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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Avoiding toxic mentoring

On September 20-22, I had the great honor of attending the workshop A conversation on professional norms in mathematics, organized by Emily Riehl. The workshop presented many great topics for conversation about the norms in our profession. The workshop’s program can be found here.

During the weekend, I had the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on mentoring. Mostly from the perspective of having been the recipient of some rather awful mentoring experiences. My talk was titled “Avoiding the academic savior complex: How to mentor underrepresented faculty.”

I shared stories of three types of “mentors” I have encountered in my journey through academia. This included:

  • The self-proclaimed mentor – This was someone who volunteered to be my mentor, and who promptly started listing me in their CV as their mentee. Their mentoring was nonexistent. They only wanted to make sure they could say that they were mentors to women and people of color. Being at the intersection I was two birds and their “mentoring’’ a single stone.
  • The self-serving mentor – Their advice was based only on what they thought they could gain from me and my work. They asked me to work at all hours of the night, saying that producing scholarship at a fast rate would be what would make me successful as an academic and that this was more important to me than to other of our collaborators since I was starting a tenure track position. This was self-serving, as they were also listed as authors on that work.
  • The only-in-public mentor – This type of toxic mentoring has been the most emotionally challenging. This person in public plays the role of a big supporter of my work, while in private they provide me with very toxic advice. Here is an example. I once posted on social media a call to other academics to also request service work from white cisgender men. This was in light of being very overwhelmed with the high level of service invitations I was receiving. Their response to me in private was to continue to sacrifice more time to service commitments as this would start a conversation that could lead to some potential research collaboration. Years of evidence has shown me this is unlikely to occur.

These are obviously examples of toxic mentoring. Having shared these stories with the exceptional scholars in attendance at the workshop, Michelle Manes, Luis Leyva, Adriana Salerno, and Francis Su provided me with the following resources to share with you. (Thanks go out to them!)

Below are some articles on good mentoring in mathematics, author abuse, and lists of organizations that provide training on mentoring.

  • Bernd Sturmfels, Adventures in Mentoring, September 2019 Notices of the American Mathematical Society, p. 1301.
  • A. Susan Jurow and Jordan Jurow, We Need to Talk about Authorship Abuse, September 12, 2019, Inside Higher Ed.
  • COACh is a grass-roots organization that is working to increase the number and career success of women scientists and engineers through innovative programs and strategies.
  • NCFDD Mentoring Map – a worksheet to track your network of mentors.

These are just a few of the many resources available to those who are interested in becoming better mentors. But for me being a good mentor is intrinsically tied to being a good human being. Hence my definition of a good mentor:

A good mentor must value the mentee as a person. Of course this requires there to be a solid relationship that is built on trust and, more importantly, respect. A good mentor will offer advice, but it will be directly related to how the mentee may be able to solve a particular problem/challenge that they are experiencing. That is, a good mentor provided possible ideas, and not directions, and is never upset if the mentee does not take their advice. I think of a good mentor as a solid sounding board, someone who listens intently and provides a multitude of potential solutions – rather than telling me what they would do. Most importantly, and part of what is most challenging in academic settings, is that a good mentor has to have a mentee’s development as their primary objective, and should at all costs avoid trying to force their mentee to become their mini-me.

Being a good mentor requires a true commitment to helping a mentee reach their personal and professional goals. It is not easy and none of us are taught how to be a good mentor. This does not mean that we should not try to be better. After all, constant improvement and lifelong learning, are a part of what drew us to an academic profession, is it not? If that is the case, then we should continue to do more research on how to better ourselves as mentors.

If you have any additional mentoring resources please share them in the comments.

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For People Of Color, Succeeding In Academia Is A Political Statement

Blog by Melissa Gutierrez Gonzalez

When I began my freshman year of college, I—like any other college freshman—began to get acquainted with new, unfamiliar responsibilities. Go to class at 9:30, dinner with Maya and Kayla tonight, check out these new clubs, all on top of a fifty-page reading for Political Theory and my Calculus I problem set. My agenda was neatly filled with lines detailing responsibilities, followed by checkmarks of what had been completed. There was one responsibility, however, that I never wrote down but loomed over me wherever I went.

