Building a Research Army

I am what the math community calls a young mathematician (although my grey hair disagrees wholeheartedly!) and I am often looking for new and interesting math to work on. Last calendar year was particularly fruitful in this endeavor, as I had no teaching responsibilities at West Point and was able to focus on my research. So I hope that other young mathematicians might benefit from some of my lessons learned in building a research army.

Attend Conferences

I know we have all heard this over and over again, but the statement stills holds true: The best way to meet new people is to attend conferences. However, there are a few conferences that I found particularly well suited to finding new collaborators:

Research Experiences for Undergraduate Faculty (REUF) is a program sponsored by the American Institute of Mathematics and sets you up with a new group of collaborators who are lead by exceptionally talented mentors. The weeklong workshop focused on getting work done and I left with two research projects for my undergraduates at West Point.

The Undergraduate Faculty Program sponsored by Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI) is a three-week program in the beautiful mountains of Utah. The theme changes every year, so keep checking in and don’t be afraid of attending one slightly outside of your mathematical area. Both Dagan Karp (faculty lead for summer 2015) and Adriana Salerno (fellow participant) have spoken about how great this program is, so I’ll direct you to their previous blogs for more details (Dagan’s post and Adriana’s post).

Of course JMM and MathFest are great conferences to get your face out there, especially as these are the largest mathematical gatherings in the US. It can be tough to navigate large crowds, so just plan on distributing all the business cards you bring.

Now if the large setting is more nerve-racking than helpful, try attending a few sectional meetings. These will of course be close to home, cheaper to attend, and you will meet local people with whom collaborating after the conference will be easier as they are near you already.

Conferences are also a great time to work with current collaborators. It can be challenging as most people attending conferences have a packed schedule, but reach out to your current collaborators and try to schedule some time to meet during the conference. Also, ask them to introduce you to their friends. Chances are that if you work well with them, you might also work well with their collaborators.

Organize sessions/panels at conferences

This has been one of the most beneficial things I have done thus far and does not take as much time as one might expect. One of the conferences I am particularly fond of organizing math sessions at is the national conference of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). There are two options for organizing sessions: scientific symposia and professional development sessions. The process to organize sessions requires a small proposal with a title, abstract, and speaker list.

By organizing sessions, my collaborators and I have been able to invite great mathematicians who then have become collaborators and mentors. For example in 2013 Dr. Shannon Talbott and I co-organized a session titled “Current contributions by women mathematicians” were we invited Dr. Rebecca Garcia of Sam Houston State University. Her talk was phenomenal and ended with a slide of open problems. Shannon and I were thrilled and asked if we could work with her. Since then we have expanded our research group to include three other great faculty members and have plans for lots of fun research.

Invite people to visit

For me this has been the scariest way to meet collaborators. Not in the I-fear-for-my-safety type of way, but in the self-doubt type of way. Oh that impostor syndrome rears its ugly head! Here is what has worked for me: email a professor and ask them for an opinion of your work. (Make sure to include that last arXiv preprint.) I have found that senior people love to give advice and younger folks need to receive this advice. Whether you take their advice is up to you, but you have opened the door of communication. That’s step 1 in building collaborations.

Step 2 is inviting them to visit. Securing funding to invite people can be difficult, but senior mathematicians often have a travel budget and they may be able to cover most of their expenses. If this is not an option, try speaking with your chair, as she/he might know of available funding sources within your university or college.

If none of the above works and you are in need funding, you might want to apply for a travel grant. There are a few available: The AMS-Simons Travel Grants, the Simons Collaboration Grants for Mathematicians, and for women in mathematics, the AWM offers a few types of travel grants, one specifically for mentoring.

Doing these few things has helped me tremendously in the past year and has led to my developing a broader research agenda. But more than that, it has helped me build long-lasting relationships with people I admire.

My collaborators bring joy to my life outside of mathematics: they are truly incredible people whom I enjoy spending time with. I hope that you will find such rewarding experiences as you too build your research army – Hooah!

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2 Responses to Building a Research Army

  1. Ursula Whitcher says:

    Another way to find funding for new collaborations is to apply to hold a small research group workshop at one of the major math institutes. Adriana and I have done this with both BIRS and AIM, and it has been an amazing experience; I know that ICERM and probably several of the other institutes have similar programs. If your proposal is funded, the institute will cover some or all of the travel expenses for your group (details depend on the specific program).

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