Improving at Math Through Community

By Adam Dionne

Personally, I’ve found that there are two important ingredients to improvement: making goals and reflecting regularly. Goals are the more obvious component, since to improve you must be working towards something. But there is an important nuance in how you construct goals. Perhaps the ol’ reliable mnemonic serves best. Goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time based. None of these components can be understated, and all work towards preventing an all too common pitfall: setting yourself up for failure with nigh impossible goals. For math, understanding and avoiding this pitfall is essential. Some days you will solve all the problems you face and feel like a mathematical wizard. However, most days are spent being stuck, getting questions wrong, and seemingly making “no progress”. But as a detail oriented mathematician, you might retort and ask: how does one measure “progress”? It is natural, and even built into our education, to measure progress on problems solved and correct answers given. But in math, one can make a tremendous amount of progress while failing to solve a problem. Or, dare I say, getting a problem wrong. In fact, I would argue that is precisely when one makes the most progress. So, if you want to improve at math, I’d suggest constructing goals that embrace failure, getting questions wrong, and being stuck. But this is all a lot easier said than done. This mentality is difficult, to say the least, and is most difficult precisely when it is the most important. So, to remedy this, I suggest making use of a truly critical resource for anyone: community.

So, how do we incorporate these ideas into our community? Well, I suggest that we make goals together. I also suggest that we hold each other accountable for making realistic and healthy goals, as discussed. Importantly, these steps help change improvement to a community based activity, which serves many purposes. For one, it is hard to recognize your own improvement, since it is a gradual process that sneaks up on you. This makes it easy to gaslight yourself into thinking you haven’t improved. But, it is much easier to recognize a peer’s improvement. So, if you share your goals with others, you can recognize each other’s growth, and by proxy your own. Even more importantly, these suggestions build upon and strengthen the community.

Let’s move onto the second ingredient for improvement: reflection. I believe reflection is absolutely crucial to improvement. For without reflection, important lessons and growth are being wasted. For example, let’s say you put a lot of time into working on a problem but made a mistake along the way. That mistake is a clear place for improvement. One should think about why they made that mistake, and more than just the surface level — truly investigate the process of what led to that mistake, and why you didn’t catch it sooner. People do this automatically — it is a natural process — but not with enough depth. As problems get harder and mistakes more intricate, it is important to actually devote time to this process. To spend time thinking about how you can improve and what to focus on. Reflection is making your improvement intentional and actionable, rather than an accidental byproduct of work.
And to incorporate this into our community, we simply need to reflect together. Talk about what is working and what isn’t, discuss what improvements you made, and talk about what specific lessons you have learned. This also allows others to learn from your mistakes, one of a community’s most incredible values. It also, again, strengthens the community and helps make lasting connections. At the end of the day, math is a difficult subject, and making improvements is never easy. But sharing the burden with a friend, or a mentor, makes it all the more realistic. So, I’d like to amend my starting heuristic: to improve at math you need three key ingredients: goals, reflection, and community.

Adam Dionne

Biography: I am a Mathematics and Physics double major at Williams college. I’m interested in math formalism, extremal graph theory, soft matter physics, and networks. In my free time I liked to play board games and watch movies.

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A Conversation with the founders of Gxrls in STEM magazine

By Julianne Vega

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Avani Ahuja and Layla Dawit, two young women that started Gxrls in STEM, a magazine written for and by female and non-binary high school students I read about their impressive magazine back in May 2020 and decided to reach out to express my appreciation and desire to help in any way possible. In the conversation that follows you will see the incredible work that Avani and Layla have put into building an inclusive community that is focused on representation and STEM.

Julie: It is nice to see both of you again. To start off would you like to introduce yourselves and talk about how you met?

Layla: My name is Layla Dawit and I am a junior at Sidwell Friends School (SFS).

Avani: I am Avani Ahuja and I am also a junior at Georgetown Day School (GDS).

L: Avani and I met in 7th grade during the MATHCOUNTS competition. That year, Avani and I were part of the first all-girls team representing D.C. at the national level. We became friends during that time and also went to nationals together in 8th grade.

J: As part of your introduction would you also like to talk a little about what sort of math and science topics you are interested in?

A: Sure. I really like math. I have gone to a lot of math competitions and taken advanced math courses at my school. Last year, as I was taking AP physics I realized that I was much more interested in the applications of math, rather than the technicalities, which is why I’m thinking about completing a degree in engineering. In particular, I’m thinking about pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering or a field related to robotics. I especially like the way that engineering combines a lot of different fields. As a mechanical engineer you learn math, physics, computer science, and biology (if you want to apply it to medicine.) I like the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

L: I also love math. Like Avani, I have taken a lot of advanced math courses and gone to competitions throughout middle and high school. I am also really interested in medicine. I have been exploring biology throughout high school. I have even presented research that I have conducted at biology conferences through organizations such as Society for Developmental Biology and the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biologists Organization. So, I have been doing a lot of that. I am interested in finding ways to combine math and biology in everything I do.

J: You said you were presenting research you conducted. Can you tell me more?

L: I did some research on the effects of temperature on zebrafish tail fin regeneration. It was a fun experiment! We started by measuring the area of zebrafish tail fins with a program called ImageJ. We then carefully amputated their tail fins. We put them in tanks with 3 different temperatures and measured the regeneration speeds over time.

J: Very interesting, I would love to know the results. How did you get involved in that research?

L: At Sidwell my biology teacher has a zebrafish system that we are able to do experiments with if we would like. We can also present at conferences. It was optional, but something I was interested in. We had hypothesized that higher temperatures would speed up enzyme reactions in the FGF signaling pathway which causes tissue regrowth. Our results supported this. The fish in higher temperature tanks experienced faster regrowth.

J: That is a great opportunity there. It is nice that you are able to do that. Switching gears a bit, can you tell us about the magazine you created? [Note: When Avani and Layla use the term gxrls (womxn) to refer to girls (women) and non-binary individuals.]

A: The magazine is a publication that comes out about 3 times a year and features written articles, original illustrations, crosswords, meme pages, and interviews with womxn in STEM. The magazine was specifically created to target issues of isolation and exclusion among high school gxrls interested in STEM. A lot of gxrls feel isolated in their interest in STEM, especially in the D.C. area where the private schools are very humanities based, so we wanted to create a place for gxrls to come together and collaborate. This project would give them a community that they can rely on, which is especially useful if they are one of the few gxrls in an advanced math class. Building community is one way that our magazine is trying to solve the feeling of isolation. To address exclusion and lack of representation, we focus on interviewing a diverse group of womxn in STEM because when you don’t see yourself represented in a field, you are less likely to go into it. Showing gxrls interested in STEM that there are womxn that are in the field who are pursuing successful careers shows it is possible to accomplish all these things starting where they are at right now. To us, this is a pretty critical part of the magazine.

J: This next question ties in with what you are saying. How did you choose the title “Gxrls in STEM”? 

L: It is definitely on the same theme of isolation and exclusion. We wanted to make the magazine as inclusive as possible, so we included gxrls so that students that are non-binary also feel welcome.

A: Layla at one point suggested “The Lioness,” which I liked. I thought that could have been a good title. Then we went to “non-men in STEM” but that didn’t sound right. It sounded like we were excluding males which was not the intention. We really wanted to include non-binary individuals. When I was looking for a term that included girls and non-binary individuals I found “gxrls.” I also feel like gxrls is being used more frequently now than just a few years ago.

J: What does it actually take to start a magazine? How did you get everything moving and where did the support come from?

A: A lot of support came from the school and from people involved in previous magazines. Our schools have a pretty good infrastructure for starting clubs. I met with a biology teacher and said, “hey I want to start this” which led to a meeting with the Dean of Students. Then, I followed a pretty typical club procedure:
1. Send an email to the whole school;
2. See who shows up to the first meeting;
3. Give presentation to the student body;
4. See how they respond and try to loop people in.
The first issue definitely had a lot of challenges, but once we got through that first issue things became smoother.

L: On the Sidwell side, everyone was really excited. My classmates were very enthusiastic about the magazine, and we received support and advice from our communications director, Ms. Hom-Diamond, as well as from our Dean of Students and Principal. We also received help from Noor Amin, a Sidwell alumni in the class of 2019. She was the head of an inter-school diversity magazine and used InDesign so she was able to give us instructions on how to do the layout. Overall, we had to learn a lot of different things to start the magazine. The whole printing process was new to us. Layout, publishing, budgeting were all things that we had to take into account. We also learned organizational skills like how to network, set and meet deadlines, and communicate with writers.

J: Avani, when you were talking you mentioned you sent out a first email about interest. I was curious, in that first round, how many people actually showed up? How many writers were there?

A: At the GDS club fair, I had a poster and a sign-up sheet and I basically attempted to have every person that I remotely knew stop by so I could try to convince them to join. If they weren’t interested in writing, I tried to see if they wanted to do layout, art, graphic design, type titles, or anything else. I also borrowed some cupcakes from GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance) to try and recruit more people that way. I got about 50 people just from the fair, but of course not all of them showed up to the follow up meetings. In the first meeting it was primarily just my friends, maybe 12 people. There were about 5-6 gxrls in the first meeting that knew what they wanted to write about and a lot of the people that showed up to the first meeting are also the ones that stuck with the magazine.

