sense of not belonging. These comments are extremely harmful to underrepresented groups.  We all have our own struggles.

We are defined by our failures as academics just as much by our success.

This year, I heard from a status quo successful and well-established professor that scientists endure more failures than enjoy success. In this case, this professor is a “successful” mathematician and a wonderful mentor and person, but this is not always the case with every mathematician we consider successful.  I wish I would have heard this earlier in grad school! Keep in mind this is a professor with several prestigious awards, publications, grants, etc. so I naturally asked him what he was talking about. He told me about some of his grants; several of his grants were given to him after more than three tries! Keep in mind that grants can take months to produce and think about. In retrospect (see point 1), this seems obvious. If you talk to many older mathematicians in academia, they will tell you they applied for the NSF Career award two or three times and never got it, or they submitted a paper 50 times before it got accepted. I failed my first qual in algebra! I think you get my point.  Which brings a key point here: A CV is a cleaned-up version of someone’s academic career. It only shows (what we consider) success. Keep that in mind when you decide it is a good idea to compare yourself to others (it never is).

Take your mental and physical health seriously in graduate school and academia. 

Perhaps it is easier to think of the importance of maintaining your physical health in grad school. The impression I got early from my undergraduate years and early graduate school is that a lot of graduate school is about suffering and we seem to be OK with this as a community. This is so wrong, and if you don’t believe me, read this article on the mental toll grad-school takes on students. I would not be too surprised if this extends to later in life in academia, although I do not know. This is a very serious issue and not something to just say “it’s normal in grad school.” NO. It is not normal to be depressed or feel severe anxiety.  Keep a check on your mental health. Have fun in graduate school! Keep a hobby and don’t let your personal life fall behind. If you need it, go to the counseling center. Seeking help when you need it is a strength, not a weakness; as cliche as that might sound, it is absolutely true. Never, ever hide your wonderful personality to try to fit in. It is not worth it.

Find a mentor(s). Be a mentor. 

Dr. Pamela E. Harris

Dr. Pamela E. Harris

This might be your academic advisor (hopefully this is the case, but it is not always, sadly). I was privileged to have a good academic advisor, mentor and friend, David B. Leep. Maybe your academic advisor is not a mentor. Regardless, it’s never a bad idea to have several mentors. For me, I was very lucky to find several people outside of my institution that I could always go to for advice, such as my good friend, theorem-proving machine, fellow dog-lover, and Mexican friend (to the right), Dr. Pamela Harris. She is an incredible mathematician that takes no nonsense from me. More impressive than her stellar CV is her willingness to stand up for what is right, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be. That includes when I say something insensitive or stupid, as we all do. (Picture is courtesy of my dear friend Pam.) 

Dr. David Murrugarra

Mentors might even lead you (unintentionally, I think…) into a whole different field from your focus in graduate school. They will open a set of doors that you might not have even known existed.

For me, that was my other local mentor at the University of Kentucky, where I earned my PhD. Dr. Murrugarra somehow convinced me that biology is super cool and mathematical. He is a good friend of mine, and I still come often to him for advice on navigating academic nonsense, such as reviews that make no sense, the ten million-journals out there, and the grant-writing landscape. He also gives me good advice on good Peruvian food and where I can get a good Pisco Sour. (The great picture on the left is courtesy of my friend David.)

Pay it back. Find an undergrad in your institution and tell them your experiences. I bet you have plenty of things to contribute (keep in mind point 1!)

A plea to the academic community. 

