Harry Potter and the Order of Infallible Idols


Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter

Much like the bespeckled boy wizard at Hogwarts, I spent my formative days at a school where science and magic were commonplace, the house you were sorted into determined your social circles, and dementors were at the ready to torture our fragile souls.  And much like Albus Dumbledore, there were faculty members who were larger than life. We all had our infallible idols: Most had Richard Feynman, but I had Tom Apostol.  Anyone who has read J. K. Rowling’s beloved novels knows (spoiler alert!) Professor Dumbledore isn’t as perfect as Harry Potter once thought he was. And anyone who’s read about the Nobel Prize awardee knows Richard Feynman wasn’t perfect either. (Office hours at Strip Clubs?  Really??). But what happens to that student who realizes her or his idols aren’t infallible?

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Actively Embracing Mentoring

In December 28, 2016 former President Obama’s Presidential Proclamation declared January National Mentoring Month. In this document he stated:

“Nobody succeeds on their own: each young person’s strength and resilience is fostered by those who have taught them they can do anything they put their mind to. Whether helping mentees study for a test, learn a new skill, or lift their heads up after a setback, mentors provide them the chance they need to move forward and set their sights even higher.” – Mr. Barack Obama

(You may read the proclamation in its entirety here.)

I often ask myself what constitutes mentoring in the mathematical community? Is it teaching our students calculus, how to write proofs, and/or advising their thesis? Or is there more? Even more importantly, how have students (and early career mathematicians) benefitted from mentoring?

I think we’d agree that mentoring can take many forms and teaching is one way to mentor students. Having great teachers in the classroom can make the world of difference for students, both in terms of academic achievement and in building confidence. But my most memorable and life changing mentoring experiences have hardly ever taken place within a classroom setting. They occurred because someone stepped up, with zero regard for how their actions would benefit them, and helped me in some way. From reaching out to make sure I am well, to suggesting conferences to attend, to helping me edit essays for scholarships, or even job materials, my many mentors have never received any benefit other than the joy of seeing me both fall and get back up, and at times succeed.

These mentoring experiences are what I’d like to call our attention to. I want to remind us that small actions can have a large impact on not only our students, but our peers, colleagues, and our community. With this goal I reached out to a selected group of students and faculty friends who contributed the following anecdotal stories of the impact mentoring has had on them and their careers.

Mentoring stories

“When I was a sophomore in high school, taking pre-calculus, my teacher Mr. Huckstep, on a day when we did a review, he came to me and asked me to be on the math academic team. He was the coach for the team and he sat next to me and said `I’m basically going to groom you to be captain over the next couple of years.’ I had been doing well in my math classes since high school started, so it wasn’t like I needed a confidence boost, but I had a shaky relationship with math since I failed Algebra in seventh grade, but this was the end of that. He did exactly what he said. During the season, every Friday, I spent an hour after school, with some of my best friends, being exposed to math in a friendly, stress-free environment. Years later I write this short paragraph, excelling as a math major at Williams College. It may have been possible without him, but it wouldn’t have been so certain, or with as deep a passion and appreciation.” — Anthony Simpson, Math and Computer Science double major at Williams College

Students at Shanti Bhavan

Nohemi’s students at Shanti Bhavan

“Shanti Bhavan is truly a haven of peace for the children of southern India. Having been blessed with the opportunity to teach/mentor kids this summer at this nonprofit boarding school allowed me to not only teach my students what I know, but to also learn a lot from them. A very memorable moment with one of my students was seeing the face of my fourth grader, Arasu, lighten up after finishing every math assignment. One day after finishing all of his math problems, he happily said to me, ‘Miss Nohemi, I’m finished! Can you please give me a really challenging math problem?’ Smiling at him, I gladly wrote down on his piece of paper 999 x 99. A few moments later he came back to me with the right answer. I continued to give him more and more challenging problems to work on until we got to 9^8. After showing him an example of how to solve these type of math problems, he continued on to his seat. He came back to me a few times, but had not quite yet gotten the right answer. I offered to help him and I told him that it was fine if he tried to do it up until the fourth power rather than the 8th, but he only looked up at me, smiled, and went right ahead onto his desk. After a few days had passed, on an afternoon when the rest of the students were playing soccer, he approached me with two sheets of paper and many, many numbers. His answer was finally correct! Arasu had not given up on the problem despite the difficulty of it, and neither had he stopped trying despite the amount of times that he continued to redo his work. At that moment not only was I very proud, but I was also so full of joy knowing that Arasu’s perseverance had conquered in the end. Right then and there I saw myself in him since I was the same way when I was his age. I always understood that no matter how many times we fall in the midst of difficulty, in the end all we have left to do is to write down all of those problems on a sheet of paper and start conquering them one by one.” — Nohemi Sepulveda, Mathematics major at Williams College