J: That says a lot. It means that they really enjoy the process.

A: Yes, and they have become more involved as editors and writers.

L: I have had a similar experience; except I didn’t steal anyone’s cupcakes. I think overall it has been nice to see the magazine growing. Avani and I started just by working with GDS and Sidwell, but now we have grown to 11 schools internationally.

J: You are international now! Congratulations! Where are your writers from?

A: The list of countries includes US, India, Ethiopia, UK, and Australia.

J: So you are all over the place. Are those all friends and acquaintances?

A: Some are friends that my friends contacted.

J: So you are now at the second level of networking. You reached out and now your contacts are reaching out. That’s wonderful.

A: Yes – because of our extensive network we have a very comprehensive issue on mental health.

L: We have a lot of perspectives from different backgrounds.

A: The magazine in a place like GDS and Sidwell is a very interesting niche in that it requires you to be interested in STEM, passionate about STEM, and also a good writer. This poses some challenges for people that were interested in STEM but didn’t want to write. I tend to give those students editing roles. There are also a lot of people who like to write and talk about politics, for example, but to find the people that were interested in both writing and STEM was a unique challenge at the start.

J: It definitely helps that there are so many ways to help with the magazine.

L: We don’t want to make STEM scary. We wanted to make the magazine welcoming. That is really what it is all about. That is why we have artwork and jokes and different ways to contribute. We want people to bring their talents to the magazine.

J: There is so much more to building a community than just math problems. I think that is a really strong part of this magazine. You have ways for people to bring in their different talents and connect those talents to STEM. So, how do the writers decide what to write about?

L: Writers can write about anything that they are interested in that is STEM related. Since STEM is related to so many other fields, the articles often overlap with other fields. We try to have a spotlight in each issue that most of the articles are about, but you are not bound by the spotlight. If you would like to write about something, we invite you to write about whatever interests you.

J: What do you see as important about this work?

A: It is really rewarding on a personal level, especially since we are passing down our passion to younger gxrls and onto our friends that possibly suffered in higher level math classes. Also, considering that other gxrls may have better experiences than I did because of this magazine is really powerful. It shows that high schoolers can conduct a lot of advocacy on their own. It is yet another example of one of the many youth initiatives that we have seen in the past years and it shows we can help ourselves and advocate for ourselves in our own community.

L: Community is really at the center of the magazine. The fact that both of us really love math and science and that we can build a community at the high school level has been great. The interviews that we do with womxn professionals are really important to provide role models and, within the magazine, it gives our writers the chance to meet professionals.

A: Just to add one more thing, I have always felt like I have a certain kind of privilege in the sense that I have parents that are both in STEM. I knew that no matter what the situation, I would always have support from my parents and from the all-girls MATHCOUNTS team. I had so much fun in 7th grade. I recognize that not all girls and non-binary students have that support system. In one way, we provide that support system to everyone involved in the magazine and that is really important to us.

J: That really resonates with me. When I was younger, I was not that great at math and would never join a math or science competition, but I liked math. This type of organization I would have definitely joined. So, how do you plan to expand your efforts?

L: We plan on building a website to get the word out, and we are also continuing word of mouth outreach. Also, the presentation you gave at Joint Math Meetings and articles such as this one and the ones GDS and Sidwell wrote help get the word out.

J: From your perspective, how welcoming does the scientific community appear or feel?

A: To me, it feels welcoming. The level of education that is required to become a part of it can seem intimidating from a high schooler’s standpoint though. Going to grad school is something that you should do to do active research in science and engineering, but getting a Ph.D. degree is hard. I also think part of it is.…. Well, my mom works in academia and my dad in industry so I hear both sides of it and; particularly in academia, there is a little bit of a toxic work environment, especially in some places, and that seems to be a really hard part of the process. For example, you may have a bad advisor or mentor and get stuck working on your dissertation for a long time without any fault of your own. That process seems intimidating, but can also be really rewarding. I think I have to be mentally prepared to be one of the only girls in an engineering program, because engineering is particularly unbalanced in terms of gender. At the same time, this has forced me to be more aggressive and confident in different situations. I have to be extra confident to make my voice heard.

L: I agree that the womxn I have met seem really welcoming and it seems like it is really nice to be in STEM. It is just when I hear about the gender gap or the statistics, I think about being one of the only girls in the program. It seems daunting….It could also be exciting to push through that and not let that stop you. I guess there is a difference between my personal experience and the statistics that I hear.

A: One of my biggest concerns about undergraduate programs is that my teachers will not be providing the same support as I have now.

J: You can find support, but you have to look for it. I chose my schools, both undergrad and graduate, because I could tell that the students were community-based and I could tell when I talked to the professors they actually thought about how students learn. You can definitely find those schools and professors.

J: So, how can scientists and mathematicians help support and encourage young women and non-binary students to build a welcoming STEM community and to study STEM? What can we be doing on our end to help students like you?

A: I think what you are doing is a good example of what professors, teachers, and mentors could be doing. Sometimes it is hard to figure out who to reach out to as a high schooler. It’s like “where do I even start?” That is the reason why reaching out to high schoolers is really important. Also, there is a little bit of a gap in STEM between research being done, what is communicated to the public, and what is communicated to high schoolers. It is important for high schoolers to be exposed at an earlier age to what research looks like, which would draw an important bridge between research and what we are learning in school. Research to me is one of the most appealing parts of science. You get to explore new problems and figure out solutions. Specifically, in regard to female and non-binary students, connecting female and non-binary students in class can be helpful. Creating a connection outside of class between those individuals, if they feel isolated, could really help evoke a collective enthusiasm for STEM.

L: I agree. Avani pretty much covered it but just to highlight some of the things she said: Classroom environment and having mentors that you can look up to and that you communicate with are really important. It is especially difficult to connect with college professors or to reach out to other teachers you don’t know, so getting to know students and creating that welcoming environment is great.

J: Last question: What message would you like to send along to the math community about the next generation of mathematicians? What can we expect?

L: We are very motivated. People around my age really want to learn and are really interested in the topics that we are learning about. We come up with creative solutions to math problems, and this out-of-the-box thinking will help us in the future. Also, a lot of people get stressed over school work and get really anxious about conceptual things.

A: I would also point out another statistic. A lot more people are participating in competitions. The math community should expect that students are already being exposed to problem solving skills and expect them to be ready to be pushed to new heights. Push them and challenge them in various ways to put those problem-solving skills to use. That is going to be really valuable.

J: Wonderful, I look forward to meeting the next generation! I suppose that concludes our lovely conversation. As always it was a joy talking with both of you.

L: It was great talking with you as well.

Gxrls in STEM magazine was recently recognized as a Crown finalist (out of 841 publications) by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. This award is “the highest recognition given to student print or digital medium for overall excellence.” To see a copy of the first three issues click here.

Avani and Layla plan to have a virtual meet and greet between women and non-binary mathematicians and scientists and the Gxrls in STEM writers in April. If you are interested in being one of the women or non-binary scientists or know someone who is interested; or if you want to learn more about Gxrls in STEM please send me an email, jvega30@kennesaw.edu. Also, I would be happy to get you in touch with Avani and Layla.

Julianne Vega

Biography. Julianne Vega is an Assistant Professor at Kennesaw State University and an MAA Project Next (Brown ‘20) fellow. Her mission is to cultivate a community of compassion and empowerment, a place in which everyone is growing together.

Contact info: jvega30@kennesaw.edu

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Building an online academic profile begins with your website

Student authors: Kimberly Hadaway and Peter Hollander, Faculty author: Pamela E. Harris

Most mathematicians wait until close to completing their PhD to create their academic websites, but starting sooner can really pay dividends, especially for students looking to find new academic opportunities. Luckily, there are many accessible (very often free!) sites that facilitate website creation, thereby providing an opportunity for younger mathematicians to begin building their academic profile and creating and sharing their own academic profiles. Below, we describe some common questions about why academic websites are needed, and we also provide some tips on how to start building your first website.

Why do you need a website?

PH: As a faculty member, I have been working on inviting younger mathematicians to mathematics research programs and even for mentoring opportunities. As I organize more events, I run into the same roadblock: finding little to no information about a student who someone has recommended. I mostly learn about students through their faculty mentors and professors as I post an opportunity on social media and request that my math family share who they might know that fits the description and targeted audience of the program. I always get fast responses and names of potential participants. With a recommendation at hand, I quickly move to try to find further information about them. My default is to do a quick search to see if they might have a website where I can learn about their academic journey, and mathematics background and interests. Yet, I find that very few students actually have an academic online presence. The point here is that often these opportunities arise, and without a way for people to learn about you, professors might not have the time or even feel comfortable reaching out directly to ask for information in order to determine if this is the right opportunity for you. 

I can already hear that it might feel very challenging to start a website and that students, in particular those who are currently undergraduates, might think they don’t have enough information to populate a website. The truth is that by having taken mathematics classes, you already have enough to start at least the first page of a website. However, I understand the hesitation that prevents students from getting started in this task. To put this into practice, let us hear from Kimberly Hadaway and Peter Hollander as they share initial thoughts when I, as their thesis advisor, tasked them to create their first academic website.

