SK Day 2018

Another fall break, another Sonya Kovalevsky Day at Hood. I’ve written about this before, but it’s a big deal for us and we’re proud to have pulled off another successful event. This year we brought another few dozen local high school girls to campus to learn about math and careers in math and related fields.

SK Day Participants. Photo courtesy of Tommy Riggs

The girls spend the morning attending two of four workshops. This year Carol Jim in our Computer Science department ran a workshop on Python Turtle, an introductory programming environment based on Logo. Which, if you happen to be about my age, is about as pleasant a descent into nostalgia as you can get. Our department chair Ann Stewart got the students playing with ratios and irrational numbers on monochords, former Hood professor and current NSA mathematician Gwyn Whieldon taught students about South American mathematical history, and Hood chemistry professor Dana Lawrence talked about math in the sciences, and what’s in a mole.

In the afternoon our students ate lunch with the girls and answered their questions on math and what college is like, one of our seniors gave a presentation on the life of Sonya Kovalevksy, and we concluded with a panel discussion from local women in math-affiliated careers.

We had generous sponsorship from PNC Bank and US Silica, with additional financial and other assistance from Frederick County Public Schools.

Van Nguyen, Me (plus epsilon), and Jill Tysse. Photo courtesy of Tommy Riggs.

I didn’t have a ton to contribute this year, to be honest – at 8 months pregnant I didn’t want to take on too much responsibility in case things got going early. But the other organizers, Jill Tysse and Van Nguyen, made all the planning look easy. And I picked up the donuts and coffee.

We had one new addition this semester: an essay contest for a generous Hood scholarship from our admissions department. They’d been looking for ways to get departments more involved with admissions, and were dangling scholarships for any departments who could figure out how to use them. We didn’t want to make the day itself into a competition, since that seemed counter to the spirit of SK Day, but we thought an essay contest would work nicely. We look forward to selecting winners in a month or two.

Jill wrote a great article for our local MAA section newsletter on how to run your own SK Day – pages 8-10. She covers everything from big-picture planning, to funding, to logistics. It’s a lot of work, but a valued tradition for us. It’s great exposure for Hood and the math department, helps to broaden the mathematical horizons of local girls at a time when many start to drift away from math, it boosts our students resumes and our dossiers, and it’s pretty fun too!

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Building Locality

My first three years out of graduate school, when I was in visiting positions, I was moving a lot and didn’t have much extra energy to dig into the communities where I lived. I made some great friends, but we all knew that I would be leaving, and some people understandably didn’t really want to bother with me. I still had Wyoming license plates on my car, because it was easier to just leave it registered there, with my parents. In that part of my life, I got much closer to my math friends and came to identify much more with the mathematical community than any geographic community. However, one of the great perks and biggest changes of being in a long-term position is the chance that I now have to engage with and invest in my geographic communities in long-term ways. In Philadelphia, this led me to talk to people on the train, to do pre-GED tutoring at Community Learning Center, and to go to seminars at all the nearby colleges. It took me three years to feel really at home there, and then I moved again. My new home in Colorado Springs is very different, and I’m still figuring out how to get involved here. Sometime last winter I started on a personal mission of intentionally befriending the some of the awesome people I meet. I started going to all the faculty happy hours, and I joined a SWARG (Scholarly Writing and Research Group). I bought a house in town, which is a whole different kind of investment in the community. I’m still working on engaging with the local mathematical community and the non-academic world. This is harder because service to the college is a not-insubstantial part of my job now, and it’s easy to let service become my hobby and main form of “civic” engagement. I’ve been reaching out more recently, though.  In this post, I’m sharing what I did on one big day of engagement.  So welcome to my Saturday, September 29!

League of Women Voters State Annual Meeting

Zoe Frolik and me at the LWV Colorado annual meeting.

At 7 AM I picked up my student Zöe Frolik and drove to Denver. The reason for this trip began last fall, when I attended a wonderful Geometry of Redistricting workshop at the University of Wisconsin Madison. It was part of a national series organized by Moon Duchin and the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, based at Tufts University, and organized locally by Jordan Ellenberg. The workshop got me really fired up about how math can identify extreme gerrymanders and give people real tools to fight unfair redistricting. This led me to join the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan group founded in 1920 (just six months before the 19th amendment finally granted women the right to vote), which works for voter education and registration and has been involved in bringing many lawsuits challenging highly partisan districting maps across the country.