You see, before I left for college, my mom told me: Vas a la escuela para demostrar que los mexicanos no solo están aquí para limpiar casas o servir como mano de obra, y también para demostrar que las mujeres no solo sirven para casarse y tener hijos.
[Translation: You go to school to show that Mexicans are not only here to clean houses or serve as labor, and also to show that women not only serve to marry and have children]. I not only went to college to become educated but also carried the weight to act as a catalyst in reshaping racist and sexist stereotypes that permeate both American and Mexican culture.

Ideally, I’d like to say that my ethnicity has never impacted my academic life—that I’ve never felt a taste of isolation in my STEM classes as the only brown-skinned person, that I’ve never felt like I have been used as a brochure token for diversity, that I’ve never felt the pressure to speak in cogent and intelligent dialogue whenever I opened my mouth in my discussion-based seminars (not because I wanted to seem like an intelligent person, but an intelligent Mexican). I couldn’t make a mistake, because if I did, what would others think of Mexicans? As someone who has always been a part of predominantly white institutional environments, ignoring the fact that I am acting as a representative for people of my ethnic background is incredibly difficult, because for many, I am the first Mexican they meet. For most, I am the first Mexican or Latino/a they meet in the mathematics field.

These pressures, along with general disadvantages minority students face in academia, are something called “the minority tax”. Formally, it is defined as “an array of additional duties, expectations, and challenges that accompany being an exception within white male-dominated institutional environments”. This burden is what makes an undergraduate or graduate career for minority students more difficult than it already is, and additionally, what drives women and minority students away from Ph.D. programs and academia. It is a struggle to succeed in academics while enduring covert or overt instances of racism, implicit bias, and isolation—all byproducts of participating in a system that was not designed for women and people of color.

I’ve tried to talk to my peers about these issues, but many times, I’ve been met with lukewarm empathy followed by statements such as “but just work hard from now on and you’ll succeed!”, as if my ethnic background didn’t heavily impact the academic challenges I face. Despite these challenges, I choose to continue pursuing an undergraduate education in a difficult and often uninviting field and have plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program. Why? Because aside from my fervent love of mathematics, succeeding in academia as a woman of color is a political statement. Historically, people like me have had their voices shut and existence erased. Obtaining a Ph.D. and succeeding in academia is more than being recognized for my academic efforts; It is my way of giving myself a name when my ethnic group has been nameless, it is my hopes and dreams turned into tangible change.


Melissa Gutierrez Gonzalez

Melissa is a junior mathematics and philosophy student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA and concurrently enrolled at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in pure mathematics

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Itʼs the little things

Usually “Itʼs the little things” refers to the details that really help make something spectacular. However, for me these words have taken a different meaning recently. It reminds me of little things that I have experienced and which have affected my self identity as a mathematician and made me question my place within the mathematical community. Itʼs the small actions or words or micro aggressions (regardless of intent) that take me out of doing mathematics and bring only selective parts of my identity front and center.

Here are a few of my recent experiences fitting within the context of “Itʼs the little things.”

I was honored this summer as a recipient of an MAA Alder award for exceptional teaching by an early career mathematician. Not only this, but my dearest math friend also received this award. Two Latinas received the award in the same year! I was over the moon. We were eagerly waiting for the event ceremony to take place, as a woman came up to us and said “Ok girls letʼs get you to the stage.” And there it is. Girls. We are being recognized with a national teaching award and we get called girls. I spoke up and said that I am a woman and would appreciate if she not refer to me as a girl. I likely wouldnʼt have done this, but my 13 year old daughter was present and witnessed the exchange. I addressed it mostly to show my daughter that she too can speak up when things bother her and can do so calmly and respectfully. Yet, there it was. This little thing shifted my focus and mental space from the wonderful celebration about to take place, to feeling small and childlike – not at all feeling like an award winning mathematics educator.