Kimberly: I was hesitant about making a website, but my lovely thesis advisor suggested that I make one anyway. I spent a while on it so that I could feel as proud as I do when I direct people to it to learn more about me. My website is now “complete,” which means that it is good enough to be shared with the world, because I will continue to update it as I grow. Within a month, I have shared my website link in my email signature, at conferences, in graduate school applications, and people are always super impressed because this “simple” act makes me look so put together. (Not to gloat, but my website looks absolutely amazing, so feel free to check it out for some inspiration.) 

Peter: If you want to really put yourself out there, a website is the way to do it. Think about it this way––you wouldn’t attach your CV to every email you send, as it just isn’t professional to do so, but how else do you share information about yourself with others? I’ve linked my website at the bottom of my email signature so that now, every person I email has a chance to look through my work and learn a bit more about me. What’s more, the information on my website spans much more broadly than just a CV, so sharing a website allows me the freedom to share anything else I want with my peers and future employers.

Just like Kimberly and Peter felt that initial hesitation, the key insight was to not let that prevent you from getting started. Now that we have those emotions out of the way, let us start with some pragmatic advice stemming from the lessons Kimberly and Peter learned as they created their websites.

Platforms to make your website

Our personal favorite platform is Google Sites, because it is completely free and relatively easy to use while maintaining a clean and crisp look. An additional benefit is that you can pay for your domain name1 if you so desire. When choosing a website template among the numerous provided, we recommend focusing on a design that you actually like and that allows you to quickly and easily update your information.

There are many other website creation platforms and services, such as Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly, which offer free versions of their products with limited functionality yet work very well for those creating their first academic website. The benefits of these services is that, if you want to later, you can upgrade to premium subscriptions and unlock additional features. These vary greatly from service to service, but they are definitely worth looking into as they include calendar synchronization, contact forms, and many other features.  

What to put on your website

Your website’s primary purpose is to allow others to easily learn about you. After reading through your website, readers should feel like they have a decent idea of who you are, your mathematical interests, and your relevant academic experience. If you also convince your site visitors that you are amiable and would work well with them, you have earned a few extra credit points. 

Regarding general content, your website should contain a biography (in which you may list things like your year in school and mathematical interests) and your CV or resume (but not both). We also recommend including (at least) one photo of yourself, your contact information, and, of course, your relevant experience. Possible relevant experience could be any research publications (or REU/research experience), teaching experience, and any other experience which you believe is germane to the goals of your website. Remember to include courses you have taken and even a short description of the type of mathematics you have found the most enjoyable. 

Spacing of information within a website is important to readers; whenever possible, do spread out your information over multiple pages, each serving a unique purpose. For example, if you want to talk more about your mathematics thesis and your experience working as a TA, instead of putting both subjects on a single page you should create one page titled “Research Experience” and another titled “Teaching Experience.” This way, readers know what sort of content to expect based on the title of each page, and they are encouraged to learn more about you without encountering overwhelmingly long walls of text. You should also be careful to use a clear font and not include too much text. Only say what you need to say to not bore or confuse the reader. After all, if what they see interests them, they can always reach out to you to talk more or to inquire further. 

Lastly, we want to stress the importance of including a small bit of (fun) personal information––something that makes you a strong mathematician and a cool person. This can be as little as one sentence at the end of your bio, and it can do a lot to make you more of a well-rounded person rather than just a researcher or a student. If you enjoy baking cakes, or sewing quilts, or reading books, or playing volleyball, feel free to add such information under your biography. We are full humans with broad interests, but do remember this is an academic website so you do want to be careful not to turn your new academic website into your social media hub.  

Designing your website

Take a moment to think about good websites and not-so-good websites you have seen. In fact, we encourage you to visit your own professors’ websites and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are common aspects you see in these websites? What is prominently displayed in banners?  This will help you determine if your website has all the things that you would want to see based on a website that you like to use or think highly of. Do be cautious of your feelings. You are not visiting these websites to compare your current work to that of someone who likely has curated their website for years. It is just an exercise to gather some initial information that you could implement in your own design.
  • What makes these websites stand out? What are positive and negative features of the website? This helps you determine if one template might be better than another. It can also help you determine what you want to avoid or mimic in your own website.
  • How is the layout of the contect formatted? Are there many images? How do they utilize links? Answers to these questions allow you to think about the user experience as people visit your website. We recommend you start out small and make incremental changes as you further edit your website. 

With respect to designing, use one or two easy-to-read fonts, spread out your information, choose one accent color. With respect to “professionalism,” first impressions are (unfortunately) important, so do express yourself all while maintaining an appearance of a motivated, friendly, respectful, and competent individual. If you are not sure about whether something should go on your website, ask your professors or your mentor or the career center at your institution! 

Parting thoughts

If you were under the impression that you needed to be a professor before you could even consider building your own academic website, then we hope by now you have changed your mind and that you agree that you need your own website right now. 

Remember, your website is a living document reflecting your journey through academia. Your website is a place to unabashedly brag about yourself and your accomplishments. Your website is a place for others to learn more about you as a scholar and, more importantly, as a person. Your website can reflect a holistic version of yourself that others may not know, including matching a face to a name. Your website can start out small, and you should not let perfection be the enemy of starting your website. So, just get out of your comfort zone, and begin building your academic profile already! 

Biographies:

Kimberly Hadaway

Kimberly is a senior undergraduate Mathematics and Chemistry double major at Williams College, and she will be attending graduate school in Fall 2021 to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics. She aspires to work as a mathematician, increasing representation for other black women in mathematics and sharing the beauty and fun associated with the field. Besides mathematics, Kimberly has a passion for all kinds of art: bullet journaling, quilting, watercolor painting, and more.

 

Peter Hollander

Peter is a senior Mathematics major at Williams College. He is also a four-year member of the Williams Crew team and an avid runner, cyclist, and rock climber. He will be attending graduate school in Fall 2021, pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics, his ultimate goal being to teach and research mathematics.

 


[1] A domain name is just the main part of your website hyperlink. You might want your domain name to be your name; for example, if your name is “First M. Last,” you could make your domain name “www.firstmlast.com” so people could easily find you!

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Supporting math majors and grad students in the time of pandemic

By panelists Giovanny Marquez and Lucy Martinez, and moderator Pamela E. Harris

The 2021 Joint Math Meetings (JMM) conference included a special session organized by Dr. Katherine Stevenson, chair of the AMS Committee on Education. The program of this special session included presentations by Dr. Viveka Brown and Dr. Tasha R. Inniss. In her presentation “Ways to Build Community for Students in a Virtual Classroom”, Dr. Brown shared methods and techniques to build community in an online classroom environment. She suggested continuing to build a growth mindset virtually and provided collaborative learning ideas that professors could implement in their remote teaching. In her presentation “Re-Innovating Training and Support of Math Majors”, Dr. Inniss discussed the effective preparation of math majors which involves a recognition of the needs of students as whole persons, particularly during crises such as the current COVID pandemic and also in addressing systemic racism. The two presentations were followed by a panel discussion by Giovanny Marquez, Lucy Martinez, and Becky Tang surrounding the question: What can we do to support math majors and grad students in the time of pandemic?” In the panel, Giovanny, Becky, and Lucy shared their experiences as undergraduate and graduate students learning within the virtual environment.

In this blog, Giovanny and Lucy share with the math community their responses to questions received during the panel and their advice on how to best help students continue learning and engaging in their mathematics courses as we near the one year mark since the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic. We point out that students provided some advice in May 2020 about their initial feedback on supporting student learning when the pandemic began and that can be read here.

What follows is part of written responses given by Giovanny and Lucy to the questions presented during the panel.

Dr. Harris: What do you wish your professor knew about your current experience with remote learning and living during this pandemic?

Giovanny: The difficulty in school/life balance being at home. Many students went back home when everything was moved online, and extra responsibilities came with it. I personally drove my mom to and back from work while living at home to help when covid-19 first began for a quarter. I know people that helped take care of younger siblings, helped parents with work (cleaning houses), and others. These added responsibilities make it challenging to find a schedule/routine that feels fluid while at home for school.

Lucy: There are some students who do not have a designated space to attend online classes. In my experience, I live in a small apartment with two siblings who also have online classes. It was hard to focus on my classes and homework when everyone was around. There are other reasons that students cannot focus while at home. As a recommendation, it is helpful to have recorded lectures so that we can watch it at our own pace.

Dr. Harris: As a student, what do you need from your institution and your mentors during this time? What about logistical needs: Equipment, WIFI, scheduling?

Lucy: There are students who do not own a computer. Other students need devices for audio so that they interact with professors. However, they may be shy to ask for equipment. It would be better if professors had a survey before classes begin to find out if anyone needs any equipment.

Giovanny: A tablet would be helpful. It can be difficult to get across questions with just words, especially in math. Using a digital whiteboard is helpful but it only works best when a touch screen device is owned. Also, uploading class lectures to be viewed later can help with schedule conflicts, or if you want to write notes and can’t keep up with how quick the lecture is moving during a zoom call.

Dr. Harris: Emotionally speaking, how do you stay connected and supported? If you are feeling isolated, what structures might help?