My last point is that we please reconsider what a successful mathematician is. Coming into grad school for a PhD, realizing it’s not for you, and leaving with a master degree is not a failure. Finishing an REU and realizing research is terrible and you never want to do it again is not a failure. Let us redefine a mathematician to encompass our fellow academes in math-ed. Math-ed is just as important for the math community as number theory. Stop using terms such as number-crunchers for scientists and industry workers applying mathematics to their respective careers. Let us stop considering mathematics as the ultimate science. Let us celebrate diversity in mathematics. I like the progress we are making here in the math community, but we still have a long way to go. A mathematician comes in all different shades, shapes, sexual orientations, sex, physical abilities, national origins, and length of hair (if I miss something, I apologize). We still have a long way to go.  In the biomedical sciences, there was recently an uproar about celebrating the birthday of James Watson, highlighting the importance of what we consider to be a successful scientist. It’s worth thinking about.

What do you consider to be a successful mathematician?

Posted in General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, postdocs, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on the 2018 Latinx in Mathematics Conference

This is a guest post from Emilia Alvarez, an amazing undergraduate student at Concordia University.

I’ve had a few days to think about my experience at the 2018 Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference, and in sharing my thoughts, I hope to convey two things. The first is deep gratitude for the organizers and participants who created a comfortable and diverse community environment that fostered respect and growth, and even ended with me learning to salsa dance! The second thing I wish to convey is an urgency of just how important this type of event is, how beneficial it is, and why I would encourage students to seek out, participate, and even help organize more of these kinds of events.

Continue reading

Posted in Graduate School, graduation, Outreach, postdocs, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Ode to a Great Mentor

By Alicia Prieto Langarica

I was incredibly excited when I was asked to contribute to this great blog that I have been reading for a while now. I have learned a lot reading this and other AMS blogs, and the opportunity to contribute arises at a great time, as I am trying to redefine and redirect my work post tenure. I thought about writing about my experiences mentoring students and how much I have learned from them. I thought about sharing the ups and downs and advice I wish I had known. That excitement lasted for about 5 minutes before my good old friend, the Imposter Syndrome, kicked in. I am a terrible writer! There are so many more qualified people than me out there who could speak about mentoring. So what can I teach anyone about this? Besides, what do I really know about mentoring? And it was this very last question that made me realize that this might not be about me. Maybe it is not about what I know about mentoring, but more about the great mentors in my life and what they have done for me which has lead me to where I am now. Ah, panic gone, at least for a little bit.

I have been incredibly lucky to have had and remain in contact with some of the most amazing mentors. I will talk about a few of them who made a huge impact on me and how they have shaped the way I approach mentoring now. It started with my middle school teacher, Cesar Octavio Perez Carrizales, (yes, I am from Mexico and we all have long names) who saw something in me and decided that I needed to participate in the Mathematics Olympiad when I was 13. He put up with my insecurities and pushed me to be better and to believe in myself. I like mathematics because he showed me it is much more than multiplication tables. But he was also tough on me and would not allow me to feel less than my male peers (and many time they were all male peers). I learned from him how to push students, how to be firm, but to always have a sense of humor.

Adolfo Sachez Valenzuela

The first three years of my undergraduate education, I attended the Center for Research in Mathematics (CIMAT) in Guanajuato, Mexico. This was a very intense school in which virtually all the classes I took were mathematics courses using graduate-level textbooks. After a few semesters there, the pressure of the school combined with a few personal issues, led me to temporarily forget why I wanted to do math. Dr. Oscar Adolfo Sanchez Valenzuela, a Harvard graduate, who was very active in research in algebraic geometry and was at that time the director of the undergraduate program, took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to meet with me and talk math, outside of class, just for fun, in order to convince me that math was the right path for me. The only problem was that he could only meet at 4:30 am. So he would pick me up on his way to school, and we would talk math twice a week from 4:30 am-5:30 am. He helped my passion for math come back. I learned from him how good mentoring sometimes requires hard sacrifices and that if one believes in a student, and the students ability, one needs to make those sacrifices, specially when the students are willing to put in the work.