Fast forward a few weeks and I am at a math workshop, sitting in a room with 40 other women. The hour is set aside to discuss challenges of being a woman in math. Iʼve been to many of these events in the last decade. I never feel better afterwards. Instead I am drained. The conversations are predictable. When should we have children? “A womanʼs reproductive clock doesnʼt align with the tenure clock” we were told – shouldn’t the tenure clock adapt to our reproductive clocks—I wondered. Move from service to leadership positions, since “service doesnʼt count, but leadership does.” All fine topics of conversation. But the conversation shifts when I point out that the experiences of women of color (WOC) are different and that I believe most of the challenges I have faced stem from racial discrimination – of course separating this from misogyny and sexism is impossible.

Yes, the experiences of WOC in math are different – we agreed. Yet it was suggested that more conversations are needed so that people can better help WOC. Iʼve heard this multiple times and in various settings. I now have a programmed answer. So much so that I can recite it from memory. “It is not the job of underrepresented minorities to educate others on systemic issues we did not create. Just as everyone in this room is capable of taking an abstract mathematics research paper and work to understand that, they too can learn from literature on these topics.” Full stop.

Not satisfied with my response, I was asked if I would answer personal questions. I asked if those could be googled. They said “No. What if itʼs a personal question. Would you answer?” I finally ended the (public!) conversation by saying that asking me personal questions during a math workshop is robbing me of the mathematical experience I came to be a part of.

There it was. I came to the event for the mathematics and the collaboration. Yet Iʼd been (once again) reduced to being a resource on issues of diversity for those that are unwilling to do their own research. Luckily, a friend that I highly respect commented that such actions are a form of “emotional hijacking.” She was right.

The rest of the day I spent replaying the situation in my head. Not being able to truly immerse myself in new math as I had intended on. I worried about what my comments may mean for any future collaborations with others in the room. Will I be labeled a “trouble maker” or “angry.” Will they later tell me, as a past colleague in a leadership position did, that my emotions were unwarranted, especially as I am usually so “articulate.” Thatʼs another little thing.

These little things build up and become big things. Like a snowball down a hill they carry weight. They change how I perceive myself and my worth. All regardless of someone’s intent. We should work on addressing the little things. Of course this requires understanding other’s challenges within the mathematical community. I just ask you to first google questions you may have in order to stop taxing underrepresented minorities with work you need to do.

If a google search fails you, I present you with the following resources to learn more about microaggressions, how to be a better ally and mentor, and how to design and implement effective mentoring programs:

Posted in Changing Graduate Programs, General, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The MathFest Experience

In this contributed blog post Alvaro Cornejo and Kayla Harrison reflect on the experience having attended MathFest 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Participants of the Pomona Research in Mathematics Experience (PRiME) REU.

Was it worth attending the conference?

Alvaro: Definitely. I got to see so many different perspectives on mathematics and as an undergraduate, I think that is important. I was even able to see how people are making mathematics more inclusive by becoming advocates and mathematicians. I enjoyed that there were so many topics on mathematics and that everyone there wanted mathematics to be open for anyone and everyone. As I want to go into academia, it was very cool to see how people gave these talks and were all very passionate about their topics. It was nice to see the world of mathematics outside of the lecture hall and was reinvigorating to my dreams. For instance, the last performative piece in the jubilee that was a dance about being told that you “were not smart enough” for math and it really touched me. It made me realize that I can push through and that I am good enough for mathematics despite being told that I was not by people along the way. MAA Mathfest has really solidified my passion for mathematics.

Kayla: Yes MathFest was totally worth attending. Being an undergraduate math major, many of my mentors and professors only know the career path of becoming a professor, however, I am not interested in working in academia. Because of this, I have not really known what sorts of opportunities are available to math majors other than those in academia. At MathFest, I really liked how there were many groups, organizations, and companies with job opportunities in math (other than academia), that were in the exhibition hall. This was really cool for me because I can not only network and put myself out there, but I was also made aware of the many career paths math majors can have other than going into academia. Not only were these organizations/companies in the exhibition hall, but I really enjoyed that there were talks and panels about career paths in Business, Industry, and Government (BIG) for math majors. These talks and panels were really helpful for me, because as a rising senior in college, this is the kind of information that I have wanted to know for a while but did not have the connections with people who have these experiences.

What was your experience presenting your mathematical work?