Lucy: If I felt isolated, I would reach out to friends and professors. I think professors and students should both arrange a social event once in a while instead of class to get to know everyone. Another recommendation is to have the first five minutes of class to say hi or welcome students with cheerful music. It is hard to feel supported if you just attend class every other day via zoom and then do homework and repeat the same cycle over and over again. Something important to remember is to take care of our mental health. I hope that every university offers services for students who need counseling. When I was struggling mentally, I seeked out counseling services. My institution offered phone calls and I was lucky to receive a phone call every week from my counselor. It is crucial to prioritize mental health because it affects the way we live our daily lives.

Giovanny: Being available and understanding. The main thing I noticed was that I had to not be shy about asking for help. This can be difficult especially when students know that professors are bombarded with tons of emails daily. Oftentimes, students don’t want to come off as whiny or needy, but it is important to air out difficulties going on. A recommendation is to have specific platforms to get messages from your class go to a specific spot so that you get only messages from students directly to the designated space. A few professors use apps like Discord, Slack and others to have each class with its own way of communicating with the students. Sometimes research meetings became talks to air out concerns/issues that were going on and that was okay. Reaching out more than usual was needed to talk with friends and check in to make sure others were okay.

Dr. Harris: As a tutor or teaching assistant, what do you need from your institution and your mentors during this time? What about logistical needs: Equipment, WIFI, scheduling?

Giovanny: A device such as a drawing tablet to portray what you are tutoring. It feels more natural to do problems and explain as you do them to teach others than having to write down solutions beforehand and explaining line by line.

Lucy: Some other devices besides a drawing tablet may include headphones or even a computer. At the beginning of the pandemic, I did not have a drawing tablet, I had to use the touchpad of my computer whenever I worked with students. However, I was brave enough to talk about it with my professor who helped me by lending her drawing tablet to me.

Dr. Harris: Emotionally speaking, do you know how to support a diverse group of students? Have you worried about how to help those that are most vulnerable?

Lucy: As a tutor, I have worried about certain students. I worry for freshmen students who are first generation and do not have the support needed at home that they usually find on campus. Last fall semester, those students did not have the emotional support and motivation when classes were held in person. I worry about students who do not have a mentor in their college career due to the current limitations. Having a mentor is important to have for extra support.

Giovanny: With everything online, it feels harder to see diversity as much. Classes are just names on a screen. During these times, I think it is important to reach out to students who are falling behind in class and provide solutions to help them. This transition to online learning is difficult for everyone and TAs/professors need to be more proactive to identify those that might need help.

Panelist Biographies:


Giovanny is currently a graduate student at the University of California Santa Cruz. He is studying applied mathematics particularly math bio. Other mathematical interests include modeling, machine learning and control theory. He has been a part of programs which focus on helping minority students in STEM as both a student and mentor. He hopes to continue to work in such programs as he continues to pursue his degree. Photo Credit: Ana Marquez.

Lucy is a senior undergraduate at Stockton University in New Jersey. She is majoring in mathematics and will attend graduate school in the fall 2021 to pursue a PhD in mathematics. Her future goals include working as a mathematician, collaborating with undergraduates on research projects and strengthening representation for Hispanic women in mathematics. Besides mathematics, Lucy has a passion for Amazon parrots which are intelligent and sociable birds.  Photo credit: Nicole Manno.

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Uncategorized, Undegraduates, work life balance | Leave a comment

Advice for Applying to REU Programs (From Recent Participants!)

By Alvaro Carbonero, Brittany Gelb, Amaury Miniño, Vanessa Sun, and Lee Trent

Introduction

What is an REU? REU stands for “Research Experience for Undergraduates.” REU’s are typically 6-10 week long summer programs hosted at colleges or universities. To be officially considered an REU, the program generally has funding from the National Science Foundation or the National Security Agency, but there are other research programs that are very similar which are supported through other funding sources. REU’s invite undergraduate students to apply to their program to spend the summer at their college or university (although the pandemic has changed this) and work on an individual or group research project advised by mathematicians with research and mentoring experience Undergraduates are paid to participate in these programs, and are typically housed on campus or nearby (with the costs often covered by the program directly). The faculty members will have carefully selected and curated problems that they believe are accessible to undergraduates and they provide the necessary background. If an REU would be your first research experience, not to worry, that’s what they’re designed to be and your REU advisor will know how to support and mentor you!

The authors of this blog post have successfully applied to REU programs in the recent past and some of us have been involved in multiple REU’s or other similar summer programs. In fact, we recently organized the Online Undergraduate Resource Fair for the Advancement in Academia of Marginalized Mathematicians (OURFA2M2) to bring together faculty representatives of undergraduate career-advancement opportunities, students who have recently participated in such programs, mathematicians whose career trajectories were impacted by such programs, and others within the mathematics community to discuss and share resources related to these opportunities. Given our experiences along with the information we learned from our conference participants, we now share some advice with those applying to an REU.

First piece of advice: You should NOT rule yourself out from applying to REUs.

We truly believe that the only failure is the failure to try. There are a myriad of reasons that we or people we know considered not applying to REU programs. These include:

  • You never participated or succeeded in a math competition.
  • You have only completed a few math classes or have not taken many (or any) upper-division mathematics classes.
  • You have never done research before or don’t know what the research process in mathematics entails.
  • You don’t know anybody from your school who has gone to an REU program.
  • Your school is not nationally recognized for their math department.
  • Your overall GPA is not high.
  • You don’t feel confident in your mathematical abilities.
  • You believe you will be rejected (for any reason above or others).

If you have considered not applying to REU programs for one of these reasons, we want you to know that there have been many successful applicants in your shoes before (including us) so you can and should apply!

Finding an REU

Here is a presentation from our conference, OURFA2M2, that includes information on how to find REU’s and other research programs. Past eMentoring Network blogs also provide a list of REUs aimed at first and second year undergraduates. You can find that blog here. When you visit an REU program’s website you’ll likely find descriptions of the individual project topics they are planning for the upcoming summer. We encourage you to be willing to work in areas of mathematics that you may not have much background in. What’s perhaps most important is that you choose a topic you find interesting, so that if progress is especially slow or difficult you are still fueled by your interest in the topic of investigation.

Selecting programs

When we asked our fellow recent REU participants about application advice to share with you, one recommendation was repeated multiple times: Start as early as possible and be organized. You can use a spreadsheet to keep track of your applications, with columns for due dates and each individual piece of the application. Likely you will need a personal statement, two letters of recommendation, and a CV/resume. A past eMentoring Network Blog contains advice on asking for letters of recommendation, which you can find here. You can note down when parts of the application are completed and submitted and which you still have to finish.

Another piece of advice that was emphasized is that fit is very important. It should be possible to tell from the REU website what the target audience is in terms of mathematical experience. Ask yourself what you want to gain from an REU and make sure that the programs where you apply align with those goals. You should be excited to join the program, even if the research area is largely unfamiliar to you. If in doubt of whether a particular program might be the best suited for your goals, speaking with a trusted mentor could be very helpful.

REU programs are highly competitive and you should apply to several programs to maximize your chances of an acceptance. Most students apply to around 10-15 programs, and at least 8 is reasonable. Because these programs are competitive, it’s wise to apply to a wide range of opportunities, like counselorships, internships, and research programs that are not REU’s — Some alternatives are provided in the presentation linked here.

Advice on application materials

After selecting the programs that you will apply to, you will have to start working on the application materials they require. Here we provide advice about some of the most common application materials.

Personal Statement

In the personal statement, you should demonstrate the skills and experiences you have that would make you a successful participant in this research program. These skills do not necessarily need to come from previous mathematics research experiences. Depending on whether the proposed REU projects are individual or collaborative, you can talk about experiences you’ve had working independently or on a team. For example, maybe you have persevered to solve a particular problem or understand the material from a challenging class, or you have developed collaboration skills by working on homework or projects with other students. Articulating your interest in a specific project offered by the REU can be beneficial. For example, did you take a class related to the research area? If so, what did you enjoy about it? Did you listen to a lecture on the topic that caught your interest? One of us knew nothing about graph theory beyond an hour-long research talk she attended, but she made connections between the visual nature of the subject and how she generally enjoyed visual mathematical problems.

Be sure to detail why you are applying to an REU and why you want to do research. Do you want to figure out if a research career is right for you? Do you want experience in one specific field to decide if you like it and would potentially pursue that area in graduate school? Do you already find the subject fascinating? If so, why?

Do not forget to personalize your statements to each of the programs you are applying to — we know that this means you will have to work longer on your materials and we believe this will lead to a more favorable outcome. Explain what you expect to get out of that specific program and why and how you will benefit from those experiences. Additionally, be sure to speak about why you and the program you’re applying to will mutually benefit each other. This means that you should speak about how you will be an asset to the program. What experiences, interests, personality traits, technical or “soft” skills, or combinations thereof do you have that make you a uniquely qualified person that they definitely want on their team? As we stated previously, these experiences don’t need to have come from previous research experiences. For example, many university classes ask students to do a final project or a presentation. What did you learn while doing it that would benefit an REU team?

