SUBgroups: An Interview


By Vanessa Rivera Quiñones

Transitioning to graduate school is a challenging and isolating process for many first-year students. ​SUBgroups are groups of 3 to 5 first-year students from different mathematics graduate programs that meet through video chats every two weeks to build community and support one another. These groups have three goals in mind:

● Sharing the challenges, successes, and everything in between.
● Uplifting each other by listening, cheering, commiserating, and offering advice and
different perspectives.
● Bridging the graduate student transition and connecting to the wider mathematical

Registration for the Fall 2020 SUBgroups cohorts is open. ​There will be two SUBgroups cohorts in the fall, because of different start dates for semesters/quarters. One cohort will begin in early September (registration window from August 17-28), and the other begins in early October (registration window from August 17- September 25). ​This amazing online initiative is organized by fellow mathematicians Dr. Marissa Loving (Georgia Tech) and Dr. Justin Lanier (University of Chicago). In this interview conducted via Zoom, I chatted with the organizers a bit about what inspired them to create this program.

VRQ: I am so excited to chat with you. Can you tell our readers a bit about yourselves?

Marissa: “I am an NSF postdoc at Georgia Tech. My research is in geometric group theory. I study hyperbolic surfaces, more specifically, curves on surfaces. My research involves drawing a lot of pictures and making combinatorial arguments about topological things. I have been in the mainland for a while now, but I was born and raised in Hawai’i. And, I am the second oldest of 12 kids. I am the first Native Hawaiian woman to get a Ph.D. in math, and that has shaped my experience in the math community in many ways.”

Justin: “This past spring I finished my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, and this fall I am starting as an NSF postdoc at the University of Chicago. I work in the same field that Marissa does: mapping class groups and surfaces. Before I started graduate school, I worked in K-12 education for 10 years, mostly in New York City.”

VRQ: Last year, you launched SUBgroups, an online peer group for first-year graduate students, and you took a new approach to support these students. What motivated you to take on this initiative? How did that happen?

Justin: “It was inspired in part by my experience as a teacher—networking and being in community with teachers online through blogs and Twitter. Being a teacher and being a graduate student have a lot in common. You are doing the same things as many other people, but you are doing it in a pretty local way. Some people have the luck of having a friend or a collaborator in the office next door, while others feel very isolated. It is a bit luck of the draw. Someone who could be your new best friend or collaborator might be several states away. The experience of building meaningful relationships virtually was a part of my professional vocabulary when I started graduate school. I also knew that a fair amount of doing mathematics research happened online—collaborations on Skype—but not so much for graduate students. You have your cohort at your university that you may or may not get along with. You may have imposter syndrome, or there may be competition among people. So people have negative experiences. It would be great if you could connect with peers in a lower-pressure setting.”

Marissa: “As I mentioned I did my undergrad in Hawaii, and I went to a small state school, UH Hilo, so I was part of a small cohort of students, and it was really tight-knit. When I started grad school, it just felt like you got lost in the shuffle a lot. There were not a lot of brown women in my department, and that added another extra layer of isolation. On top of that, there were a lot of classmates that were constantly jockeying to show how much math they knew. And how much better they were at everything than you. It was very discouraging and very lonely. It felt that there weren’t many places to have discussions about how you were struggling because you were expected to maintain a certain facade of like: “I belong here”, “I am really smart”, “I am not having any problems”, “Everything is awesome”. The hope for SUBgroups was to create an environment where students can be more vulnerable about their experiences. I really believe in the power of vulnerability and how that allows us to connect very deeply with people in ways that are nourishing for ourselves. It is hard to do that at the local level. Especially, when there is so much pressure on you to perform to a certain level. The goal of SUBgroups is to break down some of those walls by connecting people at different institutions. The motivation for me was knowing how hard it was for me. The feeling like I had to project this air of having it together, no matter how much on the inside I was falling apart.”

VRQ: Is that part of the reason you chose to focus on first-year graduate students?

Marissa: ​“Definitely, that was part of it. The main thing is that the first year is a big transition point. The change from going from undergrad to grad school, the change in course work, the change in surroundings, the actual physical uprooting that happens, it’s a lot of things happening at once, and it’s such a critical point in your overall career. If you really have a horrible first year, people can often end up leaving programs over that. They have to abandon whatever dreams they had for themselves in mathematics. So it seems like a critical point to catch people, keep them connected, and stop them from slipping through the cracks.”

