Staying the path: Motivation through graduate school

Student Authors: Alberto Alonso, Jasmine Camero, Alejandra Castillo, Fabrice O. Ulysse, Victoria Uribe, Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, and Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

Graduate school is a journey. It has its positive moments and its struggles, but one thing is clear: the goal is to obtain the PhD. So what is our drive and motivation for obtaining a PhD? This was a topic for reflection and discussion among the participants and organizers of Math SWAGGER. The Mathematics Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness (Math SWAGGER — is a five-week virtual program that brings together a group of underrepresented current and incoming graduate students (including women, underrepresented minorities – African Americans, American Indians including Native Alaskans, Latinxs/Hispanics, and Native Pacific Islanders – and persons with disabilities) for a workshop on graduate school readiness to address and create action plans for underrepresented students to navigate challenges and situations while successfully completing a PhD in the mathematical sciences.

In this article, three incoming PhD students and two current graduate students provide their reflections on their motivation to complete their graduate studies and what mentors could do to help strengthen, support, and further motivate them throughout their journeys. As you read some of the authors’ reflections you will get a glimpse into their lives and also see some similarities in motivation factors, including, a passion for mathematics, people, and community.


Alberto Alonso

Alberto Alonso is a Mexican-American who will be pursuing a PhD in Mathematical Modelling at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He graduated with degrees in Applied Mathematics and Sociology from SUNY Geneseo. Alberto intends to focus his studies in Mathematical Biology to better understand the spread of diseases, or medicinal drug transportation in the human body. In his spare time, he enjoys baking, playing classical music, and crocheting.

Alberto Alonso: Pursuing a PhD in mathematics has always been the end goal in my academic career since high school. Initially, my motivation for pursuing such a degree came from wanting to wear the doctoral regalia. However, as I continued through to my undergraduate studies, I realized that earning a PhD meant much more. The title of being called “Dr.” brings such a different tone when people address you– a level of respect that was not always apparent during my experience in mathematics, and in academia as a whole. Being able to prove to “the world” that a gay Latino can earn a PhD is a motivator, but definitely not the main one that comes to mind.

What really pushes me forward is the support of my family. Being the first-born in a Latino family, a first-generation student in college, from immigrant parents who moved to America not knowing the language, what motivates me is achieving the “American Dream” for my family. To give back to them the way they have always provided for me– that is the greatest motivator. My parents have always believed that working hard, and staying focused will get you far in life, and I am willing to make any sacrifices that may come my way. Secondary to the latter, I want to be able to be “the person” for anyone who is pursuing a career in STEM. It would have been great to see a reflection of me in academia sooner, to affirm that I can make it in STEM, and that I’m not alone in academia. I want to be the recluse for someone to be able to relate to and empathize with where they are coming from.

Right before I started undergrad, my institution had a program that brought together a cohort of people from underrepresented groups to help prepare students for undergraduate work. The cohort was structured in a way that helped expand our thinking socially and academically, to notice nuances in our experiences that may not be apparent or present for others; and this was aided with the help of mentors in the program as well. The mentorship that was provided by upperclassmen and facilitators really prepared me for my academic career, and being a participant in Math SWAGGER could have not come at a better time.

As I was applying to graduate schools, there was this constant fear of not being ready for graduate studies. Having also taken a two-year hiatus from school to work a corporate job also did not help in mitigating my fears. No one in my extended family ever sought out to pursue a higher degree–I felt completely alone until I became a part of Math SWAGGER. The group reminds me of the summer before my undergraduate studies, and I could not be more grateful for the people that brought this group of people together.

To be able to listen to other people’s experiences, and to be able to learn from professors and 3rd, 4th years alike, is an experience that will be irreplaceable. Moreover, the mentorship that the group exudes is helping me prepare for what to expect in graduate school. It perpetuates the feeling of unity, and togetherness that I would not otherwise find once I start my program. Being connected to a group of bright, humble, funny people gives me the confidence to pursue the PhD program, and motivates me to “make it.”


Jasmine Camero

Jasmine Camero is a Mexican-American who, in the fall, will be an incoming Mathematics PhD student at Emory University. Born in Santa Ana, California, she earned her B.A. in Mathematics from California State University, Fullerton. With a PhD, she plans on becoming a professor and serving as a role model for all underrepresented groups, especially women of color like herself. As a professor, one of her goals is to plunge into spreading her admiration for such an influential subject to others. During Jasmine’s free time, she enjoys cooking and baking, working out, and playing with her dog.

Jasmine Camero: Motivation is described as something that causes a person to behave in a certain way. To me, motivation is defined as the desire and passion to do something you want, but that may not always be easy. Now, motivation, from the perspective of a graduate student, can hold many meanings. However, for a person of color who is navigating academia, motivation is not something that is always constant. When tackling a responsibility that will take five to six years of your life, such as completing a PhD, you will need a lot of grit because the secret to success is not purely from talent, but from perseverance.

So, why go to graduate school? Following the motivation session in Math SWAGGER, I realized that my purpose and my motivation is an amalgamation of reasons. It has to start with the mathematics. If you plan on dedicating an extensive portion of your time doing something, you have to enjoy it. We must relish in the idea of further uncovering the world of mathematics because the discoveries we make in the field can hopefully one day gear the societal progress we need. However, it is never just about this. It has to be more than that. Graduate school is definitely not going to be easy, so if I am going to put myself through that, there has to be more. There has to be people. Much like Math SWAGGER has been emphasizing, community is critical and extremely influential in building our framework as people and as students. Being a part of Math SWAGGER, I am now part of a welcoming environment that only celebrates the stories and experiences of underrepresented folks. It has made me more aware that we must take the extra steps to create these spaces for us to connect, relate to one another, and support each other through the ups and downs of this journey.

Another incentive to continue my academic journey is my family. As a first-generation, Latina student studying mathematics, I obtain pleasure in the anomaly that my presence in the world of academia holds. I have never felt prouder to be a first-generation student. I am the first in my family to earn my bachelor’s degree and I cannot wait to earn my doctoral degree in mathematics. My parents were not afforded the opportunities that I have had so it is really important to me to do this not only for myself, but for my entire family. Although they may not completely understand this journey that I am on, I know I can eternally count on their encouragement.

After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, my ultimate career goal is to become a professor. I would like to be at an academic institution where I can research, teach, and facilitate the development of future mathematicians because I believe mentors have a strong impact on students. The latter of these tasks is super important to me because, as a person of color who loves math, I recognize that members of underrepresented groups wanting to enter STEM fields still face systemic hurdles. I want to do my part in removing those hurdles by becoming a role model and mentor for those looking to enter the field. This is what I believe mentoring is about–providing productive direction and encouragement while being an advocate for the success of the students.

Motivation can hold various definitions for everyone and requires a subjective aspect for each individual, but one thing that can be agreed on is that motivation is what keeps us going–this can be your family, your cohort, or simply people you have encountered along the way. I constantly remind myself that everyone’s journey is different, and it may not be perfect, but as long as you enjoy what you are doing, then it is all worth it.