In the personal statement, you can discuss any challenges or barriers that have influenced your academic journey and the opportunities you have had access to. For example, are you a first generation college student, or do you come from a low-income family? If appropriate, mention that research opportunities are limited at your home institution, as likely this makes you the target audience of many REU programs. You can also discuss how aspects of your identity and life tie into your mathematical journey, and how an REU might help you overcome challenges or barriers.

Lastly, have multiple people review your writing if you can. You can ask professors, mentors, friends, and past summer program participants to provide feedback on your personal statement. Different people will have different perspectives, and it is generally helpful to clarify what feedback you are looking for, such as typos, grammar, organization, style, or content. Ask people who know you well to edit, as they know your strengths (and weaknesses) and which of your past experiences you can use to make the most compelling case that you are a good candidate for the program you’re applying to. Many universities also have resources to help you create applications, such as career centers and writing centers. We encourage you to make use of those offices and the resources they provide.

Supplemental application materials

Some programs ask for the answers to multiple specific questions. If the application also requires your personal statement, see this as an opportunity to be more specific about why you should be selected to participate in the program. Even if you feel you answered a question in your personal statement, don’t answer a question with, “see my personal statement,” follow the directions and include the information they ask for in the places they ask for it. Of course, do make your best effort to take these questions seriously and your answers should also implement feedback if at a minimum for grammar and typos.
Some applications ask you to mention your favorite mathematical theorem or concept. Such questions are there to gauge your interest in math and your ability to communicate about math, not to pick an impressive theorem or to prove that you have specialized knowledge. It’s okay to speak about something complicated if it’s something you’re interested in but don’t understand well — as long as you are honest about your level of understanding. You could also talk about what you are intrigued by and what new theorems or concepts you hope to learn in your coming courses. We encourage you to not try to appear more knowledgeable than you are. Be honest and genuine.

Recommendation Letters

When you apply to an REU, you will likely need to ask college professors for recommendation letters for the first time. You should ask professors who know about your mathematical ability, work ethic, ability to collaborate with other students, perseverance, intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm for learning, and/or personality to write your recommendation letters. If you’re reading this well in advance of when you first plan to apply to programs, start thinking about building those relationships with your professors. Most programs require at least one letter from a mathematics professor.

Tell your recommenders the different programs and their deadlines. Give them plenty of time — at a minimum a few weeks. You should consider having a draft of your application materials ready before or soon after you ask, since these can be helpful documents for your recommenders. Sometimes a recommender will request that you share these materials with them before they write the letter, but if they don’t, you may offer it anyway. Just as you tailor your personal statements to particular programs, consider using different recommenders for different programs. If you have multiple strong relationships with recommenders, you can match your recommenders to programs by their professional connections or research interests. If not, though, that’s okay, too! Remember that finding good recommendation letter writers may not always be an easy task. It can be hard to establish healthy and close professional relationships with professors.

The presentation we linked in the beginning of this blog post has an entire section (Networking/Mentoring) with advice that can help you establish good relationships with potential recommendation letter writers. We emphasize that this needs to be done with ample time so as to be able to request the letter in time for your application deadlines.

CV/Resume

There is already much advice on the internet about putting together an effective CV or resume. Career centers at colleges and universities can often provide templates, advice, and feedback. Consider tailoring your CV to emphasize skills or subjects you think will most appeal to each program. Here we provide copies of our current CVs as examples.

Submission

When creating your materials, be sure to be consistent with your formatting. Font type/size, paper margins, writing style, etc., should be consistent for everything that you submit. Even though you must submit multiple files, think about them as part of one application package which will be viewed together and should look like they belong together. Include your name and the program you’re applying to on each document, and be consistent in how you name files. One naming convention we recommend is to include your name and the document type: LastName_CV, LastName_transcript, LastName_personal_statement, etc.

To reiterate the earlier advice, start your applications early enough so that you can submit on time. If you are late, do request an extension, especially if you can articulate a specific reason for the delay. However, note that even though some programs may not grant extensions as they are highly competitive, moving from guess culture to ask culture can be beneficial as you learn to advocate for yourself within math spaces. Also, if you do not have the full application materials at the ready, offer to share the materials you do have prepared with them so they can begin looking over your application while you finish the rest.

Be aware of the deadline for your letter writers (which may be different from the application deadline) and feel free to check in with them about whether they’ve submitted. Sending a short email with a friendly reminder of upcoming deadlines a few days in advance is often very welcomed by professors. In most cases, you should receive confirmation that your application or letters of recommendation were received. Feel free to ask for confirmation if you don’t receive it automatically.


Accepting an offer

If you’re accepted to a program and it is not your top choice, you can contact the directors of the other programs to inquire about your application’s status. Once you have an offer from an REU, we highly recommend scheduling a meeting (either via a phone call or video call) with your potential REU mentor to determine if the program is a good fit. If such a meeting is not offered with the acceptance letter, know that it is very normal to ask. We think that this bank of REU/grad fair questions is a good starting point for questions you can ask during that meeting. Don’t forget to learn about the living/housing situation of the program, since this can have a lot of impact on your personal wellbeing, and you need to be happy and well to do good research. With this in mind, here are some additional questions you can ask: Will REU participants live together in a house or in dorms? Can students access the gym? Are there restaurants nearby? Is there a quiet place where you can practice your musical instrument? Does the program have activities to provide social interactions among participants and to build community? Alternatively, if the program is fully online, you should ask questions relating to your participation virtually. For example, you could ask: Will the program supply needed technology? Will the program be flexible with your schedule given that others within your household share internet/devices?

If you need it, you can also ask for extra time to make your final decision, particularly if you’re waiting on a decision from other programs. Some but not all REU programs are in agreement that you do not have to accept an offer before the Common Reply Date, which is typically on March 8th. It is courteous to other applicants and important to decline an offer as soon as you know you will not attend the program. Once you have accepted an offer, you should withdraw your remaining applications or immediately decline any other offers that you receive.

Preparing for the REU

Don’t stress! You generally won’t be expected to do much to prepare for the REU before it begins, but it’s a good idea to check with your REU project mentor if they have specific skills that you can work on or review before the program begins. It will be useful to know some LaTeX as you participate in an REU and, in fact, throughout your mathematical career. Your program may give you specific tasks to help you learn but if not, you can consider learning some on your own. We recommend using overleaf.com, which is a free LaTeX program online with many templates to get you started.

If you are rejected…

Some REU programs only send out acceptances and don’t send out rejections. This means you might not get an email from programs that are rejecting you. If you’re not sure about your status, you can ask. Remember that not everyone can get into their top choice, as most REU programs receive hundreds of applications. Do keep in mind that we know of many successful students with bright mathematical careers ahead of them that never participated in an REU. If you are rejected, know that you are not alone. An REU rejection does not say anything about your future in mathematics! If you do not get into an REU this year, seek other opportunities and if possible, apply again next year. Your application will only get stronger with one additional year of math courses and experiences.

Acknowledgments: We are grateful to many people for their advice throughout our careers which has made this post possible, including the speakers at OURFA2M2 2020, the 2019 Lafayette College REU cohort, the 2019 and 2020 MSRI-UP cohorts, and many professors at our institutions and elsewhere.

Author biographies:

Alvaro Carbonero is an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has participated in the REU programs at Lafayette College and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Brittany Gelb is an undergraduate at Muhlenberg College. She has participated in the REU programs at Lafayette College and DIMACS.

Amaury Miniño is a first-year PhD student at Colorado State University. He graduated from Florida Atlantic University and has participated in the F-LEARN program and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP).

Vanessa Sun is an undergraduate at Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY). She participated in the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP).

Lee Trent is pursuing her undergraduate degree at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. She has been a counselor at Rose-Hulman AMP and PROMYS and participated in the REU at Grand Valley State University.

Posted in career advancement, Outreach, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Guess Culture versus Ask Culture

By Kim Holman

When I was a child, I grew up in a “guess culture” household. I had to pay attention to the people around me and make a guess as to whether or not I should ask for something. I learned that you should only ask when needed and when you think the other person will likely say yes. This is stressful on a child, to be honest.

I went to boarding school at age 14, and eventually learned to self-advocate and ask for things I wanted or needed, even if the answer might be no. This is how “ask culture” works. By the time I was 18 and graduated, I was pretty well-versed in both cultures, but had firmly taken to ask culture as my primary means of meeting my needs. It made for a rocky relationship with my parents because I was constantly asking for things – they thought I was being needy or greedy – but really what I was doing was simply asking a question and not having my guess of what their answer may be prevent me from doing so.
Asking for something could be as simple as “will you get me [brand, scent] of shampoo when you go to the grocery store?” Or, it could be something major, like “will you support me financially if I live off-campus,” or, “will you pay for the brake job for my car?”

Knowing your audience here is key. When I was working for an engineering consulting firm, they were very much an ask culture. I could always ask for something; I might get it, I might not, but there were no repercussions from simply asking a question. I went from that environment to work in government, in a related engineering field, and it was much more of a guess culture. Within my tiny office unit, ask away – but when it came to higher-ups, only ask for what you needed and what you felt like they would probably agree to or else you were painting a target on yourself, and maybe even being labeled as a problematic employee. It takes a lot of skill to navigate between these different cultures and to recognize when you should switch between your innate culture to the other.