Justin: “It is also the moment where grad students haven’t become specialized. As time goes on, you would want different kinds of support for them that are maybe more focused on their area of research. But for first-year graduate students, they have a lot of common concerns and experiences that they are encountering together even though they are in different local places. To piggyback on something Marissa was saying, there is a big difference in social culture between undergrad and grad school, when in undergrad, you show up and you’re meeting hundreds of people in your different classes, sports teams, clubs. Starting grad school has a very different feeling from that. There are ways to connect with people outside your department, but it’s just harder. And there is not usually structural support to make those social things happen. That is also a further reason why SUBgroups is a useful support structure.”

VRQ: What is most exciting about this project is that it showcases that when you believe in an idea enough (and you are willing to put in the work) you can make it happen.

Justin: “When I walked into the new environment of grad school, I already had a toolkit. I saw the problem, and it felt like I already had the hammer—to connect grad students virtually. The rest is just details: the individual structural choices about how the program works, how big the groups are going to be, or how they interact, all of those are choices. But it just felt shocking to me: are you telling me there doesn’t exist a systematic effort to organize people coming into the math research profession in order to support each other? It’s not that big of a world. This is not something that would be easy to coordinate for, say, all beginning public school teachers in the country. But the scale of math graduate school is so manageable, we could write to all the graduate directors, it’s not that many people.

A starting point of this project is that you have to believe in people. You have to believe that if you have people, and you help to connect them, good things will happen. I’ve had so many extremely positive experiences building relationships virtually. And way more people are going to encounter how powerful virtual connections can be now, because of the pandemic. It’s really easy to get caught up in what will be most effective or useful. But maybe you should think instead about every conversation that doesn’t happen because it can’t happen in person. A lot of good things can happen for free, at scale, that people don’t even consider.”

Marissa​: “That’s how Justin and I built our relationship. Because Justin invited me to start a reading group with him over Skype, and it was great. Until last year, the majority of our interactions were virtual. Justin was a grad student at Georgia Tech, and I was still a graduate student at Illinois. As soon as Justin pitched me his idea for SUBgroups, I was in. Because meeting and doing math (online) with Justin was a big part of feeling like I belonged in math. He was one of the first people I connected with to do math research in my specific area. Building community beyond my institution has been so important to me throughout my math journey, and I knew SUBgroups would work because I had experience building strong human connections with people online. I didn’t need much convincing to buy in.”

VRQ: It makes me think a bit about logistics. Were there any initial challenges when you were getting started that you can think of?

Justin: ​“First of all, it’s not so surprising that logistical difficulties can be overcome, and that the program does work. There are so many math collaborations that happen exclusively virtually. It’s only other aspects of our professional lives where using virtual tools is a novelty. One challenge last year was trying to match up groups so that the participants all had Skype or all had Google Hangouts. That’s a big change going into this year just because everybody has Zoom. Another challenge was trying to be diligent and careful about the privacy of people’s information. That was something we didn’t know about at first, but we got help and support from folks who understand the laws that are in place and the technical aspects that need to happen to make sure protected information is safe.”

Marissa: ​“We sat together for hours as we carefully sorted all of our participants into different groups. We tried to match up all of their timing preferences and other group preferences to meet their needs. So, for example, we had students who were the only women in their incoming class, so it was really important for them to be in a group with other women. We had a Latinx student who shared that they were only in week one of their program and they were already really lonely and wanted to connect with other Latinx students, if possible. So, we tried to be very mindful about taking student’s group preferences into consideration so they could be placed with other students having similar experiences.”

VRQ: It might be easy to think, ‘oh, we just divide students into groups’. But what I am hearing is that you are not just finding a group, which might not work either, you could be in a group full of strangers and feel equally isolated. I think what makes SUBgroups different is that you try to make tailor-made groups to what the student needs.

Justin: “At the same time, we don’t have a magic formula, we are not asking their opinions on lots of things. One challenge is that we are going large scale—pulling together people from so many different programs—and then moving to a smaller scale. And whenever you are doing something that depends on a handful of people, then you need to make sure that they are all showing up and in on the loop. And even when you have a group of people who have goodwill, and who have the incentive to be there, the program still has to be structurally robust enough that people don’t just drop away. If people start disappearing, then the group dynamic falls apart, or the meetings stop happening. So there are these other layers of trying to come up with preventive measures and additional ways of connecting people so that it’ll work well.”