Alejandra Castillo

Alejandra Castillo is a graduate student in Statistics at Oregon State University with research interests in unsupervised learning, statistical inference, and statistics education. She received her B.A. in math from Pomona College and calls the nearby San Gabriel Valley home. Alejandra also enjoys hiking, finding good boba places, listening to podcasts, and reading.

Alejandra Castillo: My motivation to pursue a graduate degree has changed a few times. There are aspects that have not, such as the support from my family, working on problems in/with statistics and my goal to help broaden the path for others in higher education. As a current graduate student, I’ve come to see that there is no one way to do well in graduate school because growing and growing pains are at the center of it all.

In college, I learned that there were intellectually enriching professions. I became interested in this active exchange of ideas. I could not believe that these were jobs. I could not believe that part of professors’ jobs was to learn, teach, and keep learning. Representation is powerful, so being surrounded by people with PhDs, I became interested in graduate school. While I enjoyed what I was learning, ultimately it was fellow classmates and professors who kept me engaged despite the obstacles. Mentors throughout college were instrumental in supporting my interest in math. They have been key in humanizing math and thereby making it accessible.

In discussing the topic of motivation with the Math SWAGGER community, similar themes of family and representation emerged for many of us. The organizers also shared with us their motivations throughout graduate school. Their willingness to share personal stories has been moving because it reminds me that no one really has a perfect graduate school experience, but people can help make it better. In an effort to help us grow, one organizer challenged us to think more critically about how we will use any source of motivation to persist in challenging circumstances. This resonated with me because of the instances in graduate school where I have felt isolated. There have been times where, as much as my family wants to help, they can’t. I believe that this is where graduate mentors can help. They can meet students where they are, be advocates and share opportunities, among other things. I’ve been fortunate to find mentors who are willing to listen, offer advice, and demonstrate care beyond the academic transaction that might be coursework.

I can’t help but think about how helpful having these conversations would have been prior to beginning graduate school. This is why I am very excited to learn and share what I’ve learned with incoming graduate students. I have found a new community in the space Math SWAGGER has created.


Fabrice O. Ulysse

Fabrice O. Ulysse is a Haitian-American incoming PhD Student in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Notre Dame. His current research interests are in Algebra and Logic. Born and raised in Canarsie, Brooklyn, NY, he received his A.B. Cum Laude in Mathematics from Cornell University. He hopes to become a Professor. His interests outside of mathematics are politics, music, film, the Premier League, NBA, and NCAA Ice Hockey.

Fabrice O. Ulysse: When I finished my Bachelor of Arts in May, some of my fellow math majors let me know they’ve had enough of math and are glad they don’t have to do it again. Other undergraduates could not entertain the idea of spending any more time in school, at least not at the moment, and felt that they’d learned enough. I, on the other hand, still feel like I have more to learn and more to do in mathematics. This hunger to learn more in math, and one day contribute to math, made me realize that I see myself being a professor, hence further motivating me to pursue a PhD. Even when I’m tired of doing mathematics, I always enjoy reading pieces and books about the History of Mathematics and reading articles about the current state of Mathematics research on Quanta Magazine. I am fortunate that my love for mathematics has kept me going.

Passion for mathematics is often the first source of motivation to get through graduate school mentioned by incoming grad students. However, that passion for mathematics gets tested during the PhD years. Furthermore, it can completely go away from time to time. So the love of the subject alone won’t get one through the 5-6 years of the PhD. I know that Abstract Algebra would not have been nearly as fun without the study group I formed. We spent many hours together, suffered, bonded, and enjoyed lots of funny moments. This study group even made doing mathematics more fun and exciting. I looked forward to studying with them every week, and this group was vital to my success in the course. Likewise, the great friends and mentors at MSRI-UP in 2019, kept my dream of pursuing a PhD alive, even when I almost gave up on it.

There are several spaces where I’ve met many URMs in the mathematical sciences. Those spaces have given me the confidence to pursue a PhD, partly because I know that other people that look like me have succeeded and are even thriving. Math SWAGGER is now one of those spaces, and it is allowing me to make more meaningful connections with other black and brown mathematicians, hence helping me build a community. These are people I can contact for professional, academic, or even life advice, with the added benefit that they can understand my experiences as a minority in math. I know that I will not be lonely for the next 5 years, because of this network of support. So far, during Math SWAGGER, the personal stories from professors and graduate students have often emphasized the importance of community. It became clear how crucial having a good community was during the darkest hours of the PhD, which is one of my biggest takeaways from last week. I now know that building and finding communities, even if they’re not on campus, will be essential to get through graduate school.

Lastly, I believe that mentors should not make their mentees feel guilty about wanting a life outside of mathematics. It could make them question if they’re a fan of mathematics, and ultimately negatively affects their motivation. It also denies the reality that we are multifaceted beings, and are capable of enjoying more than a select few related activities.


Victoria Uribe

Victoria Uribe is a Mexican-American PhD student in Applied Mathematics at Arizona State University. Her current research interests include inverse problems, numerical linear algebra, and machine learning. Raised in Paradise, California, she received her B.S. in Applied Mathematics from California State University, Chico. After graduation, she hopes to work as an Applied Mathematician in the aerospace industry. Her interests outside of mathematics include triathlon, weightlifting, traveling, and writing.

Victoria Uribe: My motivation for completing my PhD program is generated in large part from having eliminated alternative career paths. Before starting graduate school for applied mathematics, I first attended a semester of law school. Despite getting my undergraduate degree in applied mathematics, I decided in 8th grade that I would become an attorney, and I was determined to see it through. I had always enjoyed math but thought that I needed to become an attorney to really help people. I thought that it would be the most tangible way to make a positive impact in the Latinx community. Within two weeks of law school, however, I knew that I was in the wrong place. I felt as though I was missing out on the “next thing” I would have otherwise learned in math. I quickly dismissed these thoughts, believing that the math PhD I was dreaming of would be considered selfish: something that only benefitted my own interests.

It wasn’t until I met with the Dean of Students about leaving law school that I realized how getting a PhD in applied mathematics could positively impact the Latinx community as well. She pointed out that few in the mathematics community look like me and that my success could help inspire others to pursue mathematics.

Transitioning from law school back into mathematics didn’t happen overnight. While studying for admissions exams and applying to graduate programs, I worked in an ice cream shop before finding a job in a corporate office. Having these jobs really made me appreciate being in school and pursuing my own interests. When it finally came time to start graduate school again, I couldn’t wait.

Many PhD students have told me that the first year is the hardest. Having just completed my first year, I certainly hope so! This past year brought many challenges, but I never truly considered giving up. I believe that taking several years between my undergraduate and graduate programs in applied mathematics allowed me to determine that, above anything else, this is what I want to be doing. Being a part of the Math SWAGGER workshop and community this summer has been a huge blessing. Going forward through the rest of my PhD journey, I am motivated by knowing that I have 37 allies in the other participants and leaders. Taking part in this group of underrepresented mathematicians, who want to create real and lasting change in our field, reaffirms my decision to positively impact the Latinx community via a PhD in applied mathematics.

Supportive mentors have been instrumental in my success thus far. My best mentors have been good listeners, have been invested in my well-being, and have been quick to share opportunities such as Math SWAGGER with me. It is important that mentors see their mentees as more than just students. While school is a full-time job, many students are also facing challenges outside of the classroom. Knowing that you have faculty cheering you on can make all the difference.