The last, but maybe the most influential mentor in my life, is my PhD advisor, Dr. Hristo Kojouharov. Dr. K., as we very affectionately called him, has been and continues to be the person I turn to when dealing with any problem in my career. I met him at an undergraduate conference (Plug: Attend undergraduate conferences and meet people!) in April of my last year as an undergraduate career, which I finished at the University of Texas at Dallas. He asked me what I was planning to do once I graduated, and I honestly had no idea. He asked me to apply to the University of Texas at Arlington, even though applications where already past due, and told me to visit the school the following week. He became my advisor right then.

There are a million examples of Dr. K.’s amazing mentoring and how he helped me, but this is a blog post, not a book, so I will share only a few.

Helping Students take Ownership of their Research

Dr. K. had me sit in on a meeting with his collaborators in order for me to pick a project. I really did not understand how crucial that is in mentoring students, especially first generation college students, who might never even heard about research, which can be very intimidating. By doing this, I was able to take ownership of the project and, from the very beginning, make important decisions on what problem I wanted to work on and how I wanted to approach the problem. Moreover, by having me sit in this meeting, I learned first-hand about interdisciplinary collaborations. This is a model I have successfully replicated with some of my students. I believe in involving students in every decision of the research process and in having those decisions be a learning moment for them. I also believe that students who are interested in their topic and who helped decide the path the project will follow, are more engage and passionate, which leads to better research and better mathematicians.

Understanding an academic career is more than just the math

I have countless stories of ways in which Dr. K. helped my academic career outside of mathematics. From making sure I attended conferences and talked to leaders in the field of applied mathematics, to having me advise undergraduate students in research while I was a graduate student myself. Another very important way Dr. K. helped my career was while I was applying for jobs, before graduating. But more than that, knowing I was hoping for a tenure track position, he gather other professors to read and comment on my material, to conduct mock interviews with me, and even to help me figure out what to look for during on-campus visits and how to negotiate once I received different offers. It is important for all of us who mentor students to take the time to talk to them about opportunities such as REUs, conferences, workshops, and internships. We should never assume students know how to navigate academics, and we need to listen carefully to be able to advise them best depending on what they want to do and we should not think that we know what is better for them. Dr. K. is an expert in balancing what his students need and what he thinks or knows will be better.

Treating your students as people first, scientist second

Dr. K, Alicia Preto Langarica and her parents at her dissertation defense.

Being Mexican, I come from a large, very close family, who cares about me dearly, but could not understand my decision to pursue an academic career. I grew up being pressured to get married and start a family, not to get a PhD. And mathematics was something they could not understand me liking. One of the greatest gifts Dr. K gave me was the ability to have my family at my PhD dissertation defense. My parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother all came from Mexico for it. Dr. K. and my committee agreed to address the heavy math beforehand and let me focus my presentation mostly on the biological problem, making it easier for my family to follow my presentation. Afterward, Dr. K. invited all of us to his house to celebrate. I will never be able to thank him for doing this for me and for understanding how important my family is to me. My parents have a much better understanding of my job and my career as a whole thanks to this. Dr. K. taught me to see my students as human before seeing them as students and to, even when not completely understanding their background, making an effort to provide them with what they need inside and outside of mathematics. One of my dreams in life is to have the space and means in my house to do this for my students and their families.

My wonderful mentors have had an incredible influence in my life, shaping my mentoring style and making me a better professor. So, even though the impostor syndrome might have made me temporarily doubt myself, writing this blog reminded me, that I know more than I give myself credit for.

Posted in General, Outreach, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The importance of leadership skills

Leadership training in academia and in particular in mathematics is something we don’t tend to discuss or think about that much until we are about to take on a leadership academic position and wished we could have had some formal training along the way rather than learn on the job. Taking the lead to develop ourselves as leaders and get the proper training is something that requires investment throughout our career. Whether you are a graduate student, postdoc, or a seasoned faculty it is never too early or too late to make this investment, be intentional on developing your leaderships skills in meaningful and effective ways, and optimize your success.