Now that I am a graduate student I have begun to see some of the benefits of my self-advocacy and adopting of an ask culture. Here are some things that I have gotten by asking: a book read-along for my department of the new title by Dr. Pamela E. Harris and Dr. Aris Winger, Asked and Answered: Dialogues on Advocating for Students of Color in Mathematics – and copies of the book for everyone who is interested; a new office chair; an office in the department as a grad student with no TA or RA appointment; support from family and friends when I went back to school as a nontraditional student and mother of three. Yet, asking does not always go smoothly and here are some situations where I have had to tread lightly: inviting grandparents to my kids’ events, as they are out of town and feel bad when I invite them to things they cannot make; lactation space when I returned to work postpartum (we won’t even get into the legalities of this – we will accept it at face-value).

I was first introduced to ask vs. guess culture as a concept through a social media post. As soon as I read about these concepts I was finally able to put words to the way I navigate social and professional situations. Overwhelmingly, when dealing with women I am more confident in asking, but with men I overwhelmingly feel the need to guess as to whether or not I should even ask. This could be due to the people I know and interact with, and gender could be insignificant, or it could be a relevant point. I don’t know and I am still doing some self-reflection on these topics. I’ve also noticed that people in marginalized communities are more receptive to ask culture than cis-het white persons, in particular men. Again, I don’t know if that is significant or spurious, but it is an observation I have made with my own interactions. Of course, the context of these interactions could also play a role in who one receives or adapts between ask and guess cultures.

Something else I have noticed is that, as an asker, guessers who I don’t interact with often almost always respond positively to what I’ve asked. This could be because I don’t ask often, as I don’t see or talk to them often, so they aren’t doing things for me as often. At least that has been my impression. I will ask my grandmother for all sorts of things, although not very often. Being one of 24 grandchildren, I don’t think she keeps track of who asks for what and given that this side of the family is very solidly part of the guess culture crowd; if you ask for something you clearly need it or else you wouldn’t have asked. Like I said, I also very rarely ask my grandmother for things or to do things for me, so even if she is keeping tabs mine is very short.

Another key component in guess culture is evaluating whether or not you should pose the question. You have to evaluate the person or organization, and begin putting out feelers to see if they will potentially say yes or no. You only ask when you are certain that they will say yes to whatever it is that you are asking for. If you’re really good at navigating guess culture, you won’t even have to ask the question – it will be offered to you. That’s the kicker. Lead up to the request with those feelers so that they see your need and offer to meet it. This is HARD, y’all!

Incidentally, because I grew up and spent my formative years in a guess culture environment and have switched to being an ask culture individual, I feel that it has made me a more effective educator. I see the needs of my students and I offer to meet them well before those feelers go out and definitely before they ask. It has helped me to be able to anticipate what is happening around me and how I can be of service to others. In the classroom, in particular, I see it as a service. It reduces the anxiety in my students and makes me more approachable. Once they see that I am willing to meet needs that were unasked, they begin to ask for help, to come to office hours, to schedule meetings with me. It is a beautiful arrangement!

As we gear up to start a new semester, I encourage you to think about ask versus guess culture and how you might move from one into the other for better self-advocacy and to better serve your community.

Kim Holman

Kim Holman

Kim Holman is a PhD student at Auburn University studying discrete geometry. She goes by the name Professor Pi in the classroom and Moon Pi #3.14 on the roller derby track.

Posted in career advancement, General, Outreach, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized, Undegraduates, work life balance | Leave a comment

Networking to get the most out of the Virtual Joint Mathematics Meetings

By Pamela E. Harris and Abbe Herzig

In addition to sharing our mathematical work, the Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) provide a valuable opportunity to network with other mathematicians. Networking allows you to learn about other people and what they are doing, meet them, help them know who you are, and generally share ideas about mathematics, education, the profession, or any other topics that you might want to talk about. 

This year with JMM being held virtually you might wonder about options for networking and how to make good use of them in this new format. As you prepare to embark on some virtual networking during JMM you should check out the advice provided in this eMentoring blog Networking Basics for Math Undergrads. Although the advice provided is targeted for  in-person events, much of it continues to hold for a virtual conference. In particular, we suggest the following for virtual networking events.

Prepare for a networking event in advance:

  1. Create a virtual business card. This can be a google document with a sharable link where you can provide your name and contact information. You can also include where you are in your mathematical journey (Undergraduate/graduate student/on the job market, etc.) and any specific mathematical interests (“interested in algebraic topology”). Bonus points: turn your long sharable link into a tiny url to get a personalized short link with your name on it. Remember to make this document available to the public! You could also share your LinkedIn profile or personal webpage, if you have them.
  2. Have a second document ready so you can keep track of  contact information of people you meet, or that they share in a chat. This might be a document you save to your desktop, or you could also have a link to share where folks could write their contact information as well. This will be a helpful resource to you later, so you can follow up and build professional relationships.
  3. Upload a photo to your AMS profile and also in the Zoom platform, so that when your camera is off a picture of you is still displayed. This will help people remember you.
  4. Update your name as you would like it to appear and so that people can see it displayed in the Zoom window. Feel free to add your pronouns. 
  5. If there is an individual or a group of mathematicians you’d like to meet, look at the JMM Virtual Program to see where you can find them (the JMM program is posted on Mountain Time). You can also attend some general networking events, which will be announced in the program email you will receive each morning of the meeting.


While in a networking session:

  1. Turn on your camera, even if only briefly. We understand everyone’s bandwidth (literal and metaphorical) is different. So this could be just initially to say hello and then explain your bandwidth limits and turn it off. If possible, display your photo as mentioned in item #3 above. 
  2. Introduce yourself. Prepare a brief introduction in advance, and consider posting the link to your virtual business card, LinkedIn page, or personal webpage in the chat (see #1 above). If you are in a breakout room or talking with different people, feel free to share it again if you meet others you want to connect with. 
  3. An online gathering is different from an in-person one in several ways. Online, if you do not show yourself or speak up, others may not know you’re there. Find ways to make your presence known–make a comment, ask a question. Don’t know what to ask? Try “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How can I find out more?” or “Can you recommend something I can read to learn more about this?” 
  4. Step out of your comfort zone. You do not have to talk to everyone or enter every conversation. It can help to prepare some questions or comments in advance. Most people enjoy talking about their own work, so a question about their research can be a good ice-breaker.  
  5. Stay in contact with the individual after the conference. A simple email the day after, where you remind them of your name, institution, and the topic of your conversation, can go a long way in building a new professional relationship. Asking a question about their work in the email can keep the conversation going.

You will find other helpful ideas at these posts from the eMentoring blogs:

You will have the opportunity to use these skills by joining the eMentoring Network and the AMS Department of Education for the informal networking session Networking for better mentoring on Friday, January 8th from 12:00-1:00 pm Mountain Time. This informal discussion will address questions like: What is mentoring? Who is a mentor? What can students expect from a mentor? Can good mentoring practices be taught? How do people find mentors? How can we adapt our mentoring to be better advocates for those most marginalized within the mathematical sciences? What lessons have we learned about mentoring in the past year, especially with the move to virtual platforms? These and other questions like these will guide our session, whose goal is to network for better mentoring.

Anyone registered for JMM can join Networking for better mentoring through the JMM Virtual Program.

We hope to see you there!

 

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Leadership, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Opportunities for First and Second Year College Students

By Pamela E. Harris, Ralph Morrison, and Cindy Wyels

There are many opportunities for undergrads to engage in mathematics research over the summer, including Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs and math-oriented internships.  However, many of these programs are aimed at rising seniors or rising juniors who have already taken upper-level math classes, and they often require coursework in abstract algebra and/or real analysis.  What if you’re excited about engaging in a summer opportunity in mathematics, but you’re a rising sophomore who’s only completed the calculus sequence, and maybe linear algebra? Or what if you’re at a Community College that only offers a few math courses beyond the calculus sequence? We have good news for you! There are some fantastic opportunities aimed at students like you, and we’ve compiled some of them in this  spreadsheet(Please note that the spreadsheet allows anyone to add comments and access to edit is available upon request. We encourage everyone to add information on any other programs they may be aware of that we may have missed. For those further along in their mathematics journey you can check out this list compiled by Dr. William Yslas Vélez.)

In each case we gleaned what information we could from the program’s website, or from the program organizers; we admit that some of this information may be out-of-date, and all of it is subject to change. Visiting these websites directly and contacting the organizers is a great way to get more up-to-date information. The spreadsheet also includes some programs that might not be running in 2021, so do pay attention to whether they’re officially running or not.  Also pay close attention to funding: unfortunately, most programs only provide funding for U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents. 

In addition to these programs, we strongly recommend that students interested in these sorts of opportunities do some searching for additional programs and also practice self-advocacy in the process. 

On advocating for yourself: embrace the notion and practice it frequently. Whatever math background you have, know that you belong in higher education and in mathematics. So always seek out opportunities and ask your professors and mentors about programs that might be available to you. Even if you get told that they don’t know of any or if you apply and get rejected or told no – that’s better than the lack of an opportunity had you not inquired nor applied. At a minimum, the person you asked knows you’re interested in these programs and will share them with you as they learn of them. Also you now have an application that you can edit and tailor for future applications to such programs. 