I’ve met some great people in my local league, and learned a lot about local and national issues. I also set the League up with a couple of exceptional Colorado College students, who helped them build a student section of their website, part of a big push to reach out to a younger base. One of these students, Zöe, is a Math and Political Science double major, and she has been working with me on parts of her senior project for Political Science about different ways of measuring the fairness of Colorado’s congressional and state legislative district map. The local league has been very excited about her project, and kindly invited us to attend their state meeting. Colorado has two measures related to redistricting reform on the ballot this fall, and the league is conducting an educational campaign about gerrymandering and the importance of fair redistricting. The meeting covered these measures, as well as a really inspiring training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. We had lunch with some very cool women from our local league, and then took off for the next event of the day (see below). After the meeting, Zöe wrote an article about some mathematical measures of fairness for the league’s local newsletter.

Members of the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region at the state meeting: Julie Ott, me, Zoe Frolik, Lineah Davey, Pauleta Terven, Sharon LaMothe, June Waller, and Mollie Williams.

Front Range Number Theory Day at Colorado State

Next step: North on I-25 to Fort Collins, my old grad school stomping grounds. Living in Colorado is great. I’ve moved to Colorado four times in my life, so clearly I like it a lot. I mean, my biggest complaint is that people here are maybe a little too in love with living in Colorado (you see a lot of people here wearing the Colorado flag on almost all articles of their clothing), but there’s a reason people are so rabid about the place. That said, it is not (yet) considered the center of the mathematical world. There are plenty of mathematicians in the region, but the population is spread out enough that, outside of the larger universities, it can be hard to connect with a research group in any very focused area. I thought that this wouldn’t be any problem for me, because I did go to grad school here and I have some great connections in the region. It’s been hard to carve out the time to go to seminars that are two hours away, though. Certainly it is not impossible to bridge the distance, though, and there are several people working to connect number theorists in Colorado. This summer, I took my research students to Colorado State University (CSU) to visit REU students working with Rachel Pries and Patrick Shipman there. On the day I’m describing, CSU post doc Ozlem Ejder and University of Colorado Boulder grad student (and my former CC research student) Hanson Smith organized a student-focused Front Range Number Theory Day at CSU. They invited some local speakers and some from further away to give talks that ranged from undergraduate-friendly to advanced, graduate student-focused research talks. Kate Stange gave a particularly cool talk about Apollonian circle packings. We brought a van of students from CC, and my student Sam Kottler presented on his summer work in error correcting codes with locality (hence my private joke in the title here…). Front Range Number Theory Day is planned to be a twice yearly event, and I’m really excited to keep going, bringing students, and being part of building something great where I am. I hope that I can even host it at CC sometime in the next few years.

My local roots and branches: part of my math extended family at Front Range Number Theory Day!  Front: Eric Moorhouse  and Hanson Smith,   Back: Jeff Achter, Rachel Pries, me, Zoe Frolik, Sam Kottler, Bob Kuo, and Jerrell Cockerham.

Being close to my college/grad school has made it easier to connect my math past and present. At the Front Range Number Theory Day, I got to arrange a sort of “math family” picture, with some of the people who introduced me to the math that I still love today, and students that I have gotten to pass that on to.  Eric Moorhouse was my first Abstract Algebra professor at University of Wyoming. Rachel Pries was my thesis advisor, and Jeff Achter taught me four semesters of Algebraic Geometry at CSU.  Hanson Smith and Sam Kottler were my thesis students at Colorado College.  Jerrell Cockerham worked on summer research with me this summer, and Zöe Frolik has been working on the gerrymandering project and was in my Abstract Algebra class last year.  Bob Kuo is the paraprofessional at CC this year. We haven’t worked on any algebra together, but I feel a certain kinship based on the fact that we both have driven many vans full of students to math events.


So that was one day of working to connect locally. I was tired after all this (especially after I stayed up late with some old friends in Fort Collins), but it was really worth it. My goal for this week is to bring it even closer to home—I am going to the seminar at University of Colorado Colorado Springs for the first time this week! Any thoughts on how you dig in locally? Good ideas on stuff I should do? Let me know in the comments!

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Giving Bad Colloquia

I have given bad talks. I bet you have too. My guess is the people who think they haven’t given a bad talk give the worst ones.

What follows refers to colloquia at schools like mine, where the main purpose is to get the undergraduates excited about some sort of math that they’ve never seen before, and maybe show us faculty something cool too. And by the way, this stuff also works for job talks, at least here at Hood, a small, primarily undergraduate liberal arts college. If your environment is completely different, please leave a comment with your own tips.

Podium View by ChrisDag on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I didn’t know colloquia like this existed when I first started giving talks. I’d only seen them at R1s, which were obviously another animal entirely. And even many of those violated a lot of the excellent advice in John E. McCarthy’s article How to Give A Good Colloquium: they confuse colloquia with seminars and overshoot their audience, they don’t give enough examples, and prove too much. And since those are the kinds grad students see, those are the kinds we give, and the cycle of violence continues.