Initially, the leadership training is more seldom, but as you move upwards this should become more frequent and align with your career aspirations. While leadership training occurs as part of your service to the university and profession by serving on various committees, task forces, and panels, be mindful that what you put in in terms of your time investment and effort, as well as what you forgo in terms of research, personal, and family time does not balance what you get out in terms of training.

I naively thought that most leadership training would come from the multitude of service I have done over the years. Thus, I did not mind putting my research, personal, and family time aside for the sake of serving the profession and my university through an astonishing amount of service. I thought that the more I put into service the more I would develop as a leader and forgot to take my main advice of keeping things balanced and the law of diminishing returns that I was so familiar with as an economics and math double major at Wellesley College. However, at the end of this year I was forced to reflect on my leadership development and careers gains and was astonished to realize the rate of development through service versus formal training was not equivalent.

Thus, my goal for 2018 is to minimize my service in order to have time to invest in my development and career growth and to invest in formal training by either paying out of my own pocket to attend certain leadership training and academies or take the time to put forward multiple applications and request for funding and financial sponsorship. Make it your goal too to take advantage of structured and formal leadership training, such as development courses offered by your university and professional societies/organizations, including the Linton- Poodry SACNAS Leadership Institute, American Council Education (ACE) Leadership, the Berkeley Executive Leadership Program, HERS Institutes, Center for Creative Leadership, and Academic Impression Leadership.

Some leadership training is about time management, learning to negotiate effectively, mapping your career opportunities and learning the basics earlier on to be successful no matter what your long-term career trajectory is. Other leadership train is about finding your leadership style, shifting the culture at your institution or professional organization, having an executive presence, leading diverse and inclusive teams, and much more. In the remainder of this blog, I outline two topics that illustrate why investing in your leadership development is critical and applicable to everyone regardless of our career goals.

Time Management
Learning effective time management is key and while we all understand this, we often forget to use our calendar effectively to appropriately manage our time like a good leader. If we want to develop this skill we need to begin by making our calendar meaningful to us. Thus, we need to put every meeting and thing we need to do in our calendars, including our lunch time even if we are having lunch at our desk while we read some emails.

Part of including everything means that we don’t just tell people to come by your office unless we have them in our calendar. We don’t allow people who are not in our calendar take more than a couple of minutes of our time unless it is an emergency. If it is going to take longer than a couple of minutes we ask them what time would work for them and put them in our calendar. We even put our “To Do” list in our calendar with the appropriate time estimates/ slots for each item in our list. We need to make our “To Do” list part of our calendar if we are serious about getting things done and learning to manage our time.

In our calendar, we also need to block time that we don’t give to anyone, but rather time that is allocated just for ourselves and for the things that are important to us, this includes research, time to reflect on our progress/future goals, to unwind, exercise, and to spend with our partner, kids, pets, and friends. It is important to keep in mind that we need approximately an hour each day of downtime to unwind and refresh ourselves or 3-5 hours per week if you’d rather take a bigger chunk of time once per week. For example, part of my downtime includes painting once every 1-3 months and letting my artistic and creative side take over while my scientific side unwinds. Part of effective time management is to do the most important things earlier (otherwise if something unexpected comes up important things might get pushed down and they might not get done that day as planned). For this same reason, it is essential that we don’t leave important things to the end of the day.

Negotiating Effectively
Negotiating does not just occur when we are accepting a job offer and thus we need to learn to become better negotiators. From putting together various proposals, to launching a new idea or initiative at our university, to interacting effectively with our colleagues, to managing various roles, negotiating arises in all aspects of our career and it takes various forms. Developing this skill is critical in becoming an effective leader, but unfortunately it is often ignored and thought of as a skill needed when we are offered a new job.

Any request or ask can take the form of a negotiation and thus this request/ask must be presented in a way that shows it meets a need or moves forward a goal or solves a problem for our institution or the individual from whom we are making the request. Negotiation is often not a one-time deal and requires multiple conversations and actions on our part. We must follow up every negotiation meeting with emails and follow-up conversations. If our request has not been granted, we need to send emails periodically with articles or news that relates to our request and remind the individual to whom we made the request of our conversation/request and why it is important.