Alvaro: It was nerve-racking, but rewarding. As this summer was the first time that I had done math research and given a talk on mathematics, I had no idea what to expect. When we tried to put everything into a presentation I was surprised by the amount of information my group and I had learned over the summer. My sense of imposter syndrome subsided as I realized that we all know the background of our research since we all put the work into knowing the material. I was very proud of all the work we put into the planning of the talk, which really helped me feel less anxious when presenting.

Of course I still was nervous when practicing the presentation. I found that practice made me talk and feel better about it. While practicing our group mentor Professor Barrios reminded us to keep in mind the audience and to remember when we were first learning all the material. From then on it became clear to me that the main goal of this talk is to teach. This is something incredibly powerful and helped remind me why I want to go into graduate school. I want to keep learning to teach others, and to be a role model for minority students like me that they too can continue to learn and teach mathematics. After giving the talk, it felt very rewarding. I had a glimpse of what I want to continue to do in my life and felt very included in the process. It left me very hopeful on my future and made it clear that this is a goal I have.

Kayla: When doing the research, sometimes you get stuck on something and think that you have not really made any progress in you work. However, when it came to presenting, I think that really helped me and my group realize that we really have accomplished and understood a lot in such a small time.

Presenting my work was such an amazing experience. I learned a lot about how to be as detailed and concise as possible so that our audience understands enough and remains engaged in our talk. I also learned that presenting my work is really not as intimidating as I thought it would be. Going into my talk, I was pretty nervous that people would ask a bunch of questions about my research and I would not know how to answer them. After giving my talk, I came to realize that I have learned a lot this summer and I really know what I am doing/talking about.

Presenting my work really was a confidence booster, because I feel like I have experienced the ‘imposter syndrome’ and have been really insecure about my place in the math community. So, when I presented my research, I finally felt a sense of inclusion.

What do you wish you had known before attending MathFest?

Alvaro: Don’t forget a notebook and pencil, and make a schedule before hand if you can. There are so many cool talks, and many happening at the same time. So plan out a few that you would like to go to get the most out of each time section of the conference. Also, a pencil and notebook were very helpful for jotting down notes of the talks, book references, emails, links. I tried to use my phone but I always remember things better writing things down. I also wish that I had known of this conference earlier in my undergrad. There are so many cool topics and I had no idea about this conference, and I hope that maybe more undergraduates can come to this.

Kayla: I wish I had known that each day is so jammed packed with events that you have to make a schedule of talks and things you want to go to. This was a bit overwhelming, but pretty cool because you always have something to do and there is always a cool talk to attend.

Any last thoughts?

Alvaro: I enjoyed MAA Mathfest, I got to see different perspectives and topics on mathematics. As an undergraduate, I forget that the world of mathematics is so vast and there is still so much to discuss within this community. Seeing mathematicians be great presenters and advocates was really inspiring and as something I want to become. I feel like I learned about the opportunities and got the chance to connect with other people. I am very glad I got a chance to attend this conference.

Kayla: This was such a great experience for me, and I recommend that all undergraduate math majors try to attend. There are so many cool talks and panels to go to, which could really get students interested in different areas of mathematics. There are also many opportunities to meet other math majors and math professors from around the country which gives you a chance to make new friends and network. I felt like I learned a lot about the endless opportunities math majors have and that really excites me about my future in mathematics!

My name is Alvaro Cornejo. I grew up in Los Angeles and am a mathematics major and  fourth year at UC Santa Barbara.

Kayla Harrison is from Maryland, and is a senior Mathematics major at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida



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A Scholar-Athlete’s Tips for Organization and Time Management

Natasha Crepeau

Natasha Crepeau

Blog post by Natasha Crepeau, Harvey Mudd College

I’m a junior at Harvey Mudd College with decent (and improving!) grades, a D3 athlete, and player in the Pomona College Band. I’m only able to manage this and take care of myself by trying to organize and manage my time well during the school year, and I’d love to share my methods and tips with other people.