How do you seek programs and opportunities? What might you search for, and where should you search? First, ask around at your own institution. Many institutions have organizations and programs that aim to advance students academically – look for things like MESA, LSAMP, McNair Scholars, RISE – these are all grant-funded programs that exist around the country. Your institution might have one or more, and depending on how such a program is structured, it might have student research as a component. Other state or institutional programs might include funding for summer research for students. Search for “student research” on your college’s website and ask academic advisors and faculty. And keep your eyes open – skim all those generic emails you get from your institution. You never know which one will announce that Big University has just partnered with Your Community College and will be offering a research program this coming summer. Similarly, you don’t know what professor has a research grant that allows her to hire 1 – 2 research assistants. Ask, ask, ask – and if the answer is “I don’t know of anything” your best response is “Thank you for thinking it over. Please keep me in mind should you hear of anything later!”

We look forward to hearing from you about what new opportunities you uncover and what you learn in the process of self-advocating! 

 

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Mathematics holds the key to increasing STEM enrollment of U.S. students

William Yslas Vélez
Emeritus Professor, University of Arizona

This article presents four main points.

  1. Promote the undergraduate mathematics major not only as entry into the workforce but also to prepare students for graduate programs in STEM fields.
  2. Recognize the difference in the educational systems between the U.S. and other countries and the impact this has on graduate enrollment in the mathematical sciences.
  3. Suggest that the AMS take a leadership role in leading the mathematical community towards a comprehensive look into the evaluation of graduate school applications.
  4. Point out the lack of diversity in the graduate programs of our top research departments.

Just take one more math course

“Just take one more math course” was the lead sentence in the article [1] announcing that the Math Center at the University of Arizona (UA) had received the 2011 AMS Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department. The Math Center forms part of the department of mathematics and is dedicated to organizing the mathematics major program by providing advising, information about internships, research experiences and scholarships, and supporting recruitment efforts. The Center also records demographic information (citizenship, gender, ethnicity) in order to assess diversity efforts. I had taken over the directorship of the Math Center in 2003 with the goals of doubling the number of mathematics majors and increasing diversity. Rather than emphasizing outreach to increase the number of mathematics majors, I focused on reaching into enrollments in our mathematics classes, an activity I labeled as INREACH [2]. I sent emails to students enrolled in mathematics classes encouraging them to pursue further mathematical studies. At the UA, there were 30,000 undergraduate students enrolled, many of them in STEM fields. I advanced the view that the more mathematics a student took, the more opportunities would be available. I promoted the math major shamelessly. I learned early on not to suggest that a student change their major, but rather that they add mathematics as another major. This proved to be a successful strategy. When I retired in 2018, there were over 650 mathematics majors, 20% of them from minority backgrounds. Half of the graduating mathematics majors had another major or another degree. There were an equal number of mathematics minors with the percentage of minority students greater than 20%.

Most of the mathematics majors were not headed to graduate schools in the mathematical sciences, rather they were using their mathematics to make them more competitive in the job market or in applying for post-graduate studies. The mathematics major, combined with stellar grades in the students’ other fields of study, helped students gain admission into top graduate programs in STEM fields. This suggests that if mathematics departments encouraged undergraduates to increase the mathematical content of their curriculum and add the mathematics major or minor, this would increase the participation of U.S. students in STEM fields. As the data below shows, U.S. students do not constitute the majority of students in many STEM graduate programs. What should this percentage be? Certainly having graduate programs that would be 100% U.S. students would be unacceptable, as would 0%. A percentage of less than 50% is problematic. A reasonable percentage for U.S students would be between 70%-80%. After all, graduate programs in the U.S are part of the U.S. educational system. Graduate education is the economic engine in increasing the earning potential of its citizens.

Data on U.S. participation in STEM fields

Dependence on foreign oil, in the past, caused great concern in the U.S. because it endangered our national security. Yet, dependence on international students to power our graduate programs and our scientific enterprise appears to be acceptable. Exactly how dependent is the U.S. on international talent? In 2016-17 (the latest data available) international graduate students represent the majority (over 50%) in many STEM graduate programs, as Table 1 [3] shows.

Table 1 is an excerpt for Table 22 of [3]

Doctorate recipients, by subfield of study and citizenship status: 2017

Area of doctorate

total number of doctorates

Temporary visa holders

% temporary visa holders

Computer engineering

419

294

70%

Structural engineering

103

67

65%

Electrical, electronics, and communications engr

1900

1230

65%

Industrial and manufacturing engineering

253

161

64%

Agricultural economics

144

91

63%

Computer and information sciences, general

123

75

61%

Civil engineering

741

444

60%

Computer science

1587

931

59%

Computer and information sciences

1987

1101

55%

Mechanical engineering

1409

750

53%

Econometrics, economics

1184

626

53%

Finance

188

99

53%


For the mathematical sciences profession, we can obtain data from [4] and it shows that 51% of doctoral degrees are awarded to international students. I strongly support the age-old view of “everything in moderation” as a good guideline for our graduate programs. We have long since passed the point of moderation.


Differences in the educational systems of the U.S. and other countries

In most other countries undergraduate students arrive at a university already having been accepted into a major. Some mathematics majors take analysis in their first year of study and three or four mathematics courses per semester as undergraduate students. Here is a link to the program of study at the University of Guanajuato in Guanajuato, Mexico (http://www.demat.ugto.mx/index.php/estudiantes2/consejos-para-nuevos-estudiantes-2/licenciatura-en-matematicas). International students have often completed academic training comparable to students with Master’s degrees in the U.S..

A liberal arts education is a requirement for most U.S. students. It is not unusual for U.S. students to declare a mathematics major in the second or third year of undergraduate study and take 1-2 mathematics courses per semester. The liberal arts education gives students the opportunity to explore other areas of interest before deciding on a major. Students interested in pursuing a graduate program in the mathematical sciences may not take analysis until their last year of study. In the meantime they have developed the mathematical maturity to understand this abstraction.

Is there any evidence that this later arrival at mathematical maturity correlates with creativity, or determination or any of the other factors that impact students’ abilities to become successful mathematicians?

Rethinking the admissions process for graduate school

Graduate programs must consider two criteria when accepting students into a graduate program. Can students pass entry-level courses and the requisite examinations, and are they creative enough to write a strong dissertation? Departments want the “best” graduate students. However, contrary to mathematical culture, “best” is not defined.

Perhaps “best” means what is best for the nation? Historically, minorities lack representation in the mathematical enterprise. By attracting students from under-served populations, mathematics departments could play a vital role in addressing STEM diversity. Certainly, increasing diversity is an important goal, one of increasing importance in a country undergoing such dramatic demographic changes. Mathematics departments could follow the lead of the Math Alliance [5] (https://www.mathalliance.org/), an organization whose stated purpose is to increase the number of minority students applying to graduate programs in the mathematical sciences.

Could “best” mean what is best for the department? International students have completed coursework equivalent to a U.S. Master’s degree and have demonstrated that they understand entry-level courses. This preparation enables them to move quickly on to their research interests and this demands less teaching from the faculty.

Perhaps “best” means selecting students with the best mathematical creativity? Mathematics departments choose prospective graduate students with the highest grades and GRE math subject scores. Instead of selecting students with mathematical creativity, admissions committees choose students who excel in test-taking and mathematical knowledge. In this process, mathematics departments fail to recognize the differences between domestic and international educational systems when comparing students’ GRE scores.

When I became director of the mathematics graduate program at the UA I was given no instruction. This is so typical of the mathematics profession. In graduate school we are prepared to become researchers. When we accept a faculty position we are then expected to become effective teachers, mentors, evaluators and administrators. The AMS should bring the community together to investigate new methods of evaluating selection criteria for graduate school and to develop training for faculty in these methods. Departments have relied on standardized testing platforms, like GRE, for decades. Its effectiveness in predicting success in graduate school could be one of the projects initiated.

Sadly, there is evidence of even further bias against U.S. students being accepted into STEM graduate programs. In a 2017 article, Mervis [6] stated that university administrators were concerned that Trump’s administrative policies would result in a 30% drop in the number of applications from international students, compared with the number of applicants from 2016. The article went on to say that a smaller applicant pool allows “administrators the option of admitting students who previously would not have made the cut, including more domestic students. But educators are loath to move the bar if it would lower the quality of the talent pool.” I find it quite surprising that university administrators are so willing to disparage U.S. students in public.

The U.S. educational system sets forth the requirements needed for a student to earn an undergraduate degree from the university. Presumably this preparation has prepared students to continue to post-graduate study. Students from outside of the U.S. must complete more advanced mathematics courses in order to earn this same degree and are therefore at a distinct advantage when applying to U.S. graduate schools. What is the rationale for changing the bar other than the fact that so many international students are applying? The bar should be set at a level commensurate with the requirements set forth by our educational system. This higher bar places U.S. students in an inferior position as far as the graduate admission process is concerned.

No taxation without representation

Universities are supported by U.S. tax dollars, both state and federal. Part of that support comes from the minority population. What is the minority population getting out of this investment [7]? For the academic year 2016-17, 1957 Ph.D.s were awarded by 299 departments. How many minorities were part of this group of doctoral recipients? Among the US citizens earning doctoral degrees, 4 were American Indian or Alaska Native, 30 were Black or African American, 33 were Hispanic or Latino, and 4 were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander [4]. This is a total of 71 minority doctoral recipients! For decades, billions of dollars have been spent on mathematics graduate programs with a negligible return for the minority community. If mathematics departments are not going to include minorities in their graduate programs, then don’t take their tax dollars!