The negotiating process consists of five critical steps:

  1. Pre-negotiation (a.k.a. the preparation stage) prior to the meeting
  2. Opening statement where we clearly and concisely move the conversation to ask/request in 1-3 sentences
  3. Information or data sharing that will help others assess the situation
  4. Framing your request as a solution to a problem or as a tool that will move a goal forward, and
  5. The agreement or closing where you ask when they will have an answer for you.

The latter will involve some compromising thus it is important that before you leave the meeting where things are agreed you summarize what you heard as the agreement to ensure you are all on the same page and have an equal understanding of the agreement.

Whether or not you intend to go into leadership positions, time management skills and negotiation skills will be two skills that serve you well throughout your career.

Posted in career advancement, General, Leadership, Negotiating faculty / post doc positions, postdocs, Tenure, work life balance | Leave a comment

Job Seekers: how do you prepare and conduct a Skype job interview

This post was written by two postdoctoral researchers in biomathematics, Amy Buchmann ( and Alex Hoover (, who are currently on the job market. This is a reflection of their Skype interview experiences so far.

Q: How is a Skype interview different from a phone interview?

Amy: The main difference is that during the Skype interview you are able to see the search committee and you get visual cues as they react to your answers to their questions. They might nod or look puzzled and that immediately gives you the opportunity to explain. At the same time you need to be prepared to be in interview mode from the second you hit Connect.

Alex: For me the important part is understanding from the nonverbal cues if people understand the research you are describing and adjusting your answer based on those cues. Continue reading

Posted in career advancement, General, Negotiating faculty / post doc positions, postdocs | 1 Comment

Toward Anti-Oppressive Mentorship in Mathematics

The eMentoring Network in Mathematics was created to broaden participation in mathematics through peer to peer mentorship. We hope to foster community among mathematicians across ranks, institutions and locations. I hope this blog and network is a service to all mathematicians, and I hope it disproportionately benefits communities of mathematicians who have historically experienced minoritization and marginalization. Most importantly, I hope this network is one small tool used to change the systems in place in academic mathematics (and beyond) that historically and currently privilege some and are biased against others.

How can we work toward these goals now, today, in post-Charlottesville America? I don’t see evidence that direct, individual, intentional bias is the primary obstruction to academic success for minoritized groups. I don’t know of prominent voices in the mathematics community that directly call for racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. (The systems of oppression are much larger and richer: mathematics education is a racial project [5]; even the language [1,2] we use and our framework of thought [1] contribute.) Just as it would be unjustifiable to adopt a position of pro-oppression, so is it unacceptable to attempt neutrality. In fact, it is quite impossible to do so, as inactivity necessarily reinforces the status quo. So, we are compelled to take a stance, and that must be to work against oppression.

What does that mean in the context at hand? What does it mean to engage in anti-oppressive mentorship?

Continue reading

Posted in postdocs, Tenure, Undegraduates | 1 Comment

Get the most out of your REU project

Undergraduate students often are encouraged to participate in a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). They receive advice on how to find an REU that is a good fit and how to write a good application. This blog post is about the back side of the process. I write to undergraduates with some suggestions of what to do now that your REU is over and you have that well-deserved feeling of accomplishment. In a nutshell, my advice is to disseminate your work widely in your department and at conferences with the purpose of networking to meet people that might become pivotal in your mathematical advancement. Continue reading

Posted in General, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

The Four Parts of No

By Courtney R. Gibbons, Hamilton College

I’m sure you, like me, have way too much going on.  And I’m sure you, like me, are asked to take on even more.  Some of these projects are fun.  Some of them align with your long-term interests.  Some of them are even better than all of the stuff on your plate put together.  Even if the opportunity is great, you may still want or need to say “No.”  I trust that you have either a good innate sense of when to say no or a mentor who will help you decide.  What I would like to offer you today is a guide to the four things that I put into my no response: Appreciation, No, Explanation, Request.