Dr. Van Nguyen and Professor Susan Geller

“Besides my Ph.D. advisor and many more mentors I have been fortunate to met along my career path, Professor Susan (Sue) Geller (Texas A&M University) is among the first ones that showed me what it means to be a mentor. I have never taken Sue’s class nor been her research advisee, but I had worked with her in coordinating various outreach/seminar events. I knew Sue was very experienced in her career and I reached out to her for help when it came to my first job interview in graduate school. To my surprise, she did not simply reply my email back with an ‘Ok, see you in my office’ appointment but she offered to take me out for lunch; and we had a fruitful conversation in which she provided me with valuable guidance, including interview techniques and career advice. After that, she went far and beyond to arrange several more lunch meetings with the female graduate students and postdocs who were on the job market that year, with a purpose: to ease our job search process. We learned so much from her experience and inspiring stories, especially as a female Mathematician in the early 1970’s. (Sue makes endless efforts to promote opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities in mathematical sciences — another factor that I really admire and look up to). Little did she know, that one initiative lunch had a great impact on me. I benefit not only from her continuous support, but also from the example that she sets out as a mentor/teacher. Her enthusiasm and dedication motivate me to be a better teacher who is willing to take an extra step to reach out to students, and inspires them the way she has inspired me. I would never forget the sight of Sue waiting for me with a bright smile as I walked down the graduation stage; and that warm hug she gave me at my Ph.D. graduation ceremony is the most vivid proof of a proud, caring, and devoted teacher she has been to her students.” — Dr. Van Nguyen, Zelevinsky Research Instructor at Northeastern University

“Throughout my academic life I have been lucky to know really amazing professors, academic advisers, thesis adviser and even administrators, who have helped me advance as a student. However, some of the most meaningful mentoring has come from my peers. As an undergraduate student I found myself in a very difficult personal situation, so I had not seriously considered graduate school. My classmate and friend, Ashley Weatherwax, pushed me to attend conferences. At one of the conferences she took the initiative and introduced me to a professor who later became my PhD adviser. He invited me to visit the school, but I was hesitant. Ashley knew this and tricked me one morning by telling me she wanted to take me to a nearby park for a run, but instead drove me from Dallas to Arlington, TX to meet with the faculty in the graduate program. Ashley saw potential in me and did not take no for an answer. I can honestly say my life would be really different now if she had not believed in me.” — Alicia Prieto Langarica, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Youngstown State University

Mentoring comes full circle

Below is Elise Eckman’s story. Elise is a student of Dr. Alicia Prieto Langarica.

“Starting off my first semester at Youngstown State University was frightening to say the least. The change from the structure of high school to the freedom of college was not an expected change. I was in need of some guidance and thankfully, I was placed into Dr. Prieto’s Calculus 2 class. After proving to be a better than average math student, Dr. Prieto called me into her office to recruit me to pursue a math major, as I was currently a mechanical engineering student. After some deliberation, I left her office planning to obtain a double major. Very soon after we met in her office, Dr. Prieto asked if I would be interested in doing research with her. Of course, I agreed. Since working with her, I have been presented with so many opportunities. For example, I have met other math majors in YSU, other math majors in different colleges, and math professors from all over the United States. I have traveled to places I thought I would never go, and I have been working on a topic in math that is not covered in undergraduate math courses. Without Dr. Prieto, I would not have the future waiting for me that I do now. With her guidance and thoughtful attention, I now have direction and confidence in my studies. I am very thankful that she took me under her wing and believed in my potential.” — Elise Eckman, Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering double major at Youngstown State University

These stories illustrate that there is no one algorithm for mentoring. Mentoring does not have to be a scheduled event, nor a formal process for it to be effective (although these may help!). However, it does require you to care enough and to act in a way that benefits others. It is also timely, it requires you to be available and present when someone needs you.

Among your new year resolutions, I urge you make this year one in which you actively embrace mentoring. This resolution’s benefit may not yield a smaller pant size, but it will have a great impact on the members of our mathematical community.


In hopes of helping you get started, I append a short (and definitely incomplete) list of organizations in math and STEM that provide mentoring opportunities.