Acknowledgements: We acknowledge funding support for Math SWAGGER through the National Science Foundation Award #1744463.

Posted in General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Networking Basics for Math Undergrads

Joanne Beckford, Alex Christensen, Pamela E. Harris, Lucy Martinez, Eduardo Torres Davila, and Fabrice O. Ulysse

No matter what grades, awards, projects, skills, languages, etc. a person may have, networking is an essential skill and tool for success. It is no surprise, therefore, that networking is at the forefront of so many conversations about career opportunities. Networking, as defined in Webster’s, is the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business. This article will share advice and tips from several students on networking in the mathematical community, and in particular, how to make sure these relationships are productive.

Office Hours

One might not expect this, but office hours are not only a place for solving homework problems. Office hours are also where the professor gets to place a face to your homework and exams, and where you get to know the professor as a person. There is a lot of potential for non-coursework related conversations; topics could range from the professor’s research, to travel stories, or even finding out you both play Nintendo Switch. This, believe it or not, is a form of networking.

If you attend office hours often, and eventually decide to ask for a letter of recommendation, the professor will not only be able to attest to your academic ability, but also to your characteristics as an individual, hence improving the quality of the letter. Whether or not you ask for a letter of recommendation, it is a good idea to send an email to your professor at the end of the semester. These thank you emails serve to demonstrate your passion you had for their class. Sending an email to the professor of the class you liked will demonstrate that you are interested and it could lead to possible opportunities such as formal and informal mentoring relationships.

Another thing to note is that the words of the letter of recommendation are not the only things that matter, the social capital of the letter writer does too, since you will be benefiting from the letter writer’s network. There are times when the people reviewing your application happen to know your letter writers, and therefore understand the importance of letter writer’s co-sign of your abilities. The following tweet illustrates this process, and this is the essence of networking, and why it works:

We should also note that in office hours, you are often not just there with the instructor. Your classmates are there as well, making it a great time to meet other students in the course. Office hours are often where study groups for classes start, so it is highly beneficial to be there. In the process of doing this, you are expanding your network in your major and among your peers. This opens doors to new opportunities as you learn more about what they are involved in, or decide to start a new project together.


Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) is an NSF program that “supports active research participation by undergraduate students…” There are many REU programs at many U.S. colleges and universities in several disciplines. If you are a U.S. citizen, we highly encourage you to apply to REUs, and to as many as you can. It is not uncommon for people to apply to as many as 10 REUs! In an REU, you will have the opportunity to tackle some difficult research questions, surrounded by a bunch of people that also love the things that you are doing. You will likely gain some mentors and good friends. These relationships will allow you to start building a community outside of your home institution, i.e. expand your network. REUs have very competitive selection processes, so gaining admission signals to employers and graduate schools that you possess qualities that are the most suitable for the program. While REUs are not necessary for admission into graduate programs, they do help a great deal. After completing an REU, you will have developed research experience, presentation skills, and sometimes you will have submitted a scientific paper, each of which is a very positive addition to your application. You will also have a whole new network of people supporting you in achieving your goals. REUs also give you a stipend and assist you with housing, so money is usually not a concern. It must be noted that one typically needs at least two letters of recommendation to apply, so we will take the opportunity here to emphasize once again the importance of networking on your campus, and getting to know professors.

If you are unable to attend an REUs, getting involved in a research project at your institution is another good option. Researching at your own institution shows a level of maturity as a math student and working with a professor will help the professor get to know you better both mathematically and on a personal level. It is important, as mentioned above, that your professors at your university know you both in academics and beyond so that your future letter of recommendations are strong.


Conferences are a fantastic place to meet students and professors from other institutions. You might even meet someone from your institution for the very first time! To attend a conference, you should always look for funding opportunities to participate in the conference, such as by giving a poster presentation or talk about any previous research you may have done. Fund. This could be from your department, the conference itself, and programs or organizations you are a member of such as McNair, LSAMP, NSBE, SHPE, SACNAS, etc. The funding can usually cover the cost of your travel, food, and lodging, so make sure you can attend the conference at little to no cost. If you don’t know where to start finding funding, ask your professors! They can point you in the right direction.

Conferences can be quite overwhelming, especially large ones such as the Joint Mathematics Meeting. It can be quite easy to remain with people that you know. However, it is essential from time to time to step out of your comfort zone. You do not have to talk to every single person at the conference. It might help to set a goal to speak to two or three people and have some questions in mind for them, especially about their research interests. These interactions will be more fluid if you are genuinely interested in these individuals. Hence, allowing you to cultivate a productive relationship quickly. Having a business card, LinkedIn page, or, better yet, a personal website to give to the person, is an easy way to exchange contact information. It is necessary to make sure you stay in contact with the individual after the conference. A simple email the day after, where you remind them of your name, institution, and the topic of your conversation, can go a long way in building a new network.

Grad Fairs / Job Fairs

There are conferences designed to give students opportunities to interact with faculty and students from different universities or organizations in events such as a Grad Fair/Job Fair. While you are navigating a grad fair, make sure to talk to graduate students and professors. Come prepared and be ready to ask questions. If you are unsure of what questions to ask, we refer you to the blog Bank of REU/Grad Fair Questions which contains a list of questions you may ask at a grad fair. Asking valuable questions will show that you are a mature student and that you are serious about your career. Professors will be impressed that you came prepared with important questions. As mentioned in the conferences section, bringing a business card to a grad fair is one way to promote yourself and it will set you apart from most undergraduates attending the fair. Make sure to include important information in your business card such as your website, email and home institution.

While it is overwhelming to walk in a grad fair as there are a lot of people around you, we encourage you to come out of your comfort zone. Set a goal of how many booths you want to visit and make sure to select the ones that you will potentially be applying for graduate school or maybe summer opportunities. There are a lot of students who have been recruited at grad fairs for a job or for a graduate program. Be yourself and have fun!

Summer Schools

Oftentimes, REUs give you access to only a small pool of professors; and they may not be from the institution you are visiting. For instance, attending an REU at a site, you may not necessarily interact with all the math faculty at the institution. However, attending math classes at a summer school will allow you to interact with the professors from multiple institutions as well as with local students from the hosting institution. Spending a summer at a university will give you an idea of what attending that institution might look like during the academic year.

Applications to summer schools may include filling out google forms and funding requests. Some are more involved since they are more popular. Keep in mind that attending a summer school may give you the opportunity to be invited again. Professors might notice your academic growth and they could potentially be interested in mentoring you academically.

Another benefit of attending summer schools is that they are “guided conferences.” In other words, the first week is often an instructive week to get undergrads and first year grad students up to speed with the material and theme of the program. In addition, a summer school gives you a week to adjust to the material so you can prepare questions in advance. Remember that asking questions is important. Keep in mind that if you have questions, the student next to you will more than likely have the same questions as you! Therefore, do not be afraid or shy about raising your hand to ask a question as the rest of students will also benefit from them.

The following is a list of summer schools targeted for graduate students. However, if you email the organizers, they could give you an opportunity or chance to apply for it as an undergraduate student. Note that some of these programs may not run again – these are just examples of what you can look for when searching for summer schools.