I thought if you got invited somewhere, you had to talk about your research. And when they said to “make it mostly accessible to undergraduates, and the first part accessible to undergraduates that have only had calculus,” that just meant include more definitions and talk slower.

And I can never talk slower.

But once I got to this job, and started seeing the talks people would give here, and started hearing about the talks my colleagues would give at other schools, I finally realized that there were other options. And I think I’m finally getting better. So I’ll list a couple things I’ve learned the hard way.

1. Your colloquium is not your defense

I mean this both in terms of content and purpose. Your job is not to prove how smart you are, or how much math you know. The people who’ve invited you know you’re smart and know math. We just want you to show our students (and us) some cool stuff that you’re passionate about. If your slides are largely recycled from your defense with some extra definitions added, you’re about to give a lousy talk.

And don’t worry if somebody in the audience thinks you’re not a hotshot researcher because you don’t act like every result is trivial and every definition well-known. There aren’t as many of those people as I used to think, and impressing them isn’t worth losing almost everyone else in the room.

2. You don’t need to talk about your research

If you’re asked to give a talk aimed largely at undergraduates, and most undergraduates don’t have any of the prerequisite knowledge to understand your research, don’t think it’s your job to slam a whole graduate education into 50 minutes. I don’t care how good of a teacher you are. It’s just not going to work.

Find something else to talk about! Maybe your favorite theorem? A neat application of your research area? Is there some problem you ran across somewhere that you found interesting? I can’t speak for everyone at every school, or even every small liberal arts college, but I’d rather my students see you explore some fun old Martin Gardner puzzles in depth than sit through an unintelligible research talk.

3. Don’t make us wait to the end to see the point

Most of the research talks we see at conferences are ones where the first 20-30% are definitions and setup, the bulk is results and maybe their proofs, and the last bit has an application or some ideas for future work. And that’s fine for talks amongst ourselves – we know the drill, we can see the big picture, and we’re patient. Undergraduates don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t have to be. Tell us at the beginning why your talk is going to be interesting, and spend significant time putting your result and/or broader research area in context, either within mathematics or with respect to applications. If there are any bits where you can get away with just arguing by analogy, or using informal language instead of slogging through slide after slide of definitions, do it. If anybody wants details they can look them up.

The reason cold opens are used so often in movies and tv is that they’re compelling: they show us something interesting that happened, and make us wonder how that came to be. Whereas movies that start with a lot of clumsy exposition are bad movies. Colloquia are no different.

4. In your slides, less is more (unless it’s pictures or intermediate steps)

Take out as many words as possible, and then take out more. Your slides aren’t a script for you to read out loud. They’re a place to display the stuff the audience won’t be able to keep in their heads while you’re talking.

But if you’re running through a calculation of something, don’t (necessarily) skip all the algebra because it’s boring and a pain to typeset. That might be the one part of your talk that one particular undergrad in the audience can follow. Maybe it’s not thrilling for you or I, but giving the student audience a few little easily-digestible crumbs might be just enough to get them to stick with you for a few more minutes. Talks to a non-technical audience are as much about making people feel like they know what’s going on as making them actually know what’s going on. It’s possible to do the former even when you’re not doing a great job at the latter. Don’t speed through the easy stuff if you can help it.

Also, find more pictures. They don’t even have to be super relevant. Everybody likes pictures. Citing somebody’s famous result? Throw a picture of them in there. Why not.

5. If you don’t know exactly how to pitch your talk, ask

This goes double for job talks. Not everybody has the same idea in mind when they say “accessible to undergraduates.” And not every group of undergraduates is the same. Maybe the usual attendees happen to have all taken a few advanced courses, or maybe they’re all a bunch of calc 1 students who get extra credit for attending. Maybe the school culture means the attendees are almost all faculty and they’d like you to aim the level a little higher. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d rather you ask me too many questions about the audience than just guess and guess wrong. And don’t just go by what the school calls their talk series. We often call ours a seminar, but please don’t come here thinking it’s your weekly research seminar in grad school all over again.

Even if you’re giving a job talk, they might not care if you talk about your actual research, or just any topic you find interesting. If it’s not clear from the communication with the committee, ask. In retrospect, I think some of my interviews would have been a lot better if I’d come up with a talk that wasn’t about my research instead.

I’ve given as many caveats as possible here because I know this advice won’t apply to every talk at every school. If your environment is completely different and you have different, or even contradictory advice, please leave a comment. Together, maybe we can all sit through (and give) slightly fewer bad colloquia.

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