Reflections on the 2018 Latinx in Mathematics Conference

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

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

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

Ode to a Great Mentor

By Alicia Prieto Langarica

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

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

Adolfo Sachez Valenzuela

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

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

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

Helping Students take Ownership of their Research

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

Understanding an academic career is more than just the math

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

Treating your students as people first, scientist second

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

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

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

Posted in General, Outreach, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The importance of leadership skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The negotiating process consists of five critical steps:

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by two postdoctoral researchers in biomathematics, Amy Buchmann (abuchman@tulane.edu) and Alex Hoover (ahoover2@tulane.edu), who are currently on the job market. This is a reflection of their Skype interview experiences so far.

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

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

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

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Toward Anti-Oppressive Mentorship in Mathematics

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

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

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

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Posted in postdocs, Tenure, Undegraduates | 1 Comment

Get the most out of your REU project

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

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The Four Parts of No

By Courtney R. Gibbons, Hamilton College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guide to Lit Searching for the Disinclined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting struggling students

Since finals are either here or fast approaching in many universities and colleges, I would like to encourage everyone to keep an open communication with your professor, if you are a student, and with your students, if you are professor. As for the latter, I would also like to encourage faculty to be proactive in identifying when a student is in a very stressful situation, be willing to have an open and potentially difficult conversation, and seek the appropriate resources for this student. It is critical to be sympathetic and try to be supportive, especially if you were the one he or she trusted and sought help from. When a student comes to us for help or just to vent, while it may put us in a very uncomfortable situation and helping them sometimes presents a great challenge, it gives us a huge opportunity to ensure that they stay on their academic trajectory. Transforming the lives of individuals in academia means many times being in uncomfortable situations and putting ourselves out there as well as speaking up for others who do not have a voice or whose voice has been silenced by prejudices, shame, or a system that has failed them. Sometimes we as professors or individuals who have been raised in a very individualistic culture are afraid to have our students come to us with personal struggles in fear of crossing boundaries and want to send them off immediately to someone else or staff or student resource office. Many times, when we do this we find out the student never followed our advice because they were too ashamed to go to someone else just to be ignored again or be half-heard and be dispatched to someone else. We, without realizing it, have aggravated the situation and contributed to the failing system that let the student down in the first place. Many times these students are first generation and low income students who are foreign to higher education or are students who parents have put such high expectations on them that they are afraid to seek help and appear weak. In either case, they are terrified and feel lost and disenfranchised. Sending these students off to someone else before having a good understanding of their situation can be detrimental to them even if they go see the person we recommended because, without a sufficient understanding of the situation, rather than getting the proper help they need, they might get reassured that they are alone, no one cares, or they don’t belong. In such a case, they might ultimately give up without being given a chance to bounce back. Thus once we are in this situation where a student reaches out to us for help or in desperation, we have to be brave and do our best to hear them, inquire more, and seek out resources for them even if after hearing them we might be devastated by their realities. We can be that link between the student making it successfully or completely dropping out and even though it is tough we must help them and not turn our backs on them.

We as a country are witnessing a huge rise in education cost and therefore and increasing number of homeless students who are struggling to make ends meet. For many of us this is something that we just hear in the news and worry about for few seconds, as it is likely foreign to us. For others it may be something we see every day but it may not hit us until we have this difficult situation in front of us and feel powerless. This was the experience I had last week and I must say I broke inside as the student, embarrassed and with teary eyes, recounted her situation and answered my questions. After hearing her story, I had a knot in my throat and was at the verge of breaking periodically for the next set of days.