The situation for minorities is even worse at the top research universities. The Doctoral Math Private Large grouping in the AMS survey [8] consists of 24 departments with the highest annual graduating rate of Ph.D.s (23 of the 24 departments responded to the survery). This grouping contains some of the best research departments in the country yet the percentage of female Ph.D.s is the lowest of all the groupings. Moreover, this grouping reported a total of 2 minority Ph.D.s! for the academic year 2016-2017. How is this even remotely acceptable! Given that NSF has an explicit goal of increasing diversity, why are these departments supported by NSF grants?

Where are the top research departments going to find minority faculty if they are not producing any minority mathematicians? Our faculty do not represent the population of the U.S. and this is a problem that needs attention. By reconsidering the admissions process for graduate schools, top research departments could begin to build pathways for faculty positions.

Everything in moderation went by the wayside in our graduate programs

In [4] we see that almost all of the percentages of U.S. citizen doctorates are around 50% in the mathematics groupings. I am surprised that percentages of U.S. students are not higher in biostatistics. The mathematical requirements for applying to graduate programs in biostatistics are three semesters of calculus, linear algebra and probability theory. (Harvard Biostatistics: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/admissions/degree-programs/#research) and U of Washington Biostatistics: https://www.biostat.washington.edu/program/admissions/requirements). Biostatistics programs need to devote some energy towards recruitment of U.S. students.

In looking at graduate programs at different universities, I came across the mission statement from The Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications (CMSA) at Harvard:

The Center for Mathematical Sciences and Applications will establish applied mathematics at Harvard as a first-class, interdisciplinary field of study, relating mathematics with many other important fields. The director of CMSA Yau states, “The center will not only carry out the most innovative research but also train young researchers from all over the world, especially those from China”. How is Harvard finding the funds to support an effort specifically aimed at training international postdocs? The U.S. minority community does not have such funds to encourage Harvard to create such a program for U.S minorities. The purpose of the Harvard program is to train international postdocs who would then out-compete U.S postdocs in the marketplace. Is this what is best for our nation?
Curiously, I gave a presentation at JMM in Denver in January 2020 pointing to the CMSA website. Curiously, this mission statement at CMSA disappeared soon thereafter.

The role of mathematics in producing U.S. STEM graduate students

Undergraduates with a strong background in mathematics are competitive for STEM graduate programs. The U.S would benefit if mathematics departments increased the number of mathematics majors. However, it is important to realize that the goal of an undergraduate degree in mathematics is not necessarily to pursue a graduate program in the mathematical sciences. We need to communicate to students that the mathematics major at the undergraduate level can lead to a wide variety of employment opportunities. For those interested in pursuing STEM graduate studies the mathematics major will strengthen their applications.

In my own work at the University of Arizona, the outstanding graduating senior in department X was often also a mathematics major or minor. This occurred year after year and the administration took notice. Mathematics majors were an integral part of STEM education at the UA. This model is worth replicating elsewhere. Mathematics does not just reside in a mathematics department. It needs to be incorporated into STEM and by increasing the number of mathematics majors across campus, we provide a well-prepared workforce for the country and a larger pool of eligible students for graduate schools.

Increasing diversity requires extra work and dedication. The UA model shows how a commitment and an infusion of resources can help faculty accomplish this goal and carry out this meaningful work. The importance of these efforts cannot be over-emphasized. The changing demographics of the U.S. requires a concerted effort to re-examine the application process of our graduate programs and respect the education of our undergraduates.

References

1. Arizona’s Math Center Wins AMS Award, Allyn Jackson, Notices of the AMS, Volume 58, Number 5, 2015, pages 718-721. http://www.ams.org/notices/201105/rtx110500718p.pdf
2. Inreach is the new outreach, William Yslas Vélez, MAA Focus, Volume 35, Number 4, August/September, 2015, pages 4-5. https://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/MAAFocus/Focus_AugustSeptember_2015.pdf
3. Data Tables, National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2017, Table 22. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/data
4. Report on the 2016–2017 New Doctorate Recipients Amanda L. Golbeck, Thomas H. Barr, and Colleen A. Rose, Notices of the AMS, Volume 66, Number 7, August 2019, pages 1151-1160.
5. 2017 Award for Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference, Allyn Jackson, Notices of the AMS, Volume 64, Number 5, pages 476-478. .https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/201705/rnoti-p476.pdf
6. Drop in foreign applicants worries engineering schools, J. Mervis, Science, 17 February 2017, p. 676.
7. Broken Social Contract, Letter to the Editor, William Yslas Vélez, Notices of the AMS, September, 2020.
8. Departmental Groupings, The Mathematical and Statistical Sciences Annual AMS Survey. http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/groups

Author notes. The author thanks Helen Grundman for thoughtful comments on this article and for suggesting a less combative tone and to the reviewers for many helpful suggestions. This article was originally submitted to the Notices of the AMS, but after several revisions, it was rejected. The referees were very helpful and accepting their comments improved this article. Regarding the sectionEverything in moderation went by the wayside in our graduate programs”, one referee commented, “This entire section needs to be removed from the paper. It does not add value to the paper and it is not at the professional level of the rest of the paper or the Notices in general.” On the streets of this nation, people are demonstrating against injustices, but apparently, the Notices will not allow minority voices to complain about the injustices suffered. In the end, I could not accept the revisions suggested.

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The Mentorship of Our People

By Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

A couple of months ago I found myself wondering how I was going to navigate applying to graduate school by myself this coming cycle. To some people, applying is not that big of a deal. They have a mom, dad, multiple mentors to go to for help. For people like me, a first-generation college student born to immigrant parents living at or below the poverty line, this seems like an impossible task. Who do you ask for help?

It got me thinking about my undergraduate application process. High school counselors and teachers guided and mentored me through the application process. I was also a part of College Match Los Angeles, an organization that provides high achieving low-income students with free SAT prep, college tours, and help with applying to college and financial aid. It literally took a village to get me to Williams College.

While at Williams I had one mentor in particular that not only took an interest in my success at Williams but also ensured that I had a game plan for achieving both my short term and long term goals. Along the way, especially towards the end of my time at Williams I met professors that understood me and really saw me. All of me. I may not have had the opportunity to be academically mentored by a professor who looked like me in the STEM fields, but seeing her as a professor on tenure-track at Williams did more for me than she will ever know.

Which brings me back to a couple of months ago when I was expressing my concerns about the graduate school application process to a couple of my best friends. One of my friends, who applied to biochemistry and chemical biology programs, took it upon herself to share everything she had learned from the application process with me. A second friend, who will be applying to medical school and thus does not have a lot of knowledge on the graduate school application process (PhD), recommended I look into Cientifico Latino. Cientifico Latino aims to make the application process easier by pairing applicants with a mentor, either a PhD student or a post-doctoral fellow in a specified field, who will guide the mentee through the application process. Because my relationship with my current laboratory is tenuous, I sought out my former Williams mentor and he suggested The Women+ of Color Project (WOCP). WOCP organizes a three day workshop for women of color interested in the physical sciences and mathematics, providing 50 women+ of color with direct mentorship, and 100 women+ of color with access to recordings of the workshops.

As I continue preparing for the graduate school application process, I’m constantly reminded of the value and importance of mentors and mentorship. Mentorship can be difficult to find and definitely requires two-way interest. I sought out every mentor that I’ve formed a relationship with and it was immensely helpful when my mentor had a strong desire to share their knowledge with me and invest in me. Professors, friends, and/or coworkers can all be possible people to form a mentor/mentee relationship with. Mentors don’t necessarily have to be 50 years old and a full professor. Personally, many of my mentors are people around my age. A different way to meet mentors is through mentorship programs. Cientifico Latino and WOCP are just two of many programs available to aspiring STEM graduate students. For example SU(5) provides support and mentorship to incoming physics and astronomy graduate students. Project SHORT is dedicated to supporting graduate school and pre-health applicants. The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and BioAcCES all organize conferences each year for underrepresented minority students in STEM and provide different resources which may include mentoring programs.

While there is no doubt that the application process is daunting, it can also be a chance to find your people. People who will cheer you on, pick you up when you’re down, and remind you of your worth when imposter syndrome threatens to take over. It’s important to not only have mentors ourselves but also to pass on the knowledge to those coming after us. Like Toni Morrison so perfectly put it, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” Reach back and help those trailing you. Pass on information you wish you had, resources you needed, job listings you know about. Mentorship and community are integral parts of succeeding in spaces that weren’t designed for people like us. Despite the lack of consideration for us and our experiences, we have an ever growing community willing to help each other into these spaces.

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes is an aspiring chemistry professor. She hopes to use her chemistry and Latinx Studies education to teach chemistry in a culturally relevant way. Her research interests lie at the intersection of chemical biology and ethnic studies. Jennyfer is passionate about making STEM diverse, inclusive, and equitable through advocacy and education. She enjoys doing her make-up, listening to music, and spending time with her friends.

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