  • The Math Alliance wants to ensure that every underrepresented or underserved American student with the talent and the ambition has the opportunity to earn a doctoral degree in a mathematical science.
  • Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) Mentor Network matches mentors, both men and women, with girls and women who are interested in mathematics or are pursuing careers in mathematics. Also has applications for mentoring grants to help pre-tenure women work with a research mentor during a summer. 
  • The Global STEM Alliance has a variety of mentoring programs, from 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures, to afterschool STEM Mentoring. They are led by The New York Academy of Sciences, and this organization recruits STEM professionals, postdocs and grad students to act as role models and mentors to STEM-interested students in communities around the world. 
  • StudentMentor.org an online mentoring program that seeks to increase college completion and career readiness by utilizing its technology platform to connect college students with professionals. 
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of America “seeks to change the lives of children facing adversity for the better, forever.” There are locations all across the United States and their mentors work with children in the community, in their schools, on military bases, and many places in between. 

If you want to find additional mentoring opportunities the Mentoring Connector is a national database of youth mentoring programs vetted for quality standards. The Connector is operated by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. 

Happy mentoring!

Have a great mentoring story to share or an additional organization to mention? Please share it in the comment section below.

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Publishing Research with Undergraduate Co-authors

This is a guest post from Ursula Whitcher, Associate Editor at Mathematical Reviews.

One of the highlights of the Joint Math Meetings every January is the undergraduate student poster session, where hundreds of students present original research projects. Have you mentored undergraduate research? Are you working on a paper based on your results? If so, where will you submit it?

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The 2016 SACNAS conference reignited my dreams

The following is a guest post from Duncan Rocha drocha@g.hmc.edu.

First, allow me to introduce myself. I am Duncan Rocha, a Tejano/Scottish crossbreed from San Francisco, California. I am a little more than two months into my college experience at Harvey Mudd College as a physics major, and so far it has been more than I could possibly ask for.

My father was the record-breaker in his 100% Mexican-American family. Being the first to go to college and eventually earn a masters degree, he conducted research in many branches of physics. Naturally, as a young boy, those were the shoes I wanted to step into. Growing up, though, has made me realize that my interest in physics has not been a string of boyhood fantasies and ideals. It has been a true passion for understanding the universe. As I grew older, I took physics into my own hands, flipping through any material I could find. I learned about research at the LHC, Fermilab, and many other facilities. To me, that was the dream. If I could just make it to Ligo, to the LHC, to an office in a university, I could fill the shoes that a great physicist wears. My childhood dreams, of lab coats and notebooks and complicated mathematical symbols scribbled on a blackboard, would be fulfilled. That is the image I has always painted myself into, but I have never really felt like it was within my reach. Especially as my other dreams faded out of existence, like going to the MLB hall of fame or becoming a star musician, it felt like my dream of being a great physicist was fading too. I never felt like the opportunity might never present itself, and if it were to, it would be years, if not decades, in the future.

I was wrong.

I walked into the SACNAS conference without a clue about what to expect. As I stepped into the exhibit hall, I was simply astounded. The pure vastness of the conference left me a little dazed. I think I managed to mutter a small “whoa” as I wobbled in, eyes wide at the sight. Thousands of people packed corridors upon corridors of booths, each flying different colors of schools, research institutes, or companies. Not only that, but the entire fair was surrounded on three sides by what I estimated was close to a thousand research boards. I began to explore the sea of science and math, but one booth quickly caught my eye. I strolled on over, not really sure what to say or where to begin, because the name of the booth had suddenly opened floodgates in my mind. It was Ligo. All of the stories I read about it, all of the chatter about gravitation waves and the fascination of all the intellectuals and even my own father, all of it came to the forefront of my mind when I approached the booth. This was it! This was an opportunity to step into the shoes of the image of the adult Duncan I had sculpted as a kid, and I was chatting with a man who could give me a chance to fulfill that dream. There is nothing more I could have asked for than to spark that flame, to reignite the hope I had when I was a kid that I would someday become a great physicist. I didn’t even care that a freshman almost certainly couldn’t get an internship at Ligo, I just needed something to reestablish the dream of my future. After that first encounter, I went on to explore the rest of the conference, but those two or three minutes at the Ligo booth were the most impactful for me of any other moment.

I hope, and as a matter of fact I know, that I was not the only young student who had their hopes and dreams reestablished by the SACNAS conference. I know they will continue to inspire young Latino/as and native American minds to aspire to become leaders in their fields.