Here’s a quick example, and then I’ll say a little more about each part.

Dear Courtney,
We would love it if you organized a session for our research program at the Joint Math Meetings.  What do you say?
Sincerely, Research Program Organizer

Dear Research Program Organizer,
Wow! Thanks for thinking of me as a potential organizer.  Unfortunately, I have to say no.  Although it would be fun to do this, when I look at my CV, I realize I should be actively pursuing opportunities to speak in sessions, not organize them.  Here are some people I think would do a great job and might find it valuable for their professional development: (name, name, name).

1. Appreciation
When I read a request, I usually have to get my brain to switch out of cynic mode.  Figuring out how to start off a message with appreciation helps me to do this.  After all, someone asked me — me?! — to do something, and it’s mentally helpful for me to assume it’s because they think I’ll do it well.  I like to start off by recognizing this.

2. No
This part should be easy: say no.  Flavors of “No” that I like range from “Hell no!” to “Not yet” to “Yes, but” — here are some examples.
“That doesn’t align with my goals, so I must decline.”
“It’s tempting, but not yet.”
“I want to do this, but here are some obstacles.”
In my response, these sentences are followed by an explanation, but I try to make it clear right here whether the I want the person sending the request to help me problem solve so that I can say “Yes” instead.

3. Explanation
Here is the most important part of the message based on my experience so far.  As honestly as possible, I give my reasons:
“I have bronchitis.”
“I can’t justify taking on a service role right now without a payoff in terms of compensation, professional development, or work that counts toward tenure.”
I try to make sure that I am honest so that if someone does find a way to respond constructively to my explanation (“But this is instant-tenure, didn’t you know?”), it does change my answer from no to yes.  If you haven’t had the experience of coming up with a great excuse only to have it artfully handled, trust me, it stinks.  Another benefit is that, if your explanation is, “I should be speaking in research sessions,” the person you emailed may try to help you with that!

4. Request
I know it sounds weird to answer a request with a request.  I have found that it’s helpful to give the asker something to do after reading your email.  Do you want to participate, but can’t afford to get to the conference? Ask for help to solve this problem.  Do you not want to do this? If you know of others who would benefit from saying yes to the request, suggest them (I like to ask for permission, first, though). Are you unsure if this is a good career move for you? Suggest that the asker talk to your department chair or someone else who acts as a gatekeeper for your time. Ideally, this gives the asker a next step that isn’t just “get Courtney to say yes.”

So there you have it — that’s how I say no to requests.  I’m happy to trade advice in the comments!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Guide to Lit Searching for the Disinclined

By Chad Topaz, Williams College and May Mei, Denison University

Summer is upon us, which means it’s time for sunglasses, sandcastles, and student research. Every summer, we find ourselves explaining to students how to do a literature review. Prompted by interest at a recent applied mathematics faculty workshop sponsored by the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges (AALAC), we finally put into writing some recommended practices. We hope they will be helpful to you and your students.

Step 1: Recognize the value of the task. Even though lit searches seem annoying — oh wait, they ARE annoying — it’s crucial to do them. We have seen students enthusiastic about publishing skip doing a thorough lit search and spend a summer or a year working on a project only to learn at the last minute that it has all been done before. Even more substantively, when you do a piece of scientific work, it’s crucial to contextualize it. How does it fit in with other work that has been done? Think of your future work as being in dialogue with all past work. Which pieces are you talking to? What are you saying? Are you answering a question that was posed by another paper? Why should anyone care? You can’t answer these questions without knowing the literature.