First, let’s talk about organization. My biggest suggestion is to write everything down. That means tests, homework, meets, concerts, office hours, and anything else that you need to do or be at. For homework and tests, make sure that you write the due date so you aren’t surprised when the date comes around. If you think you can remember everything, I think you might be mistaken. I take my planner everywhere and I write everything down inside of it. Some people use their phone instead, but personally I feel that writing something in your notes application doesn’t have the same permanence as writing it on a piece of paper. Once you have a planner, and everything written down, you can use highlighters, different colors, or even emojis to distinguish the very important from the less important. Part of the joy of having a planner is getting the satisfaction of crossing something off once you’ve finished it.

I also have an organizational system for applications. I’ve used this system since I started applying for college, and I will continue to use it as I apply to study abroad programs this fall. I was able to apply to 10 REUs, and what made that possible was my organizational system. I always create a spreadsheet that lists all the programs I’m applying to. Within this spreadsheet, I include key information I’ll need to reference frequently—this includes program dates, application due dates, required essays, the number of letters of recommendation I needed, and if I had heard back from that program. It saved me from having to look up a program whenever I wanted to work on an essay or start collecting the materials needed so I could submit my application. I cannot stress how important writing everything down is. It has made my life much easier.

Once you’ve organized yourself, you need to manage the time you have to accomplish the tasks that you’ve written down. Learning how to effectively manage my time has helped me feel happier in school. The first thing I learned was how to say no. Cross-country practice is at 6:00 am, and my coach emphasizes the importance of getting 8 hours of sleep a night. This meant I was supposed to be in bed at 9:30 pm every night. Many events in my freshman fall were well after this bedtime, and I had to learn how to be alright with not attending them. I was afraid I would be missing out, but since my teammates all had the same schedule, I wasn’t missing hanging out with them. When it came to friends that weren’t teammates, I became okay with not always being there and being excited to hear about the night another time.

Even if you don’t have morning practice, you should be getting enough sleep. Sleep is an important part of taking care of yourself, and an overwhelming amount of work can feel more manageable when you’re well rested. I believe that everyone should have a set bedtime and stick to it. There’s no need to stay up all night doing work. With a bedtime, I’m more motivated to complete my work before I must go to sleep. Some days that isn’t possible, but those days are few and far between for me.

Now that you have a bedtime, there are a set number of hours during your day. In these hours there are classes, jobs, time for work, and meals. That sounds like a lot, but you should also be giving yourself a few breaks. There are a few different ways to do this. My friend group has designated meals as break time. We all take around an hour per meal and we aren’t allowed to do work during this time. Instead, we talk, laugh, vent, and decompress from the stress in our lives. Meals are one of my favorite things in college because I get to not think about work. I also have meets on Saturdays, so I also take Friday evening to watch a movie with my teammates and prepare for the race. It helps me relax so I can run well on Saturday morning. I believe that breaks are required. Nobody can work all the time, and there’s no use in pretending that I can.

Breaks are important, but they can only work if you do work when you say you’re going to do work, or else your work time just becomes another break. Some people are just procrastinators, and I know it can be hard to break the habit. Breaking the habit will be easier if you set yourself up for success. First, I put myself where I know I’ll be productive. That can be something like office hours and tutoring or be a location on campus where you are minimally distracted and have what you need to work. I like a certain study room at Mudd that has several whiteboards and an outdoor classroom when the weather is nice. I also remove as many distractions as possible. I’ll put my phone in the other corner of the room and play some music so I can stay productive. I also avoid procrastination due to frustration. If a problem set is giving me trouble, I go get help instead of staring at it for 2 more hours. If I have easier work, I’ll switch to finishing that to give my mind a break. These methods work for me, but they may not work for you as well, so it is important to find what helps you stay productive.

There is an overwhelming amount of stuff to do as a student. What has helped me stay afloat is good organization and time management. I make sure I’m not surprised by anything because I’ve written it down. I lay out the tasks I need to complete and when they’re do. Once I’ve laid out what I need to do, part of the how I’m going to do it is how I spend my time. I make sure I’m working when I’m supposed to be, and I take breaks everyday so that I’m not working all day. My strategies have helped me tremendously, and I hope they help you. What’s important is finding something that works for you and sticking to it. Find a system that allows you to take care of yourself, because your happiness and well-being is the most important thing in your college experience.