Some summer school links:

For other summer schools (and conferences) we encourage you to check out the AMS Calendar of Events.

Online Networking

Given the current circumstances, most of what was mentioned in the sections above has moved online. We encourage you to look for online opportunities. Since online programs/conferences/workshops do not require you to travel, attending them will most likely be free. During these online events, make sure you take advantage of the time by asking professors and other graduate students for their emails. If you are with the right people, they will always be happy to offer their help. Creating connections via online platforms will help you in the future because people will (at a minimum) recognize your name. Make yourself known and the opportunities may come to you via these connections.


As a summary, we have compiled all the sections into the following list:

  • Office Hours: Visit your professors, get to know them and send thank you emails at the end of the semester.
  • Research: Apply for REUs and make sure you find a professor at your home institution to do research with as well.
  • Conferences: Come prepared to meet mathematicians and approach them after they give a talk. Ask for their emails and make sure to follow up after.
  • Grad Fairs/Job Fairs: Have a list of questions for the booths you want to visit. Have business cards ready and talk to graduate students, math faculty, and admissions personnel.
  • Summer Schools: Search for summer schools and apply for them. Search for these programs via the AMS calendar of events and through universities and math institutes.
  • Online Networking: Meet people virtually and search for online programs/workshops/conferences. Attending them will likely be free so take advantage of these opportunities to expand your network.

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Do I owe you?


The grad years

You accepted me into a graduate program having just given birth to my daughter 4 months prior. Offered me a fellowship in which I had reduced teaching responsibilities and when I did teach I was left to my own devices — teaching with no prior training other than the single hour when some professors pretended to be students in a classroom and asked me to “teach.” In this way, I learned by doing and I taught many students. Some of these students saw for the first time someone of their same ethnicity reflected back at them from the front of the room.

Throughout I was often made to feel like I owed a debt.

Is this sense of debt and continued expectation for me to be grateful for the opportunities I was provided due to being let into this program because you thought that no one else would accept me? Even with a near perfect GPA? Was the thought that because I started in community college I was going to be unprepared to succeed in any graduate program and so you’d take a chance on me? Was the default to admit me into a Masters program, even though my experience should have placed me in the PhD program? Was this based on preconceived notions of my mathematical abilities based on my ethnicity? On my gender? And when I was left with no supportive mentors and failed examinations did you feel vindicated because you knew I wasn’t ready?

If so, do I now owe you?

The postdoc years

Moving onto that first academic position, that familiar feeling of owing a debt returns. Being told that I should be grateful to have a job, as if I dug at the bottom of a barrel to find an academic position, when I selected this one among over 10 other great offers. Yet simultaneously getting the clear message that these offers only came because I am a Latina woman. Did you hire me because of these reasons? Maybe this is why I am often mistakenly called by the name of the only other person of color in the department… a Black woman. You can’t even tell us apart. Or how about those hallway conversations where you tell her that you met her husband and she corrects you: “I am not married, you met Pam’s husband.” To which he replied: “No I meant your husband… the Black fellow.” Because in your mind, a Latina woman and a Black man together is an unthinkable concept.

Is this why you ask me to mentor women and underrepresented students and tell me it is my job to fix issues of culture within departments in which I am perceived as a constant problem? The expectation that I fix the problems I point out and played no part in creating leads to my exhaustion. So you tire me out. Is this to make room for others whose faces are more reminiscent of those pictured in departmental images of years past? Pictures in which women didn’t appear until my lifetime, and our contributions are constantly erased. So, I should be grateful for the opportunity to be here now.

I ask again, do I owe you?

The tenure track years

Week one on the job a “colleague” told me I never had a real postdoc because it could not possibly compare to their postdoc at Elite University of the Universe. They kindly offer to help as long as they can list me as a mentee on their annual report. Was this because they saw me as a naive fool who they could manipulate to benefit from my work and sheer existence? I later learned that they continually attempted to sabotage my career behind closed doors. Going as far as harassing and intimidating a vocal and supportive advocate whose only mistake was to announce their plan to nominate me for an award. An award I won and for which they congratulated me to my face. All the while my teaching feedback from colleagues includes feedback gems like “today she held a cup of coffee and it made her appear warmer.” To add insult to injury, when I questioned the validity of this feedback, the response was a warning that people will hold grudges when I go up for promotion and tenure. After all, I should be grateful for their mentoring and help in navigating a tenure process that I was surely going to fail.

After years of being under constant surveillance… err mentoring, their narrative changed. My success became theirs, for they “supported” me and that surely helped me thrive. So now my many successes are diluted by those taking ownership of them — after all, what Latina woman could survive without rescue by people who pretend to support her while they pat themselves on the back for feigned caring. That familiar feeling returns — yet again, I am made to feel like I owe a debt.

The tenure process came and went with a positive result. Yet comparing records, we quickly realize the bar was higher — almost insurmountably higher — and yet I should be thankful that with all of the support I received I made it to the other end. Did I thrive because of their support or in spite of it?

So, do I owe you?



Posted in career advancement, General, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized, work life balance | 8 Comments


By Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quinones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, and Michael Young

In our times of need, we have come together, often behind the scenes, through all mediums and platforms, to make space to discuss the many challenges that we have experienced as underrepresented minorities navigating academic environments within the mathematical sciences. Unfortunately, this work is often unseen, it is personal, and requires long-lasting relationships that are based on mutual trust and a sense of belonging within the mathematical community. Something that can take years to cultivate or even find.

Yet, we are all at a stage in our career where we can look back and without hesitation point to these relationships as a key source of support which helped us complete our graduate degrees and helped us advance professionally. This was not always there for us. In fact, our graduate school years were not only formative, but they were also full of uncertainty. We could not help but wonder:

  1. Am I good enough to do this?
  2. Is it OK to spend time on something I am passionate about that is not school?
  3. Why do I feel so alone in graduate school?
  4. Why am I doing even this?
  5. Why is everyone nodding during this talk?!? I don’t understand a thing these people are saying!

These are questions which many graduate students have, but being underrepresented means we face additional burdens, such as working to quiet an everyday voice telling us that we are not there simply because we checked the right boxes, we must avoid a nonsensical self-imposed pressure in which we represent our entire communities. Also, being the only graduate student of color in a graduate program can be or is an incredibly isolating experience and a huge culture shock.

The fact that there is much work to do to support underrepresented students succeed in completing their graduate programs were leading points of discussion at two meetings of Networks of Mathematicians of Color and Latinx Mathematicians Network, both workshops hosted by the American Institute of Mathematics. As the workshops’ names imply, each of these workshops addressed the need for programs specific to brown people and black people separately. But, as can be expected, there are many commonalities facing underrepresented communities, as a whole. In particular, the need to create spaces and communities where we can flourish together both personally and professionally became a recurring theme. While each AIM group independently brainstormed programs designed to give a survival toolkit for black/brown students, we were inspired and motivated by the EDGE Program which has been successfully mentoring women as they enter and complete graduate programs for over 20 years, and all with excellent results.