She had been missing many classes and had quite a few assignments missing. She came to talk to me because she wanted to know if she still had a chance to pass my class even with a D. When I asked her why she had missed so many classes similar to what she did last semester in another class I had her, she broke down and was embarrassed to say anything. (However last semester she never came to see me or talk with me even though I sent her a few emails). As she tried to stop crying and say something but could not get a word out or stop crying, I could tell that she was ashamed and didn’t really want to talk. Eventually she told me that it was because she couldn’t sleep at night and that she had been going through a very tough time for the last year or so.  In inquiring more information, I learned that she was and had been sleeping in the school library and staying there until it closed and then she would wander off into the streets until the library opened up again early in the day. Apparently, her parents are divorced and don’t get along. Her dad, who had been supporting her, kicked her out of his house because he was very upset at her mother and said that he did not want to support her anymore since she was over 18. She said “after talking with my mom one day, he came in and said you are an adult and can support yourself so I need you to move out tomorrow because I cannot support you anymore and don’t want to”.  Her mother lives 50 miles away and she has no car or way of getting to school if she lives with her mother. She said she had some money when this happened but it was either pay her tuition or pay an apartment so she picked the former.  As a first generation low income student she had a full scholarship and was living in the dorms her first two years. But after her first year she found out that to graduate as an engineer she would need to take an extra year of classes and since she only had a scholarship for 4 years (and neither her nor her parents had the money to pay for this extra year) she decided to double up and take an overload with many difficult math and engineering courses. She did terrible and lost her scholarship and then had to work to pay her tuition and live with her dad. But since her two younger siblings had full scholarships for college she has felt like a failure and a burden to her parents and thus did not ask her dad to allow her stay or question his decision. She said, “I just packed my backpack and put my clothes in plastic bags and left.”

Her two younger siblings are in the same university, both have scholarships, and live in the dorms. She stayed with them before sporadically and only for a few days at a time but both of them cannot really help her anymore as they both have multiple roommates. Her brother who has five roommates allows her to keep her clothes in his dorm and take a shower once per week. She said “my mom tells me to ask my siblings to let me stay with them in their dorms but she does not understand that this is not possible and that they will get in trouble.” She understands that it’s difficult for her siblings to help her and does not want to bother them or worry her mom. Her situation and the lack of sleep has caused her to be in and out of many jobs and has been without a job for the last few weeks. She said that this situation has her very depressed and with anxiety, “I am embarrassed to walk into class and be around my classmates because I don’t want them to know my situation.’’ When I asked her, what was she going to do during the week of finals and if I could help her and she reply “please just tell me I have a chance. I don’t need your help, I just a chance. I have let everyone in my life down and I don’t want to let you down again. I dropped 2 classes and I plan to put most of my effort in this class. The library is open 24 hours during final exams, so I don’t have to wander in the street and will be able to sleep and get my studying done”.

She has not been doing good in the last two years. However, from my perspective as her professor, she seems to do relative well in the exams for someone who’s not attending class or turning in most of her assignments. Last time I had her in class, she did incredibly well on the final exam even though she did not attend many classes. Therefore, I know she has a lot of potential and is very bright.

While I had a knot in my throat and had to hold back from crying, after I fully understood her situation, I got this urge to bring her to my home but was afraid of not following proper protocol. I know what it is to be extremely poor and I know what it is to struggle to get an education. Thus it really hurt me to see that my student was going through this. I was clueless on what to do other than to give her verbal encouragement. Once she left I felt so powerless yet I knew I had to do whatever I could to get her the proper support and help. It was late and most university offices were closed by the time she left my office, so I reached out to many people via email. Asking them to please point me to the correct university mechanism that can help this student or if they could do something to help her to please let me know. To my surprise the Dean of Student Affairs and the student service staff immediately responded and I was up until 1 AM exchanging emails with this Dean who sent her staff to meet my student at the library and provide immediate assistance. The Dean’s last email that day said “Dr. Camacho thank you very much for reaching out to us and connecting us with your student. She has had her immediate needs taken care of and will spend the next couple of days completely focusing on your class. I will meet with her tomorrow and discuss the next steps and support.” The next day in the morning at 10 AM I received an email update from this Dean and she said “We will provide housing for next semester and have a plan to ensure she graduates next semester successfully.”

A few days later, she walked into my classroom to take my exam and, while she still had the same clothes, she had a smile and said thank you as she handed me her exam. With a huge weight off her shoulders, I could tell that she had been able to study efficiently for the final and impressed me even more than the last time she took a final exam from me!

