Math for the Liberal Arts (Professors)

Our internal summer research grants were due yesterday, and for the first time I tried to apply for one doesn’t involve students. A few years ago I received our internal grant for summer research with students, which went well. But I should really get a few more actual “grownup” projects done before I go up for tenure, and the money and cv line this grant will bring won’t hurt. So I went for it.

But this was one of the hardest grant proposals I’ve ever tried to write. Less than two pages describing your project and its relevance to the college, the community, “or beyond.” This is a small college. I know the committee. The person on there who’s the least math-phobic is a historian. This is the most general of general audiences.

If I start with “Let R be a Noetherian ring” I’m dead in the water. Even if I had the space to define all the necessary vocab, almost no one on the committee would bother to try to parse it. I can hardly blame them: they’ve got the same heavy teaching load I do, and they’ve got a ton of these things to read.

This wasn’t so hard with my undergraduate project a few years back, because I’d chosen a topic that had to be digestible by undergraduates, first-years at that. It was easy to state – a nice little semigroup problem, with pictures and everything. Even then I got comments from a committee member that it they couldn’t follow my description. They’d more or less just taken it on faith that I knew what I was talking about, and since I was a brand new faculty member they figured it would be nice to throw me a bone. I’m not sure I’ll get that kind of consideration this time.

So what do you do? This isn’t rhetorical. I’m really asking. People always say that if you can’t explain something simply you don’t understand it well enough. Am I alone in hating that quote?

I decided that my goal for this proposal was not so much to get across the exact nature of my project, but to make the committee feel like they had some idea of what was going on. This word has some negative connotations but I’m gonna go ahead and use it anyway because it’s just so useful: I needed to get across the truthiness of my project.

I at least presented a toy example that lives in the integers, though I’m afraid that will either still turn the committee off, or worse convince them that this is a totally trivial project. Then I argued by analogy: I have a space of objects and an algorithm to provide information about those objects, but it’s like I only have turn-by-turn directions to navigate this space. I can’t see the underlying street map yet. And then I talked about how I’ll use techniques to gain access to this map (techniques I named but didn’t describe) that are well established but haven’t been used in this case yet. Which should demonstrate in understandable terms that this project is probably not total garbage.

And then I mumbled something about applications to other problems, and other areas of math (which I suspect the committee doesn’t really care about), and…cryptography? Maybe? They’ve at least heard of cryptography.

Who knows if it’ll work. Maybe I have enough clout banked with enough of the committee that they’ll fund me even if they weren’t wowed by the proposal. Maybe they just won’t get many applications this year and I’ll skate through. I will ask the committee for feedback when it’s all over though, and present to you what they said. In the meantime, what advice do you have for people in a similar situation?

Posted in grant proposals | 2 Comments

Finding Ideas at the JMM

I was lucky to have the meetings on my doorstep this year, since otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go at all. I’m not bold enough to drag my two-month-old on a long trip with me, even if I could manage to arrange child care for an infant. And I wouldn’t want to be far from him for days at a time for many reasons, not least of which because I’m nursing. Though a few nights of uninterrupted sleep in a hotel room does sound like heaven right about now.

So I was able to make it to the meetings Wednesday and Saturday. I felt like I spent more time in the lactation room than in talks – which I’m sure I’ll write about another time – but it was still a pretty great conference full of ideas for new projects. I hit up some of the plenary talks, including one by Sarah Koch on the shape of rational maps. I have a vague plan for a submission to the art exhibition next year based on the “mating of the rabbit and the rabbit” map, just as soon as I can figure out how to google a reference picture of that fractal. I also got to keep my “real” research brain from completely atrophying with Lillian Pierce’s neat talk on the connections between torsion subgroups of class groups and phenomena like Fermat’s Last Theorem, and Jesús De Loera’s talk on optimization. The latter even inspired me to finally crack open Maclagan and Sturmfels’ book on tropical geometry, a topic I always love in talks but never had time to get into.

Penny trapped in a 3D printed plastic cage, by the author.

Laura Taalman’s talks are always worth a stop, and since I’m trying to figure out how to use our new departmental 3D printer to do something more useful than print doodads from Thingiverse, I went to her talk on the courses she runs using printers. She’s generous enough to put all her materials online, and I did the first assignment: follow a tutorial to make a penny trap from scratch. This was designed in TinkerCAD, which runs in a browser window and is completely drag-and-drop. One part got a little janky because I was too impatient to pause the printer to shove the penny in there, but as a proof of mild competence at printing it did fine.

I caught a bit of the MAA panel on mental health issues in mathematics, a session that was obviously long overdue. The room was packed, and the panel generously answered questions on mental health issues they face, and how colleagues can support their needs. I think a panel like this could occur at every national meeting without saturating the audience. I think we all know the need for mental health support is great in our profession. We just don’t know what to do about it. A panel like this is the first of many needed steps and I hope to see this conversation continue.