Thus we have come together to create and organize Math SWAGGER: Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness, a FREE five-week (virtual, due to COVID19, but we hope to be in person in future iterations!) summer program for any underrepresented student who will be enrolled in a mathematical/statistical graduate program in Fall 2020. The goal of the workshop is to provide support, but most of all community, amongst graduate students of color. We hope that students walk out of this as a part of a tiered mentoring network. One where they find community with peers and potential mentors to which they are able to stay connected throughout their careers.

The program will have students and facilitators meet virtually three times per week for 90-minute discussions on predetermined topics centered on the challenges faced by underrepresented students in those programs. We plan to discuss topics such as motivation, which centers the question “Why are you attending a mathematics graduate program?” and how this question is central to success in grad school. We also will not shy away from having difficult conversations, as an example, we will have a session on “Dealing with Whiteness,” where we address the experience that predominant narratives are white narratives, and how we can navigate through such environments while remaining true to ourselves and our identities.

In many ways, for students of color and those from underrepresented backgrounds, the topics we discuss represent only a subset of challenges they will face in their journey to complete their graduate degree. It is because of this that throughout the Math SWAGGER programming, our main effort will be placed on offering participants space and opportunity to connect with other students and faculty that can offer advice, support, and a safe place to have these difficult conversations. Not only do we expect that Math SWAGGER will equip students with tools to navigate their graduate program and be successful, but it will also open the door to a wonderful community among peers, faculty, and mentors.

The importance of getting connected to a community and network of mathematicians, cannot be overemphasized. Having such a network has shaped our own experiences with mathematics and has built a sense of belonging within each of us. Unfortunately, many of us did not feel like we belonged until much later in our careers, and for far too many of us, that sense of community comes too late.

Thus it is our hope that by participating in this program each student will be able to transform their graduate experience in a meaningful way and leave the program having started connections that will have profound impacts on their careers, so that they too can be unapologetically themselves in math.

[Applications to participate in Math SWAGGER are due May 22, 2020, and the application can be found here.]


Posted in career advancement, Changing Graduate Programs, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, graduation, Outreach, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learning During the Pandemic: What we wish our professors and mentors knew

Student Authors: Mayleen Cortez, Brooke Keene-Gomez, Lucy Martinez, Amaury V. Miniño, Jenna Race, Kelemua Tesfaye, and Stephanie. Blog post compiled by Melissa Gutiérrez González, Pamela E. Harris, and Alicia Prieto Langarica.

In this blog we center the voices of mathematics students as they share their experience with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“What do you wish your professor knew about your current experience with remote learning and living during this pandemic?”

  • How hard it is to focus on school work at home and how anxious I am about finances. 
  • I wish my professors knew that my mental health has not been stable. I am also currently attending online classes in the dining room which is not the best place to focus for my classes. I do not have a designated area in my home to do my homework or to attend my classes. It is difficult to sit at the same spot where you eat and complete homework. Sitting in front of a computer is also exhausting and it has been difficult to focus on each class. 
  • I wish my professors knew how disruptive the move to online courses and social distancing measures have been to my daily and weekly schedule. I spent years learning about myself and how I best function, and all of that feels as though it has been thrown away since I am stuck at home. It is particularly stressful since I am in my last semester, and was in no way prepared for the additional stress and anxiety that has come through the pandemic.
  • One thing I wish my professors knew about my current experience during COVID-19 is that I’m dealing with so much more than just living through this pandemic. My family is currently going through a tough time over something unrelated to COVID-19. My heart feels broken over a certain family member’s situation and I feel helpless. Some of my close friends are stuck at home with emotionally and mentally abusive family members and I feel helpless. Furthermore, so many of my loved ones and friends are undocumented immigrants who are not recieving stimulus checks or unemployment and my heart feels heavy all the time. My people are suffering. Our people are suffering and I feel… helpless. I can’t think of a better word. How can I just sit here and work on an essay or another assignment that feels like “busywork” when people are sick, scared, starving and dying? I’m doing the best I can, but sometimes I wish I could drop my classes and just focus on my family. I want to put my effort into finding ways to help my community… not replying to another discussion post or trying to derive numerical quadrature techniques or writing another essay on whether or not I think numbers actually exist.
  • I don’t have unlimited free time just because we’re quarantined. I live with people who are working from home, my siblings who are also trying to do school online, and my young son, so I don’t have undisturbed time to work.
  • This pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities myself and loved ones hold in society. Those of us operating from communities at high risk are organizing to support one another within the evolving circumstances. Online learning is predicated on students having access to the resources campus offers as well as having the stability and capacity to maintain the workload despite the circumstances. This assumes a privilege of distance from the crisis, as well as a baseline level of wealth, access, and health to navigate the new academic terrain. Students like myself existing at rich intersections are well practiced in resilience and creativity in overcoming structural barriers. Even if this isn’t the dominant narrative at the university, I think it’s vital for institutions to exercise the same creativity we exhibit in support of students. 
  • I wish my professors knew how hard this is. My whole life has changed. Going to class was the highlight of my day. Now I don’t leave the house for days other than to check the mail. I’m above average when it comes to motivation, but lately it’s been a struggle. I’m an extrovert and I get energy from people, especially people who are enthusiastic about their field. Now I watch pre recorded Zoom videos in lieu of lectures. I think perhaps if that was my established expectation, I wouldn’t find it as disappointing. I do hope the professors know they are appreciated, and that everything they do does help. I want them to know that while this is hard, most students realize it’s hard for them too. It’s a transition for everyone.

“What do you need from your mentors during this time?” 

  • I urge my mentors to exercise empathy and organize to challenge structural racism and classism, to combat disposability politics. 
  • I need my mentors to be understanding of the abnormal situation we are in. As I work through my courses, I am less motivated by a desire to learn, and more motivated by a need to establish normalcy. I want to care more about the work that I am doing, but I am scared of what will happen in the coming months and years. One of the best ways my mentors could help is by simply checking in with me, talking with me, and guiding me to ways to ground myself.
  • Advice about future academic goals and less emphasis on exams, more on course material.
  • I need my mentors to motivate me and guide me through this difficult time. I know that this should be a two way ongoing mentorship and guidance because professors are also going through challenges as well. Students and mentors should work together to create a strong and collective participation. Small emails are important for me as a reminder that we are all in this together. Meeting through a form of video call has been essential for me as it keeps up my self-esteem.  
  • To ease up on the workload. Many professors are assigning more work and I don’t have enough time to keep up with it.
  • I need patience and understanding. I just want to be successful. I’m going to ask a lot of questions and ‘blow up your inbox.’ I apologize in advance. Please try and understand this isn’t what I signed up for. I know it’s not what you did either.
  • I need to know that if I don’t end this semester with awesome grades, or if I take a little too long to respond to an email, or if I just haven’t checked in with them in a while, that they understand and aren’t holding it against me… that they still value me and they know I’m trying my very hardest to be positive, productive, healthy and responsible during this pandemic. I just need them to know I’m trying my best… and I need to know that that’s enough.

We hope that these comments inspire faculty and mentors to listen to their own students  and to understand what they are experiencing as they live through this pandemic. May the experiences shared by Mayleen, Brooke, Lucy, Amaury, Kelemua, and Stephanie inspire you to reach out to your students wishing them continued health and safety, and to remind them that they matter, that they are valued, and that they continue to be more than enough.