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Trip to the National Museum of Mathematics

by Maria Roman

We left the Williamstown mountains behind as the early morning sun began to peek through the windows of the tiny bus. There was a journey ahead, but to be honest, I vaguely had any idea of what we were about to encounter. I lazily looked out the window as we got closer to the city, my homegirl Shakira blasting through my headphones. It almost felt like that scene in Zootopia where the little country rabbit sees the huge metropolitan city for the first time. I had been in New York multiple times… but never with the hopes of spending a whole day doing math problems, which to my surprise, felt like the perfect Saturday plan.

Looking back, I was not disappointed. From the second we stepped in, the National Museum of Math was a logical wonderland that I could have gotten lost in for hours, from the bike with square wheels, to the funky spinning chairs and the human tree, to the puzzles, non-euclidean geometry, tessellating patterns and 3D printed geometrical figures. The two-floor museum was as elegant, fun and modern as it was thought-provoking and educational for all levels of mathematics.

Games at the National Museum of Math

Nonetheless, with all of the crazy puzzles and weird, quirky games, my professor and I spent the most time on what seemed to be the simplest of puzzles: Sixth Sense.

Sixth Sense Game

In this little number grid, you had to arrange all of the numbers in such a way that any four chosen numbers from one row and one column added up to 34. We spent more than one hour trying to come up with a solution, considering planes of symmetry, grouping numbers in a variety of combinations, and worked with a few of the math majors who attended the field trip… all to find out that the best way to obtain the right combination was to assign the numbers in order from least to greatest.

And still, even with the simplest puzzles, any kind of given assumption does have complex and intricate ideas. The Sixth Sense solution did, in fact involve some planes of symmetry, some ideas in combinatorics, and was slightly more complex than it looked like from its straightforward answer. However, this doesn’t mean that such complexity should feel overwhelming and impossible, and not deriving the correct answer immediately was perfectly fine, because what mattered most was playing with ideas and knowledge, experimenting, and asking questions about the possibilities.

I think especially for myself, doing such a problem made me realize that I have the habit of assuming that any math problem is inaccessible and overly complicated, a stereotype reinforced by years of not-so-great math classes and teacher experiences that (with a few great exceptions) had the tendency to make mathematics appear as an exclusive, distant subject only meant for a select few.

We left the museum and walked around Madison Square Park to realize that this tiny two-floor wonder was just the beginning, and nothing around me looked the same. The tall skyscrapers were now gigantic mathematical questions and geometrical concepts, aesthetically modelled to withstand the forces of gravity. Our infrastructure was nothing more than logical planning, and the people walking happily could be observed statistically and mathematically, both from a chemical and biological standpoint, all the way to their social behaviors and attitudes. Everything seemed just slightly newer, and slightly more mysterious than before.

The trip made me feel grateful to have had the opportunity to travel and learn, with the help of invested professors such as Professor Harris and support from the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) at Williams College.

Maria Roman

Biography: Maria Roman is a first-year prospective Chemistry and Mathematics major at Williams College. She is a Research Assitant in the Chemistry department, and in the future hopes to have a career in medicine and global public health.

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Manuscript Pre-Submission Check List

Reviewer 2: “I did not read carefully past section 2. … I recommend that the article not be published in [redacted]”

This particular reviewer read to page 4 of our 18 page manuscript, when the main result was on page 10. This was what we received after almost a full year under review (11 months and 7 days to be exact, but I am not bitter!). Yet the first reviewer read the manuscript carefully and provided detailed feedback along with a recommendation to publish. We have contacted the journal’s editor to request a third referee report — a tie breaker if you will. What next? We wait. Hopefully less than a year…

This can be the reality of academic publishing. But let’s be honest: it is appalling that a reviewer would only read to page 4 of an article and be bold (arrogant?) enough to say that they did not read the article carefully after the fourth page. Yet my undying optimist, ever the academic, wants to find some lessons in this experience, or to at least reflect on what one can do prior to the submission of a manuscript that may help the overall outcome: getting an acceptance.

So here is a pre-submission check list you may find useful.