One final note: the possible exception to this rule of listening carefully before sending the student anywhere is likely regarding sexual assault. At our university, as soon as a student begins to tell us about any such allegations, we are mandated to end the conversation and walk the student over to the Dean of Student Affairs to make sure due process is done.

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Tips for the GRE Math Subject Test

“How should I prepare for the GRE Math Subject Test?” This is a common question asked by students embarking on the math graduate school application process, yet many professors don’t have a great answer. A common part of one’s graduate school application portfolio, the GRE Math Subject Test is notorious as a standardized test that covers fundamentals from courses throughout undergraduate mathematics. Despite being an integral part of one’s application, there aren’t many relevant resources for preparing for this exam. Only a handful of practice exams are available, many of them outdated and irrelevant to the current exams. GRE practice books published by the ETS help with math content review, but do not develop strategies for tackling the seemingly esoteric style of problems on the subject test. In this post, we suggest strategies for helping students prepare specifically for this test.

Creating Content Flow Charts: You might have seen students prepare for the subject test by reviewing specific content and working on practice problems on the chosen content. One of the potential issues with this approach is that problems on the GRE Math Subject test tend to require recall of many different aspects of a subject instead of focus on an isolated topic. An example is the following sample problem I created for a GRE prep program at Harvey Mudd College:
If f(x) is the real-valued function f(x)=x|x|, then which of the following must be true:

I) f is continuous on all of the reals

II) f is differentiable at x=0

III) f is odd

a) II only  b) II and III only  c) I and II and III  d) III only  e) I only

Approaching this problem requires quick recall of different concepts on single variable functions. In order to practice having recall at their fingertips, I highly suggest students make a content flow chart for a subject area. This involves placing definitions, theorems, and implications from a particular subject area all on one large poster. For instance, if a student is reviewing single variable calculus, they might create small boxes with the definitions for continuity, differentiability, and integrability. Then, they can place an arrow from the differentiability box to the continuity box because the former implies the latter. Furthermore, they can write or draw examples of what could go wrong in the other direction. This could include specific counterexamples, and also general properties of functions that are continuous but not differentiable. Content flow charts allow students to see a topic holistically, which is extremely advantageous for quick recall.

Prepare Specifically for the Test Itself:  As mathematicians and educators it is our natural tendency to want to teach the inner workings of a subject area, and spend time motivating the concepts at hand. However, the goal with the GRE Math Subject Test is to answer problems as quickly and accurately as possible, rather than lament over depth. This is one of the biggest struggles I had while holding prep sessions, but it’s a key one to address. To see an example of this, consider the following problem:

Suppose x and y are integers, and 8x-5y is divisible by 7. Which of the following must also be divisible by 7?

a) -6x+2y   b) -6x+3y   c) -5x+3y   d) -5x+3y   e) -5x-2y

As mathematicians, our natural tendency is to explain phenomena that divisibility captures. However, it can be much quicker, as in this problem, to focus on strategies inherent to the test. A quick way to address this problem is to pick a nontrivial pair (x,y) of integers, say for example x=3,y=2, for which 8x-5y is divisible by 7, then check which of the given answers also satisfies the same divisibility property.

Patterns in Old Exams:  Past GRE exams tend to have problems types that are repeated over and over. Knowing how to do such problems quickly saves time on the exam itself. For instance, an analysis of past GRE data shows that multivariable calculus is the subject area with the poorest results, however almost every practice exam has a question on applying Green’s Theorem directly, where doing so simplifies a problem to multiplying the area of a region by some constant.  Knowing this one concept gets students ahead on the exam.

Create a GRE Community:  Along with Dr. Ivan Ventura (now at Cal Poly Pomona), I held GRE practice sessions early fall once a week for 6 weeks, with pizza served. Having practice sessions over food set the tone for a casual study environment. I think this was essential in relieving the stress and anxiety students had.

 

These are just a few tips that can be very helpful for students studying for the subject test.  I hope you can use them at your institution!

For more practice problems, visit my GRE Math Subject Test YouTube page here:

 

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