VRQ: We’ve talked a bit about logistics and challenges, but what has success looked like for SUBgroups?

Marissa: “Hearing from students that it was a good experience. That they liked it, and that they would recommend it. One of the SUBgroups participants I knew beforehand. I was one of her mentors for an undergraduate research program. So I knew her as an undergrad and knew that she was going to start her first year of grad school last fall and I was really happy that she decided to join SUBgroups. This past week, she retweeted our announcement for the upcoming SUBgroups cohort and said: “I did SUBgroups last year and I loved it! 12/10 recommend”. So, that was extremely rewarding! Without SUBgroups, I wouldn’t have been able to provide the same kind of support to help her navigate that transition effectively. Some undergrads I have mentored in the past have signed-up for the 2020 cohorts as well!”

Justin: “As we are starting up this year’s SUBgroups, we are getting emails from students. In checking in, they are really thankful that the program exists and that we are organizing it. Especially, at this particular moment, where people are starting graduate school remotely. And that’s satisfying. I am glad it’s not our first year to try to do it at this moment—that would be tough!—but I am also glad it exists now, and we are not starting this a year from now. I think it will be good for a lot of people. It also feels good when people more senior to me say this is a good idea, and I get to say thanks, and also, it’s not hard. There are a lot of ways life can be made better, and they don’t have to cost a lot of money. You just have to set them up.”

VRQ: That’s a great point. You know, I see all these initiatives that I wish existed when I was a grad student. Is it going to be perfect? No, but will it be good enough to make a difference? Yes. Is there anything else you would like to share about SUBgroups?

Justin: “Something that SUBgroups makes a small dent in is that you want mathematicians to recognize themselves as part of a broad professional community. You hear people that have a small group of people or friends that they met at that one summer program or at that conference. And those are places where mathematicians mix. It is really easy for us to get locked into more narrow research areas, and that becomes our community. It just makes it so our sense of responsibility fragments. But, you know, 10 years from now there are going to be groups of professors that did SUBgroups together. They are gonna know a small handful of people in other fields, in other different kinds of institutions. I think having shared experiences and shared work to do, that isn’t math work, is part of being a mathematician. You want people to have those experiences to build their self-concept of what it means to be in a math community. It’s really powerful, like in Project NExT, having faculty at undergraduate serving institutions that have a shared purpose. All in all, it’s a powerful and empowering piece of professional activity.

I think there’s a lot of room to develop more profession-wide programs and activities that could better address the needs of the math community. So much of our thinking happens on an institutional basis. Individual grad committees will think about how we can support their students better. But who is having a conversation about how we support all math grad students, together? I don’t know of a body that has that as its focus and mission. There is not a committee on entry into the profession. SUBgroups is an attempt to bridge that gap.”

Marissa: ​”That’s the great thing about SUBgroups. We don’t need to have a cap on how many people can join and who gets to be part of it. If you are a first-year graduate student who is starting a math grad program, and you are concerned that you’re going to feel isolated. Or, you want to connect to other people by plugging into a community that you’re going to share your experiences with. To build them up and be built up by them, then you should register for SUBgroups. You should come and get in on the fun.”

Justin: ​“What is challenging, in this work, more than other experiences I’ve had with teaching, is you’re putting an experience together for others to have, but where the experience is happening out of sight. We have a bedrock faith if you put people of goodwill in touch and you help to shape that experience, that it will be a supportive and positive experience—and then you say go. A piece of SUBgroups is that we have them do some reflecting about what’s gone well and has gone poorly. We are prompting them to journal and go to a group of peers to talk about how life is going. They are the only ones actually doing the work. We just set up the machinery and support for that.”

Marissa: ​“In this conversation, I’ve realized that a big reason I feel invested in SUBgroups is that I have sent so many people into this pipeline. And I know there is the potential that they will get chewed up and spit out. So I feel responsible. There are all these young people that I have encouraged and pushed to be in these places, math graduate programs. Although I am always giving them all the caveats and warnings about what that experience can be like, it feels good to do something tangible to help them have a more positive grad school experience. That is actually very important, because I definitely had gotten to a point where it felt irresponsible to keep encouraging young students of color to go into math graduate programs, while knowing how bad it could be for them, how bad it was for me. Now, through SUBgroups, I am doing something real to help them have a better math experience, the kind of experience that I really dream of them having.”

Have questions about SUBgroups? You can reach the organizing team at​

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