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, graduation, Uncategorized, Undegraduates, work life balance | 1 Comment

A mathematician’s mission statement

By Pamela E. Harris and Julianne Vega

Companies and organizations are driven by their mission statements. These mission statements provide a concrete summary of what they value and what they work to achieve. Take for example the following mission statements:

American Mathematical Society
The AMS, founded in 1888 to further the interests of mathematical research and scholarship, serves the national and international community through its publications, meetings, advocacy and other programs, which

  • promote mathematical research, its communication and uses,
  • encourage and promote the transmission of mathematical understanding and skills,
  • support mathematical education at all levels,
  • advance the status of the profession of mathematics, encouraging and facilitating full participation of all individuals,
  • foster an awareness and appreciation of mathematics and its connections to other disciplines and everyday life.

Mathematical Association of America
The mission of the MAA is to advance the understanding of mathematics and its impact on our world.

Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science
SACNAS is an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM.

It appears that the use of mission statements in the mathematical sciences is primarily used by organizations. Yet mission statements provide a strong way for mathematics students (at all levels) and, maybe more importantly, for academics to center their work and their efforts.

Why do we do what we do?

If the “doing” refers to mathematics, we may answer that we love mathematics. Of course, why else would one become a mathematician? But truly there is more a career in mathematics than just mathematics. (Gasp!) For many of us this work involves teaching, mentoring, and building community and opportunities (broadly defined as service). In fact, answering this question is the start of an individual mission statement. Being able to precisely say why we take on certain work and lines of study and how it aligns with what we value helps in a multitude of ways. Let’s look at some of the benefits of having an individual mission statement.

Centering the work you (currently) do
It happens often that we are asked to get involved with some program/project that sounds like a great idea and is valuable. We quickly jump on board, potentially not even taking the time to think about how it aligns with our current and future goals. This seems common within many academic settings, especially as we begin to explore what work we want to achieve in our careers. A mission statement allows us to center the work we do and allows us to concretely state the goals we are working toward.

Connecting with a greater sense of purpose
Think about a typical day. How often do you go home and think, “Wow, I really made a difference today” or “I did meaningful work today”? We would venture that the answer is not often yet that won’t change what a typical day looks or feels like because there is a greater sense of purpose that continues to motivate daily routines. Creating a personal mission statement provides grounding in that sense of purpose. Continually reflecting on and modifying a personal mission statement highlights the greater purpose behind our daily actions.

Clarifying your intentions and goals
There are a handful of mathematicians whose mission statements evidently guide their work. Whether implicitly or explicitly stated, their intentions are clear. For example, Dr. Candice Price has her service mission statement listed on her website, and her many outreach and service activities clearly support her statement:

“My service mission statement is to create and contribute to programs that broaden the participation of underrepresented groups by focusing on strong mentoring and research networks. Thus, I am interested and participate in programs that promote broadening participation in the mathematical sciences and I am on the organizing committee for Underrepresented Students in Topology and Algebra Research Symposium (USTARS).” – Candice Price

Another mathematician who provides his mission statement is Dr. Mohamed Omar, who has dedicated substantial time to disseminating mathematical content via his YouTube channel and more recently via TikTok @profomarmath:

“Dr. Omar’s mission is to change the world from math phobic to math loving, fiercely devoting his life to inclusion in mathematics.” – Mohamed Omar

Another example that comes to mind is Dr. Francis Su, whose mission statement is not explicitly stated but feels ever-present. His recent work with Mathematics for Human Flourishing and “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching” evidences a desire to present mathematics for all and to help others see that math is for them.

All of these mathematicians provide strong examples of the benefits of having a personal mission statement which guides their actions. When you think about their reputation alongside their accomplishments everything aligns towards their personal mission statement. One question still remains:

How do you write a personal mission statement?

When an individual’s mission statement is clear and present in the work that they do, they attract like-minded individuals and begin to build a network that strengthens and supports their own goals. Boiling down your life’s purpose into a few sentences may sound quite overwhelming. And it certainly is overwhelming. Nevertheless, an individual’s experiences, involvements, and personal strengths provide great insight into what their personal mission statement is. Writing a personal mission statement is less about creating it from scratch and more about discovering what it is. One way to discover yours is by thinking about your motivation, your personal strengths and your accomplishments. To get you started think about the following guiding questions:

  • What are you most proud of in your life?
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • What are your personal strengths?
  • What goes into the decision making for the work you take on?
  • Is there a common theme in your work?

Self-reflection is paramount in creating an individual mission statement. Although the process of creating a personal mission statement requires introspection and time, it will pay dividends for your future endeavors. We hope that this post, along with the sample mission statements presented, inspire you to draft your own mission statement as you reflect and think deeply about the work you are doing, why you are doing it, and how that may change at different points in your career.

If you have a mission statement feel free to add it as a comment below.



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Finding belonging through mentorship

Guest blog by Stephen McKean

On my first day of college, I showed up an hour early to my very first class. The class was Math 2210, multivariable calculus. For some reason, I thought this was the highest math class offered at the university. After a while, the professor and a few older-looking students trickled into the room. The professor clearly knew I was in the wrong place: he looked at me for a moment, wrote “Math 6510: Differentiable Manifolds” on the board, and smiled at the panic on my face. I quickly packed up my things and rushed off to find the right classroom.

Luckily, I also had many math professors who seemed convinced that I was in the right place. They offered me encouragement, advice, and support. When I decided to become a math major in my third year, they told me about graduate school and helped me develop a plan of action. Without these mentors, I never would have been able to become a mathematician.

Becoming a mathematician is difficult. Many days are filled with discouragement, disappointment, and doubt. I have often felt like I did on my first day of college, lost and intimidated by a subject clearly beyond my reach. A mentor can help remind you that you are in the right place — that you belong as a mathematician.

In graduate school, your advisor is a built-in mentor to help you on your journey. As an undergraduate, it can be harder to find a mentor. Many universities have Directed Reading Programs, where undergraduates are paired with graduate student mentors. These graduate-undergraduate pairs work together on a semester-long reading course, and the graduate mentor can help their undergraduate mentee learn more about research and graduate school. Directed Reading Programs also present an excellent way for graduate students to get involved and to improve their mentorship skills. I highly recommend the Directed Reading Program to anyone who is interested.

However, there are many liberal arts colleges, minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and other colleges and universities that do not offer Directed Reading Programs. In response, I am helping organize an online mentoring program called Twoples. Like the Directed Reading Program, Twoples pairs undergraduates with graduate student mentors to work on a semester-long reading project. During the semester, the graduate-undergraduate pair also prepares a final project, such as expository notes or a short recorded presentation. Unlike the Directed Reading Program, these reading projects take place online, so undergraduates from any school can find a mentor.

We will be piloting Twoples during the Fall 2020 semester. If you are interested in being a mentee or mentor, please sign up! We would also love to hear from you if you have any questions, suggestions, or want to get involved. Your participation will help us improve the program for future semesters.

