A few weeks ago, I attended the Moduli Crossroads Retreat (Part I), aka MXRI, in Madison, Wisconsin. This conference was organized by Richard Kent, and funded by his CAREER grant. Richard said he wanted to model it after the Mathematics Research Communities, but to also allow a bit more time for informal conversations, networking, and professional development stuff. In particular, he wanted an opportunity for early career mathematicians and advanced graduate students to interact with each other. In a sense, he said, these are the people you will form collaborations with and see at conferences in the future.
I was not invited for my expertise in moduli spaces (since that is pretty nonexistent), but in an advisory capacity. I was one of a few “old timers” (we also had Chris Leininger, Jordan Ellenberg, and Richard in the mix), and there were lots of good opportunities to give advice and talk to people about early-career topics. We were part of the job search panel, and Richard’s prompt to the participants was “this is your chance to ask everything you’ve been afraid to ask.” I was the only person with a liberal arts job, so I think it was good to have another perspective (although most graduate students were interested in how to get a postdoc at a big research school, which I couldn’t help with). Richard mentioned to me that he was hoping to get someone from industry, too, but wasn’t able to. I agree that it would have been cool to have that perspective. Too many of us think that there is only one way to be a mathematician, and I think that is part of why it is so frustrating and stressful to look for a job. Anyway, I had fun advising people, even though I’m not exactly sure how much I helped. I think I was much more effective chatting with people in small groups, and so Richard’s idea to have lots of down time for informal chats was a really good one. We also got really obsessed with this card game.
I really liked that the main lectures were given by postdocs and early career mathematicians, and that ALL of the graduate student participants were given the option to give a talk (10 or 20 minutes long, and the length completely up to the speaker). After the 20 minute talks people were also invited to give feedback on the presentations, which was slightly awkward but probably useful to some of the speakers.
Being a non-expert in the area, I was happy that the talks were introductory and accessible. I particularly enjoyed Anand Patel‘s lectures on “What Makes a Curve Special”, but mostly because he was the closest in the “crossroads” to my area. The topic was chosen, Richard explained, because moduli spaces show up in many different areas of mathematics, like Geometric Topology, Complex Geometry, Arithmetic, and Algebraic Geometry (the latter two being more familiar to me than the former). Patel drew a nice picture of his interpretation of these crossroads (on the left in really poor resolution), and he made the algebraic geometry route a bike path “because algebraic geometers are greener and nicer to the environment.” I really liked the idea of bringing together young mathematicians with slightly different backgrounds but working on similar ideas. This is exactly the kind of situation that leads to good collaborations.
Anyway, I had fun attending this conference, I learned new things and I think I got to help some people with career advice. I also love any excuse to go to Madison, and I got an extra special treat when I crashed a Digital Humanities conference to hear Jordan Ellenberg talk about mathematics and the digital humanities. I also really liked how Richard planned it, so I may steal some of this for when I organize a conference. I look forward to hearing from Richard how MXRII goes, which will happen in two years and will be primarily for undergraduates. Maybe I will get invited again!