The day concluded with a math history session, and then Cathy O’Neil’s talk on big data and ethics, which reminded me that I still haven’t gotten around to reading her book that’s sitting on my shelf. In a way having my time at the meetings be so limited almost helped: I actually had time to digest the things I was learning and wasn’t just cramming it all in. I feel like I came out of this JMM with more concrete, actionable plans for future projects than I ever have before. In the future, I may need to schedule more breaks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Epsilon and Beyond

Origami Paper Crane

This is me, flying beyond epsilon! Photo by Rachel Ridenour.

I started writing for PhD + Epsilon in 2014, when I was just starting my third (!) academic job (my double fabulous co-blogger, Sara Malec, started at the same time; we took it over from the extremely fantastic Adriana Salerno).  For the last four and a half years I’ve been really thrilled to tell stories about my life and help others tell theirs through this blog. But, alas, it’s time to let someone else take the wheel. Folks, this is my last PhD + Epsilon entry.  Stepping away got me thinking back on what this blog has meant in my life, and what I hoped to bring to others through my writing.

I started reading PhD + Epsilon when I was in graduate school. I hadn’t entered grad school planning to get a PhD. At that point I was committed, but I still felt ambivalent about academic life and about going all in on math. I also had no idea what I was going to do with this degree when I finished. In fact, I still had few ideas on what, if anything, I was going to do with the degree when I graduated in 2011 and started my first job as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University. My choice to give liberal arts teaching a try owes quite something to Adriana’s blog entries—her warmth and openness in sharing her experiences sketched a sort of roadmap of the possibilities of one kind of life in math. Exactly how does person pick up and move to a new place, start a job, learn how to be a great teacher, do research, and stay really excited about math?  This, and more, is all in Adriana’s PhD + Epsilon posts.  They spoke to me in making that first transition and the many I have made since.

In 2014, as a freshly minted Associate Professor, Adriana moved on to co-edit the Inclusion/Exclusion blog, which I love. Getting tenure is a pretty sweet way to end the “early” stage of a career and move on from an early career-focused blog. No, I didn’t secretly get tenure without sharing it on the blog, and I’m not leaving academia or anything like that. I’m moving on because, tenure or no, eventually epsilon gets big enough that it needs a new name (lest we risk absurdities like “let epsilon approach infinity”).  Friends, my epsilon is now seven and a half years and four jobs. So much epsilon! It has been a winding path for sure.  But that’s part of the story that I’ve been trying to share for the last several years—there are a lot of different paths through mathematical life, not all of them go in any sort of straight line, and tenure is not the one thing that can mark success or progress along the way. An early career in mathematics can go many different ways; it doesn’t have to mean young, pre-tenure in a tenure-track academic job, research-oriented, or any other single thing.  Starting out in math is the uniting feature.  The career can be almost anything.

pentagon billiard earring

Many paths on a pentagonal billiard table, and many paths in math. Beautiful earring and mathematics by Diana Davis, earrings available at the Joint Meetings and on etsy. Photo by Rachel Ridenour.

I have many mathematical goals, but my main career goal has been to figure out how to make the possibilities and realities of the profession work for me; I want to do a good job for the people around me while making my work as much as possible a reflection of my own passions. In this early stage, I have been pretty successful in some aspects of this, and hope to keep getting better at using the framework of the mathematical profession to do the things that I think matter—in research, teaching, and interacting with the larger world.  This blog has been a big part of the process for me. In the academic world, we spend so much time applying for things—jobs, grants, awards, promotion… it is a whole system of ranking and rewards that can seem like the only way to success and validation.  But many of the most satisfying things in my mathematical (and non-mathematical) life have come through stepping away from this machine and looking for another way to do what I really want. One thing that I really wanted to do was talk to people about their math lives, hear what they have learned and how they see the world around them. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to start on in a field where some people seem to think that intellectual intimidation and arrogance is the natural order of things.  Lucky for all of us, there are way more awesome math people out there and this blog has given me a way to connect with them (you!), both as readers and as people who respond when I reach out for a piece I’m writing.  This blog has been my platform, in the sense of a tall thing that I can stand on and talk loudly about my ideas, and also a solid scaffold from which I have built connections.

Being part of the AMS through this blog has been wonderful. They have supported me in every way.  I have not always been the most punctual blogger, and sometimes when I needed to write a blog but also needed to write a test and do a thousand other things, I would think, “why does blogging even matter?” But as soon as I had a minute to breathe and listen to myself, it was clear that this was an amazing way to do what mattered to me—ask questions, tell stories, and help more people feel connected to this community.  Thanks so much to the AMS, especially Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, for the opportunity and the support. And thanks to everyone to has read the blog or shared with me. I am very grateful for it.  YOU ARE AWESOME. I still want to hear about your life in math—if you have read this far, you know that’s why I’ve been doing this at all. I’d like to invite everyone out there to keep the conversation going.  To ease my blog withdrawal pangs, I’ll be blogging for AMS at the Joint Meetings in Baltimore in a couple weeks, so say hello if you see me around!  Wishing you all the best in the New Year and beyond.

Posted in blogging, math and art, social aspects of math life, Uncategorized, year in review | Tagged , , | 3 Comments