Stephen McKean

Biography: Stephen McKean is a PhD student at Duke. Before Duke, he was a graduate student at Georgia Tech and an undergraduate at the University of Utah. He is interested in questions at the interface of algebraic topology, algebraic geometry, and number theory. Outside of research, Stephen is passionate about making math accessible through teaching, outreach, and advocacy. His non-mathematical interests include hiking, painting, and cooking with his amazing wife.

Posted in General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Outreach, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Dare To Share

Guest blog by Professor Mohamed Omar

It started as a dare between friends. Would you dare post a video of yourself doing math on YouTube, for the entire world to see? That was the seed of what has become a fulfilling endeavor: creating and building the YouTube channel ProfOmarMath. What I could have never expected was the empowerment this channel has given so many students across the world.

The first video I posted was on a quick method for solving a problem on the GRE Math Subject test. This test is a requirement for entry into many math PhD programs, and is filled with slick problems that are quite non-standard in nature. After posting the first video I realized a few things about the mathematics environment on YouTube:

• There were barely any videos on tips and tricks for the GRE Math Subject Test.
• There were barely any videos on undergraduate mathematics material presented by a person from an underrepresented group.

I was excited to be able to address both of these issues, creating roughly 15 (and now almost 30) videos on tips and tricks for the test. I then essentially abandoned the channel until about 3 months ago.

The revival was something I had planned to do during my sabbatical year when I had more time to devote to it. I expanded the channel to include videos on fun math topics like a combinatorial proof of Fermat’s Little Theorem, clear and empowering solutions to Putnam Mathematics Competition problems, and theorems undergrads don’t usually see like the Gershgorin Circle Theorem.

The impacts of doing this have been astounding. I’ve received many private messages from students across the world who appreciate having access to resources for standardized tests like the GRE Math Subject Test, and supplementary material on random interesting math topics. Students have come up to me at conferences expressing gratitude for the “out of the box” thinking presented in videos, giving them renewed perspectives on familiar topics.

But I think what motivates me the most to continue making these videos is filling the void of underrepresented mathematicians sharing non-standard undergraduate mathematics material on YouTube. Representation is such a critical force in empowering underrepresented students to realize their excellence. In a math culture where underrepresentation is often entangled with a deficit mindset, we need resources that reflect a different narrative. Resources that show underrepresented mathematicians engaging in creative, challenging and interesting mathematics happily.

If you are a student, come join me at ProfOmarMath and have some fun with mathematics. If you are an educator, or anyone interested in sharing your love for math, I highly encourage you to start a YouTube channel. It doesn’t have to be fancy. My first videos were extremely basic in sound quality and production value, but still had an impact to an extent I never could have imagined. Try it! Start today.

Dr. Mohamed Omar

Biography: Dr. Omar’s mission is to change the world from math phobic to math loving, fiercely devoting his life to inclusion in mathematics.  In 2018 he won the Mathematical Association of America’s Henry L. Alder award, the most prestigious early career undergraduate math teaching award in the nation.  He has also been featured online in Forbes and Scientific American.  Dr. Omar is also a fierce advocate for overcoming obstacles of underrepresentation in mathematics.

He is the author of over 20 peer-reviewed articles in internationally recognized journals.  ​Dr. Omar is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College after a 2 year award-winning appointment at Caltech.

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A New Type of Learning Community

Setting high standards is expected from all educators. Yet, I think I may have taken this to an extreme in my 2019 spring senior seminar course in algebraic combinatorics. Students walked in to class, got a copy of the syllabus along with a community agreement (sample community can be found here) and saw:

With a pile of 30 or so textbooks on the front desk I pointed out that there was only one undergraduate book on algebraic combinatorics which was published in 2013 — Algebraic Combinatorics by Richard Stanley [1]. It covered classical subjects very well, but what I wanted to do in our class was to get students to a point where they could reach open problems in the field by reading recently published research manuscripts in broad areas of algebraic combinatorics. So to solve this problem we would write our own textbook!

Imagine the students’ surprise to learn of this during the first day of the course. Not to mention the level of work such an undertaking entails, both on the students and on the professor. Fourteen students took on the challenge, and below I discuss the process of building a learning community and how through this community we reached our goal of writing a book.

Sky high expectations

I believe I can do anything if I just try.” — Granville T. Woods

Naturally, some students felt very unprepared to take on the challenge of writing a textbook and decided to wait to take the course in a future semester. And even for those students that remained, they were not convinced that our goal was attainable. After all, it takes mathematicians sometimes decades to complete a book. So how would we be able to accomplish this within the span of a single semester course?

My motto was that we could not know whether this could be done unless we tried. So I set sky high academic standards for students, regardless of whether I or others believed that students were ready for such an academic challenge.

Contingencies and aims

The goal of the class was then clear. But what took more planning was determining the following contingencies:

  • Instructional — how would I support learning activities?
  • Domain — how would I help determine what students should focus on next?
  • Temporal — how would I decide if and when to intervene?

With these questions in mind I set the following aims:

  1. Move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.
  2. Create a scaffolding framework that
    allows students to meaningfully participate in and gain skill at a task that they could not
    complete unaided.
  3. Build a collaborative learning community that promotes critical thinking skills better than competitive/individualistic learning environments.
  4. Learn ways to deal with people that respects and highlights individual group members’ abilities and contributions.

To support the course’s goal of completing a book, I grouped students into pairs who would collaborate on writing a chapter of the book. The research topics were based on student interests, and I provided some initial manuscripts they would explore. The students’ initial job was to understand the material well enough to write about it in detail with the aim of making it accessible to students with calculus or linear algebra background. From this initial content, students then found new resources to further expand their chapter.

As is expected, writing skills would be paramount to completing our class goal of writing a book. Making sure students learned how to read research manuscripts and how to write accessible pieces of mathematics posed the major challenge. Most of our class meetings were spent in small groups working through mathematical arguments and discussing how we should be reading research articles and what constitutes a clear argument with enough detail so not to make huge jumps in logic. After all, what use is there to write another book in which we spend hours dissecting a paragraph? My mantra was “If you cannot explain it simply you don’t know it well enough.”

Logistics and assessments

Hot chocolate helps with editing

Given the goal of the class, a major part of the class assessments was based on chapter drafts. Drafts were due (approximately) every 3 weeks, they were typed in LaTeX, using the online platform overleaf. Given the small size of the class, I focused on giving extremely thorough feedback on students writing. This was the most grading I have ever done in one semester!

Belle at board teaching high school students visiting our course

Throughout the semester, students also gave short presentation describing what their chapter covered. These talks were peer-evaluated and I provided individual feedback based on what students wanted to improve. Also the talks were recorded and students were able to watch them to create a new list of things to improve on for the following presentations.

The last  piece of the course assessment were reflections. I provided students with short writing prompts from which students reflected on the experience of writing and learning math independently/collaboratively.
Reflection prompt included: How does collaboration enhance/hinder the writing and oral presentation of mathematical material? How can you leverage the strengths of each member of the group to create a better chapter and/or have a better presentation? What you think about quantitative evaluation systems like test scores and class rankings, as opposed to qualitative forms of feedback like written comments and conferences. Does one give you a better measure of the knowledge you have gained?

