Making the most of attending conferences

In this blog by Julianne Vega, graduate student at University of Kentucky, Julianne tells us how to make the most of attending math conferences.

If you are heading to a conference, challenge yourself!

Your first conference may not be the best.

The first time that I went to a conference as a professional was when I was a middle school teacher at Burgundy Farm Country Day School and it was a complete comedy of errors. I was at the 2013 NCTM Annual Meeting located in Denver, Colorado. I will save you from the travel and hotel fiasco, which left my travel-anxious, 22-year-old-self traumatized and convinced she would be sleeping on the snowy streets of Denver for a few days.

My only concrete goal for the conference was to find a possible new textbook for the on-level 8th grade class. Beyond that I was there to grow professionally. And, while I attended many great talks that I still think about today, I did nothing to push myself out of my comfort zone. The only conversations I had over those three days were with the textbook vendors and with one woman that handed me a business card for The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest honors for STEM teachers, which is posted on my mirror and I look at everyday.

From this experience I learned two things:

(1) Attending and engaging in conferences is an integral part of being a professional.
(2) I had no idea how to engage in a conference.

Attending conferences is important.

Moving into graduate school, I was part of the NSF-funded Graduate Scholars in Mathematics program at University of Kentucky. This program is specifically to help students grow professionally and assimilate to the demands of graduate school. It has money set aside for the scholars to attend conferences and to my dismay there was little to no encouragement from the faculty to attend conferences. When I talked to my fellow scholars, I learned that most of them have never been to a conference and didn’t know what to do there so they didn’t feel qualified to use the money. In my opinion, this is all the more reason to go. I will pause here to emphasize the importance of faculty role models in this situation. More action than just mentioning there is money needs to taken to help these students get to a conference.

Proposed Conference Attendance Timeline (for graduate school):

Year One – Attend one general math conference which will allow you to understand the flow of the days, learn about the mathematics community, and meet graduate students from other schools.

Year Two/Three – Look for conferences and attend any that pique your interest, but don’t go overboard.

Year Four +: Attend the conferences that you know you like and present your work to your new mathematical community.

Challenge yourself to grow professionally.

With each conference it is important to push yourself to engage with the conference just a little bit more than the time before. This past year, as the vice-president of our AWM University of Kentucky student chapter, I created the following “Conference Scavenger Hunt”:

  • Meet 3 new people.
  • Go out for lunch or dinner with a group of people.
  • Ask a question during a talk.
  • Talk to someone that you have already met at a past conference.
  • Follow- up with a speaker/ Ask a question one on one.
  • Explain your research or an interesting topic you recently learned to someone new.
  • Ask about someone’s research and try understanding it.
  • When talking to someone about math, ask a question out of curiosity.
  • Make a connection between a talk and what you are learning.
  • For each talk, write down a new research question to ask.
  • Summarize each talk in a sentence or two. What question are they trying to answer?
  • Find someone that is in the same year as you and talk about a new technique you are using.
  • Learn two math culture facts about the hosting department.
  • Talk to someone’s advisor about work they are doing with their student that you met.

I urge you to try and complete as many as you can at every conference you go to! It will not be easy, but you will see growth. When I was creating this list I felt pings of anxiety as I thought about trying to complete them and I still have not completed all of the challenges myself. One thing that I know for sure, is that attempting to complete these challenges has made my conference experience richer than I could have ever expected. Before, conferences used to feel like a drain, several days in isolation, sitting in confusion. Now, conferences are a time to catch up with peers from other schools, learn about the research that they are doing, talk about my research with colleagues, meet up with collaborators, get advice from faculty and role models, and generally have a great time. So the best advice I have is to get out there and push yourself to meet new people.

Julianne Vega

Short Bio: Julianne Vega studies topological combinatorics with particular interest in simplicial complexes and posets. She earned her BA in mathematics and PA 7-12 teaching certification at Susquehanna University in 2012. Following her degree, she was a middle school mathematics teacher at a progressive, independent school. In May 2020, she will graduate with a Ph.D. in mathematics and a graduate certificate in instructional coaching. She is a highly engaged member and leader of her department heading diversity and equity initiatives including Appalachian Initiative for Mathematics and Inclusive Community Lunches. She is involved in several research collaborations including a teaching and learning project and undergraduate research. Julianne Vega deeply believes in the power of community, a place where everyone is growing together.

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