Step 2: Get organized. Get access to bibliographic management software. We favor cheap or free software. In math, many of us write papers in LaTeX, so apps like BibDesk interface well. JabRef is also another popular option. These apps provide a convenient WYSIWYG interface for bibliographic entries. Even better, many of them have the capability to process data for you. For instance, you can open a web page with a paper from within the app and the app will figure out how to extract the bibliographic reference. Or you can drag a web clipping onto the app and it will, again, extract the reference. Whatever app you choose, if it is decent, it will have slick features that exempt you from having to type in the bibliographic info yourself. Figure out how to use these features. In addition to your software, dedicate a folder on your hard drive to saving PDFs of papers you will read.

Step 3: Search for the first time and save files. While there many tools for conducting literature searches, we recommend Google Scholar because it is free and easily accessible. Use Google Scholar to search for keywords relevant to your project. You may wish to create a text file to keep track your search phrases. For each paper you find, if the title makes the paper seem obviously irrelevant, ignore it. If the title seems relevant, find a way to read the paper. Google Scholar might give you a link to a .pdf of it. If it doesn’t, find another way to get the paper. You could try just Googling the title, or you could use your institution’s online library capabilities, or request the paper via Interlibrary Loan, or ask a colleague for the paper, or ask one of the authors for the paper… or one of many other options. If you decide to get a paper, you should immediately add a bibliographic entry for it, as described above. Most of the bibliographic software will allow you to add a citation key for the paper, that is, the key you would use to cite the paper in LaTeX using a \cite{} command. Use the following convention for the cite key: the first three letters of the last names of (up to) the first three authors, followed by the year of publication. For instance, if the paper is by Cortez, Smith, and Johnson and was published in 2005, you’d give it the cite key CorSmiJoh2005. If the paper is by Lee and was published in 1994, you’d give it the cite key Lee1994. Then, save the paper to your designated hard drive folder and give it a name that is the citation key, with a .pdf extension. For the first example above, you’d call the file CorSmiJoh2005.pdf. The reason for using this convention is that we tend to know authors and years of papers in our heads (if we’ve read them enough). With our cite key convention, it becomes easy to search for a paper on one’s hard drive, and easy to cite the paper — both off the top of one’s head. In contrast, titles of related math papers tend to involve many of the same words, which can make it difficult to distinguish papers by title.

Step 4: Read for the first time. Once you have a collection of .pdfs on your hard drive with corresponding bibliographic entries, take a look at each one. Read the abstract and introduction carefully. If it still seems relevant, take a few notes into a document — perhaps a GoogleDoc or a LaTeX document. You might want to focus on the type of work done (experimental, analytical, numerical, model creation, etc.), what the main results are (at a very high level), and why the work is relevant to your project.

Step 5: Do a backwards and forwards search. For any paper you read that seems relevant, take a look at the references in the paper. You will need to evaluate each of these. If it seems relevant to your literature search based on the title and its context in the paper, then get the .pdf, put it in your bibliography, and apply Step 4. This is called a backwards reference search. Do we really mean that for all of your papers in Step 3, you need to read their bibliographies and consider each and every cited paper? Yes. Yes we do mean that. Then, again, for each of your papers in Step 3, look up that paper in Google Scholar and click on the “cited by” link to see papers that cite that paper. This is called a forwards reference search. In some cases, there may be too many papers appearing in the forwards search for you to process them all. Focus on highly cited papers and on very recent papers in the forwards reference search. For any of these results that seem relevant, apply Step 4 again.

Step 6: Do it all again… we are not even joking. From Step 5, you added a bunch of new papers to your database. You need to do a forward and backwards search on each of these. For realzies. Keep repeating this step until you cease getting relevant new papers. You might start finding the same papers over and over again, and if this is the case (and if everything else you are finding seems not relevant) then you are done.

This seems like a lot of work. It is. But it’s worth it. It will save you a lot of pain at the end of your project if you invest the time up front. Most importantly, you will learn a huge amount from doing it.

Posted in career advancement, General, Graduate School, Journals and Publications, Uncategorized | 3 Comments