The reflections were key in helping me adapt the course throughout the semester. I also learned so much about the students motivation and how their confidence was growing as the semester progressed. The reflections were our way to communicate deeply and meaningfully about the purpose/value of an education and in fact one student’s reflection developed into a publication, see [2]. Reflections were a refreshing take on an assessment piece, one which I plan to include in all future courses.

Final Product

After a grueling semester we completed the book. There is of course more editing that should take place before any final access to the book is made available, and I hope to teach this course soon so that more students can contribute to it.  Below is the contents along with the authors for each chapter.

A Friendly Introduction to Topics in Algebraic Combinatorics

Chapter 1: Permutations and their peaks by Belle and Ben
Chapter 2: Combinatorics of parking functions by Alex and Maryanne
Chapter 3: Combinatorial representation theory by Franny and Anthony
Chapter 4: Combinatorics and Lucas analogues by Joanne and Francesca
Chapter 5: Chromatic polynomials by David and Katherine
Chapter 6: Combinatorial geometry by Naush and Teresa
Chapter 7: Numerical semigroups by Ben and Aesha

Parting thoughts

I have been asked if I think that more faculty should structure courses in this way. Honestly, I do not know if more people should teach in this particular way. Each institution has different student cultures. What works at a small elite liberal arts college like Williams may not work elsewhere. Moreover, this depth of active teaching is scary even for someone with ample experience. What I do know is that whatever way we structure our courses ought to help students hone their writing and public speaking skills — which will be key for all of their future careers. And we should do so by setting sky-high expectations and building a supportive community in which students can meet those standards.

Pamela and Anthony at is graduation

“This class gave me, or forced me to pick up, the confidence and ability to read a math textbook and genuinely understand the material. Above every lecture based class I’ve ever had, this experience is irreplaceable. Both because it was enjoyable and because it gave me skills that have translated into my life after school.” — Anthony Simpson

[1]. Richard P. Stanley, Algebraic combinatorics, Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics Walks, trees, tableaux, and more. Second edition of [MR3097651], Springer, Cham, 2018.

[2]. Dean, F. “Tired: A Reflection on Asceticism and the Value of Quantitative Assessment,” Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Volume 10 Issue 1 (January 2020), pages 375-377. DOI: 10.5642/jhummath.202001.19 . Available at:


Posted in career advancement, General, Journals and Publications, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Bank of REU/Grad Fair Questions

By Lucy Martinez and Eduardo Torres Davila

We attended the Joint Math Meetings (JMM) conference in Denver to present our research from our work at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program. At JMM, there was a fair of graduate schools and research experiences for undergraduate programs, which was attended by universities from all parts of the nation. At each booth, were university professors and current graduate students who could talk about their PhD program in the mathematical sciences. Selecting a grad school or an REU are critical moments for undergraduates wanting to pursue a PhD in mathematics, and attending this fair provided us with the opportunity of getting to know the schools/programs. Thereby, helping us in making the decision of which schools/programs to apply to. Although, we attended the fair to find out more about the programs offered, there were points in our conversations in which we were unsure what to ask. We quickly realized that if we had a list of questions prior to attending the conference, we could have been more prepared. We talked to Dr. Pamela E. Harris about our situation and she recommended that we go on a scavenger hunt for questions we could have asked! Our goal was to find people at JMM to share questions that students could ask when they attend such a grad/REU fair. We present these questions below, along with some we asked or came up with after this experience. Our hope is that these questions may help other undergraduates in the future.

REU Questions

  • How do collaborations happen?
  • What does the atmosphere at the REU look like? How does the week look like?
  • Are there talks about other topics besides the math?
  • Is there any professional development after the REU?
  • How competitive is your REU?
  • How was the previous REU? How successful was it?
  • What topics are offered in your REU, so that they may best be aligned to my research interests?
  • How is the area/location? What is it like to live there during the summer?
  • How much influence does the student have on the project they are working on?
  • Are the projects assigned or does the student pick their favorite topic?
  • Are the groups assigned or do students choose their group?
  • What kind of projects has your REU worked on?
  • Ask for contact information from professors that are running the REU so that you may send further questions later..
  • Do you have a big emphasis on submitting papers? If so what support is there for the writing?
  • What do you look for in a student for you REU?
  • How is the REU guidance towards the students?
  • Does your REU offer funding to attend math conferences to present the research?
  • Are there fun activities planned for the students during the summer?
  • What is the structure of the REU? Do students meet with faculty every day during the week?
  • How many students are admitted to the program?

Grad School Questions

  • Does your school encourage outside research collaborations? To specify, if someone were to like a professor at a nearby (or not nearby) university would they be encouraged to work with them.
  • Does your school offer funding to attend conferences throughout your grad school career?
  • What is your relationship with the university? To specify, there is not always a professor at a grad fair booth. Sometimes there can be graduate students and other times grad directors so it is important to ask their relationship to the university to know which questions you can ask.
  • How do you resolve problems between graduate students and faculty members?
  • Will there be guaranteed funding for all years of the graduate program?
  • How many years does it take to graduate from your Ph.D. program?
  • Does the university offer any scholarships for minorities?
  • How do students find advisors?
  • What is the grad student community like at your institution? To be more specific, do students work together in doing homework, classwork, or preparing for exams?
  • What is the process that is taken for the qualifying exams? On top of that how many attempts are given to graduate students to pass these exams?
  • What summer support system is provided for students trying to study for the qualifying exams?
  • What kind of research are the professors into?
  • Out of the graduate students who enter how many finish with a math Ph.D.?
  • When a student enters the Ph.D. program how is the funding for the student? Are they going to be a teacher’s assistant? A teacher? Research funding?

The following are questions for current graduate students:

  • What do students do outside of school?
  • Was it easy to find an advisor and did you like them once you were paired up with them?
  • What do you do when you’re not working on math?
  • What helped you to be most successful?
  • What is the social climate at the university? Are the professors approachable?
  • Are professors supportive in a student’s life events? Is there support for both people trying to pursue academia as well as a career in industry?

We thank the following JMM participants who helped us in collecting these questions:
Alex Barrios, Alex Burstein, Natasha Crepeau, Emilie Curl, Daniel Erman, Joshua Flynn, Anant Godbole, Matthew Guhl, Erik Insko, Christian McRoberts, Andrew Miller, Christopher O’Neill, Rebecca Rechkin, Joseph Rennie, Erik Slivken, Sherilyn Tamagawa, and Bianca Viray.

If you have suggestions or other questions to add to this list please comment below!

About the authors


Lucy Martinez: I am currently a junior at Stockton University in New Jersey. My major is Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science. My goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in Pure Mathematics. I plan to influence other minorities to follow their dreams and advocate for more Hispanic women to pursue careers in STEM fields. My other passion besides math is parrots. I think they are amazing animals because some of them have the ability to learn how to talk and imitate humans.



Eduardo Torres Davila: I am currently a senior at San Diego State University. I am an Applied Mathematics major with a minor in Computer Science. I am currently applying to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics. Another passion of mine is riding motorcycles. Riding gives me a way to relax and remove all worries from my mind. I also like to do some computer programming on my downtime. My favorite languages are Python and Sage.


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