Giving a seminar talk
There are varying pieces of advice on this. Of course you should give talks about the results of the paper as often as possible. However, do make sure you have things written already and in draft form because people may ask to see the details and you want to be ready to present those when requested. Also, giving a seminar is a quick way of getting people to think about your work and possibly collaborate.

Have students read your work
As my dear mentor Rebecca Garcia, mentioned to me (as she gave me feedback on this post!): ​Getting your students to look at your work is a solid way to get some high quality feedback. Students are wonderful at finding inconsistent use of notation, lack of clarity in exposition, and have even spotted errors in definitions, examples, and results in papers they have read — just ask my students Alexandre Gueganic and Maryanne Masibo. Asking students to read preprints of manuscripts seems to be more common practice these days, since I’ve noticed various acknowledgements where authors thank their students for their feedback. Perhaps this could even be the start of a research project with the students!

Once you have given talks and polished the manuscript here is what I do next.

Let the work marinate
My dear friend and wise coauthor Erik Insko taught me the value of letting an article sit on the arXiv for some predetermined period — often 10 days. This short time gives people the chance to see the article and possibly send you comments on the work before you have submitted it to a journal. In fact, Erik sometimes sends an email to his math friends with a paper announcement saying something to the effect of “Hey, here is my new paper on X. Let me know what you think!”  I recently found out that this is more common practice than I realized. In fact, I added my email to Bruce Sagan’s listserve where he sends a preview of his upcoming papers before they hit the arXiv. The point? If well-established mathematicians are sharing their work with their friends, so should you! This leads naturally to our next two items.

Request peer feedback
If you are a postdoc+ (+ denotes and beyond), it is likely that your peer (another postdoc+) will referee your work. Then you might as well give them the opportunity to ask you questions about the work out in the open rather than under the veil of anonymity the review process imposes. So go a head and email someone you cite in your references, who is at a similar career stage as you, and ask for their feedback. Sometimes they may even have suggestions on how to expand the work or what would be a natural direction for future research.

Send the manuscript to a more senior mathematician
This is scary (can you hear my teeth rattle?). Yet, to my complete surprise people do respond to a junior mathematician’s emails and they may even say your results are cool! Or tell you that they have some ideas on how to prove a thing you and your friends conjectured, from which a new collaboration may emerge (William T. Trotter this is a shout out to you sir!). Of course one can’t ask these things very often (not sure what very often is… once a year seems like a good guess) but this is one good way to solicit some advice from people who likely know the standards for journals in your area. One way to ask for help is to tell them about your work and ask if they may have a recommendation for a journal to which you could submit the manuscript. That way it is a precise question and if nothing else now these mathematicians know your name and the type of work you do.

Submit to a journal
After doing some/all of the above things, and implementing any feedback received (along with updating your acknowledgement section) you may find that you are ready to submit the manuscript. Don’t do it. Sleep on it. Then reread the manuscript out loud. I know it sounds silly but it is the only way I find typos. After all, you are trying to avoid falling prey to the best way to find typos — hitting the submit button!

Finally submit
Did you sleep on it? Ok then submit!

If you have any other advice to add to this checklist please use the comment section. I look forward to seeing your advice!


PS. I want to thank Alicia Prieto Langarica and Rebecca Garcia who I sent this blog post to for feedback, and I wanted to point out I did in fact sleep on it before submitting. Yet, its likly hat this post still contians typos 😉


PPS. Quick thanks to Rene Ardila for finding a typo that was unintentional.


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Are you stunting your productivity by constantly checking your email?

By Dr. Toyin Alli

Dr. Toyin Alli

This semester, I’ve been focusing a lot about productivity and how to be your most productive self when you sit down to get stuff done. And I believe a big part of being your most productive self is knowing what not to do while being productive.

Constantly checking your email is number one on my list! Did you know that when you multitask you decrease your productivity by a lot? So when you are constantly checking and replying to emails all day, you are literally having to restart and reset your mind to get back to your work. And that makes it easier and easier to get distracted, tired, and lose focus.

My recommendation is to set times in your day just for checking and responding to emails. I like to check my emails in the morning, during lunch, and at the end of the day.