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What is this “Graduate School thing” again?

Recently a former REU student stopped by to tell me of her plans. She will graduate within the next semester and plans to attend graduate school afterwards. But she told me something surprising: she really doesn’t know what one does in graduate school.

Even though I don’t want to admit it, I have this conversation with undergraduates pretty often. So let me present a FAQ about graduate school. Continue reading

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Are you thriving or surviving?

We are lucky to have another guest post from the amazing mathematician and educator Candice Price, who recently moved to Southern California!

Maybe I am just too demanding? Maybe I am just like my advisor, too busy? Recently, this thought left me thinking a lot about my academic future. I discussed this with one of my mentors, and favorite people, Chelsea Walton and she posed the following question to me: “Candice (this is what she calls me), are you thriving or surviving?” Having just started a tenure track position, this question came at a critical time in my career. Thinking about my career in these terms, striving versus surviving, I focused on the following aspects of my career.

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Lessons learned at an REU are lessons for life

This is a post written with the goal of reaching undergraduate students who have participated in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) or are in the process of completing one. I have been thinking of the lessons that students can learn during a research experience, especially how to make the positive effects of the REU last well beyond the summer, perhaps forever. Like most things in life, this requires effort from the student as well as the research mentor, so I urge faculty mentors to consider these suggestions too. What follows is a result of conversations with faculty members Lei Cheng (Olivet Nazarene University), Albert Kim (Middlebury College), Qin Lu (Lafayette College), Neelesh Tiruviluamala (University of Southern California), Talitha Washington (Howard University), and Ping Ye (Quincy University). Continue reading

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Service Statement: Beat Overcommitment

Service to your institution and to the broader mathematical community is an invigorating experience. Whether its connecting with people to provide opportunities for engagement in mathematics, opening doors for youth who wouldn’t have access otherwise, or filling a need in your department, service is an inherently important function of an academic. One of the challenges for junior mathematicians is determining what service initiatives to become involved with. It is easy for us to be excited about many service opportunities, only to later realize we’ve become extremely overcommitted. Many friends of mine who are tenure-track faculty find themselves especially challenged in this capacity, finding that their service commitments greatly impact the time they spend on scholarship.

This is especially true for underrepresented mathematicians. As one of the only faculty in several underrepresented groups on my campus I receive an extraordinarily disproportionate amount of service requests. There is no feasible way for me to participate in all of these opportunities even if my job was solely those commitments. So what does one do to reduce their service load?

One strategy is to set a hard limit on the number of service requests one engages in for a given window of time; for example, committing to only 3 service initiatives in a particular semester. Personally, a real difficulty with this is dealing with FOMO (fear of missing out). The challenge I have found with deciding what service to engage in is not saying no to the things that I don’t want to do, but saying no to the many things that I am intrinsically motivated to participate in.

In order to approach this service overcommitment dilemma I asked myself a fundamental question: without specific details, what can I offer to the mathematical community that is something I am passionate about, something that is not commonly offered, and something that I feel would be my unique contribution. This lead to my service statement:

“Empowerment, engagement and inclusion through mathematical problem solving.”

A brief introduction: I entered the mathematical world through high school math competitions. Contests set the foundation for the opportunities that lead to my career path. During the time I was involved in these programs, I always noticed a striking issue of underrepresentation in these arenas. Combining my interest in mathematical problem solving with addressing issues of underrepresentation in mathematics, I’ve decided to make my service statement all about using mathematical problem solving as a vehicle to increase representation in math.

So how does this help with the service dilemma? When propositioned with a service request I now ask one simple question before deciding to accept or reject: “Is this in line with my service statement?” If no, I am very likely to say no. This has allowed me to focus my service on issues I am deeply passionate about. It has reduced my stress around completing service tasks significantly. Moreover, it has labeled me in the community as a go-to person for my initiative. This has opened doors to many opportunities that lie right along-side my goals.

I high recommend a service statement. It has been a tremendous help in managing my contributions to the community, and engaging in a wholeheartedly fulfilling way.

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An Academic Party of One

This is a guest post from the one and only Candice Price.

I was teaching when I wrote this so forgive me if it goes astray. But I have been to many panels on work life balance. They normally consist of (mostly) women discussing how they balance being a wife or mother and being a mathematician. Which is great! Some of my favorite people are wives or mothers. But I am not. So I sometimes feel like the information discussed doesn’t apply to me. I am wrong. Even without being a wife or mother, it is important that I, a single, non parental academic, make sure that I balance my work and life. Here are some of the pitfalls and solutions I have discovered when it comes to balancing my single non parental life with my work life.