If you’re looking for more accountability during your productive times, I’ll be launching my new program, the Productivity Accelerator today! To be the first to know when the doors open, sign up for the waitlist here! (By clicking this link you will be added to the waitlist for the program and be redirected to my YouTube video all about it!)

What is the Productivity Accelerator Method?

The Productivity Accelerator Method is a two-week productivity sprint to help you be more focused and productive in grad school so that you can actually get stuff done instead of stressing over the amount of stuff you have to get done. This method consists of three major components: planning, accountability, and follow-through. So if you are good at planning and setting goals but struggle with actually following through and implementing those plans, the key piece you are missing is accountability. And the Productivity Accelerator Method will help you with that missing piece.

Click here to learn more about the Productivity Accelerator!

2 Misconceptions about Work Life Balance

Yesterday, I posted a live video on my YouTube channel about work-life balance and the two misconceptions that we have about it. In the video, I share how we can change our mindset about work-life balance so that we can have a healthier approach to managing life, school, and work. The link below will take you to the video. (Sorry, the quality isn’t grad because I did it live.)

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A Personal Reflection on Broadening Participation in STEM

Contributed by Amy Beth Prager

During my student tenure at MIT, I expressed and increased my sincere devotion with respect to broadening participation in STEM. Ultimately, I became co-director of the MIT Womens’ initiative, which allowed me the opportunity to give presentations to multiple cities within Northern America to audiences composed of secondary school girls. During my final year in graduate school at MIT, a friend and I gave such a presentation in California.

This presentation was a turning point in my life, both personally and professionally. By sharing cramped living conditions for almost two weeks, more than 3,000 miles from home, we learned a lot about each other. Before leaving for our trip, I was generally looking forward to sharing an academic experience based on our mutual interests and goals. I approached it without any real emotion, just grateful for the opportunity to share an important goal with a like-minded colleague. Our personal relationship became strengthened as I found out more about my friend as a result of us sharing a living space, facts that I never before imagined. I learned more about her situation, for example, some of the financial struggles she was up against and the lack of uniform parental support that caused her hardship. In order to put herself through school she was serving at a restaurant and she spoke about how difficult this was: how little sleep she got; her challenges with her limited living space; and how she was studying computer science—in part—to be able to afford educational opportunities for her own future own children. She spoke about how her mother had said she did not need to be educated because—of her gender—she would only become a homemaker. I never knew how much she had struggled merely because of her gender.

I was emotionally impacted by all of this. The magnitude of the emotions that I felt were indescribable. I felt mad, sad, angry, depressed, and yet full of pride for my friend. Though my lived experience was different from hers, her pain, her sadness, her bitterness, and her resentment of those family members whom she felt were not supportive resonated with me. I had thought I was just going on a routine business trip with a colleague, and it turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me.

Part of the reason her story spoke to me is because I am a transgender woman. My STEM journey has been similarly marked by gender-identity. Obstacles that I have encountered along the way have further enlightened me on the challenges some women face in the field of STEM, and this has helped strengthen my own identity as a woman. Having undergone gender reassignment surgery more than two years ago to become fully female, one of the most supportive and accepting communities I am part of is that of women in STEM.

I recently saw my MIT friend at a meeting for a well-known software company in Cambridge. I asked her how she was doing and she responded that she was getting more sleep and was engaged. I felt so glad that she was doing well, and felt so unbelievably ecstatic that I may have played a part in her success, simply by listening and providing her some encouragement and support. Largely because of this encounter, I have shifted most of my research efforts to focus on broadening the reach of mathematics education, rather than simply mathematics. Ever since that turning point, I have focused all my resources on STEM education and outreach and I have never been happier.

Amy Beth Prager

Amy Beth Prager is an applied mathematician whose research focuses on improving gender (and other forms of) diversity within STEM. Her primary interest in the 21st century is in CS/STEM outreach to young women and girls, which is derived from her rare perspective on these matters. Amy is a postoperative transgendered woman, who has been both a male and a female in the technology industry, and she sees the vast differences in perception and treatment that she feel no cisgendered person could ever realize. Amy is extremely passionate about these issues and would welcome the opportunity to be an integral part of any diversity awareness program in the U.S. or globally.

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