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The Power of Two: Two Tips for Mathematicians

Every person I know, even mathematicians, have their favorite numbers. Mine used to be 13, because I liked being contrarian. Then I switched to 17 because it was the seventh prime number and I also liked 7. But what is so special about the number 2? Of course, it is the only even prime, but what else?

If you did not know before, you might be interested to learn (from Wikipedia) that 2 is the only number x such that the sum of all the reciprocals of the powers of x equals x. Wikipedia will also tell you that “powers of two are central to the concept of Mersenne primes, and important to computer science.” There are even interesting things to learn about the power of two in poetry. But why should readers of the e-Mentoring Network blog care?

On these blog pages, readers will find personal success stories to learn from and thoughtful essays chock-full of solid advice. My goal writing here has been a lot more modest. From the beginning, I have tried to share things I have learned from the vast literature about productivity and then personally tried to implement into my own idiosyncratic life. In my first post here, I wrote about writing things down, how “getting things out of your head and into a trusted system” can be helpful. Then I wrote about how making a plan for your summer as you ease into it might be a good idea. Finally last summer I wrote about digital organization. Along the way I also wrote a little post about giving math talks and there too I have tried to share what I learned from others and what seems to work well for myself (whenever I can get myself to listen to myself!)

So this post is about two great tips involving the number 2 that I learned along the way. They will perhaps not double your happiness or fortune, but I promise you that you will not regret it if you do decide to take them along for the ride.

Here is the first one: The Two-Minute Rule. I learned this from David Allen’s famous book Getting Things Done, but it is easy to learn it independently of his program. The rule is quite simple:

If you find something on your to-do list that you could do in two minutes, just do it!

Of course this works well if you have a to-do list, but it can be applied to many other contexts. So here are some corollaries:

Corollary 1. If you are going through your email inbox and you see some emails that are easy to answer quickly (and, this is absolutely essential, only if they are worth answering), then go ahead and respond.

Corollary 2. If you have to print out some handouts for your class that you have already prepared, just go ahead and print when you remember to.

Corollary 3. If you need to go to the bathroom, just go!

(Ok, maybe the last one there did not need to be included, but some of us need to be occasionally reminded of this! This and “You should go and fill up your water bottle when it is empty.”)

What is the point of the two-minute rule? It is simple: It clears your inbox, it clears your to-do list, it helps you move forward, and it makes you feel good about yourself. That is a handful of points all at once. But there is more.

The two-minute rule also trains your mind to look at tasks on your list in a time-sensitive way. You learn eventually to think more carefully about how much certain types of tasks will take you. This is amazingly helpful when you are thinking of taking on new tasks. You might find that you just have too much on your plate already. Wouldn’t that be a good thing to notice before you take on more?

Alright, time to move on to the second tip invoking the special powers of 2: To rhyme with the first one, I will call this The Two-Week Rule. Here it goes:

When you receive a revise-and-resubmit request from a journal about your paper submission, turn it around in two weeks.

Sometimes this may mean that you will be dropping some of the other balls on the air to the ground, but it will only be temporary. And once you do turn that paper around in two weeks, you will feel so great! And yes, it is almost always doable. Ok, if you were asked to incorporate a new semester’s worth of data to the paper, then maybe not so much. But often the requests are much more minor than that. Even when the referees are asking for “major revision”, you can often take care of it in two intense weeks.

I have used this tip myself with much success. Each time I have received feedback, even some that I was quite unpleased with, I gave myself one whole day to fume and bicker, and then I started the clock. Literally. Once I actually counted the total number of minutes it took me to handle a set of referee reports. I have seen that it has taken me about twenty-four hours. That is one full day, but spread over a couple weeks, it is not that bad. And in the end, you can still keep the “submitted” tag on your CV for that paper until it is accepted!

I have to admit that I do not do this all the time. In fact there is a paper that is still sitting in the depths of my computer filing system waiting to be revised. My defense: the four referees each requested that I do something totally contradictory to the others’ requests. So I basically gave up. But was that wise of me? No. I do believe in the paper, so I should get my act together and take care of it. And after writing this post, now we all know that I have to do it in two weeks. What do you think? Can I?

Gizem Karaali is associate professor of mathematics at Pomona College and a founding editor of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. She is also an associate editor of the Mathematical Intelligencer and of Numeracy. Follow Gizem at @GizemKaraali_.

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