Talking to the Experts

A panel of experts: Heidi Goodson (grad student, University of Minnesota), Joel Specter (grad student, Northwestern), Joe (grad student, CUNY), me (Postdoc, University of Wisconsin), Tian An Wong (Grad Student at CUNY)

A panel of burgeoning experts, convening on lunch break at Silvermania: Heidi Goodson (grad student, University of Minnesota), Joel Specter (grad student, Northwestern), Joe Gunther (grad student, CUNY), Bobby Grizzard (postdoc, University of Wisconsin), Tian An Wong (grad student at CUNY)

This week begins Fall semester at Villanova, and right now I’m really absorbed in the final/first scramble—pushing to finish a revision that I was sure would be done by the end of May, rewriting my syllabus, planning my first classes, scheduling my office hours, rescheduling my office hours when no students are actually available during my original choices, etc. Not much time for blogging, but luckily I started writing this entry almost two weeks ago, in a different work mode. I was on the way home from a great conference: Silvermania 2015, at Brown University, in honor of Professor Joe Silverman’s 60th birthday. Joe Silverman is probably best known for his elliptic curve books, which are bibles of a sort for a host of number theorists, both because they contain so much invaluable work and because the exposition is clear, lucid, even conversational. But this guy has done so much more—developed a lattice-based cryptosystem (with Jeff Hoffstein and Jill Pipher), helped pioneer arithmetic dynamics, wrote undergraduate textbooks that my students and I both love, and mentored a lot of great mathematicians as postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates. His talks are beautifully clear, smart, and fun. To me and the other early career people here, Joe Silverman is a serious math star (he even has a wikipedia page…). A conference like this one brings together a lot of math stars, which makes it a great opportunity to meet outstanding people in the field.

However, I have to say that conferences are not always easy for me. I never have anything to say during big group dinners, and at times I feel like I’m drowning in things that I should know but don’t and will never have time to learn. It’s way harder to get funding since I got out of grad school, traveling eats up days and days of my life, I rarely get any new research done when I’m traveling, missing classes is very stressful, and teaching is just more fun when I can be there every day, ready to engage with my students. Thinking about these difficulties, I sometimes wonder if I really should keep applying and going to lots of conferences, especially when I am not giving a prepared talk. Especially since I sometimes lose all verbal ability when I try to talk to people whose work I really admire. I think this happens to a lot of people at conferences, even successful established people. But I was just thinking that since these established people are the experts in the field, maybe they know something about talking to the experts. I asked a few well-respected and very kind mathematicans what they had to say to those of us who are early in our careers, both in general and specifically regarding the difficulty of getting out there at conferences.

Michelle Manes, an Associate Professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa and an organizer of the conference, had a lot of great early career advice that I hope will make it into some other blog posts. But talking to her was also interesting because she made me really go beyond thinking about how to talk to people and consider why it’s so important in the first place. She said that the support of people in her research field was incredibly important during her pre-tenure years. If you can work through the intimidation factor of talking to people in your field, your research community can be what gets you through when other parts of your job are rough. ”Going to conferences and connecting with people outside of the department was huge for me,” she said, especially in the stressful lead up to her tenure submission. Especially since Hawaii is somewhat geographically isolated, the people she connected to at conferences were a lifeline for her. Talking with Michelle made me think about not just how to talk to people, but why it’s so important to keep connecting—it can feel weird to put yourself out there, but it’s not about self-promotion or being popular or proving you are smart enough. It’s maybe about breaking down unnecessary walls that can separate you from the very few people in the world who really care about the same thing you do.

Rob Benedetto, a Professor at Amherst College, was one of the invited speakers and gave a great talk on good reduction of rational maps. His advice was to ask questions. Of course that makes sense—you don’t know what’s going on, you can always ask. But you go to a conference and there are your personal celebrity mathematicians, so the fear of asking a simple or obvious question can make it hard to speak up. However, though the majority of the audience might not realize it, most of the questions that people ask in and after talks are quite simple, Rob says. Therefore your simple question is not embarrassing. And if you can’t quite ask during the talk or in the question period, he said, do it after. “If there’s something you didn’t get, just go up afterward and ask about it. You could probably look it up on math overflow, but something like that is a great way to connect in person.” He says that if a mathematical star is just too intimidating to you, start by asking questions to someone you know a little bit. They might not know the answer, but they may introduce you to someone who does, and it may end up being one of your personal heroes.

Joe Silverman at Silvermania.  Photoy Michelle Manes.

Joe Silverman at Silvermania. Photo courtesy Michelle Manes.

In the spirit of adventure, my next ask was Joe Silverman himself. First of all, he was very gracious and scoffed at the idea that he was math famous. He could relate to being impressed and intimidated by the stars early in his career, but he doesn’t see himself as a celebrity–John Milnor, he says, is a real star. John Milnor won the Fields medal and the Abel prize–I agree, pretty impressive! Or John Tate, Silverman’s own advisor and another Abel prize winner. But you can and should talk to these people anyway, Joe says. “Don’t be afraid to say hello to John Tate, who just walked into the room,” he said, and I turned to see that indeed, there was John Tate talking to Bjorn Poonen. I asked Joe what he had to say about the early career dilemma of expecting yourself to be a real professional since you graduated, but dealing with the fact that no gift of sudden deep insight that came with the diploma. “The truth is you are a professional at that point,” Joe said. “You know as much as anyone else, because nobody really knows that much anyway.”

“Easy for him to say! Joe Silverman does know as much as anybody,” added Bobby Grizzard, a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin Madison, after Joe walked away. He totally said that in an admiring way, but it’s true that while you can know that all the famous math people are also constantly confronted by problems that they can’t solve, the gut-level conviction is hard to come by. I have to admit that despite Joe’s direct advice, I didn’t have the immediate courage to walk up to John Tate. By the time I’d decided to say hello he’d left the room. But though it might not work as instant courage, I do find it bracing to think that what any mathematician knows is incredibly dwarfed by what no one knows, and on this geologic-time-like scale we’re all basically in the same place. So thanks for the kind advice, Joe, and for having a great 60th birthday party.  And of course for all that stuff about elliptic curves.

Quite a party!


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5 Responses to Talking to the Experts

  1. Avatar Greg Friedman says:

    Here’s my advice to young folks who have trouble meeting established “stars” at conferences: go to the smaller conferences. I recently attended a very big conference with lots of bigshots and even as a tenured faculty member it was very intimidating! It’s especially hard to try to break into a conversations between two big names, even when you know in advance that they’re friendly people. Luckily, there are a lot of smaller conferences, especially ones such as the CBMS conferences where there is one big main speaker. In such cases, the big researcher is often there specifically to interact with students and younger faculty. And there are other conferences, if you keep an eye out for them, that really make the interaction of grad students and young faculty with established researchers a priority. While going to such conferences might lose some efficiency in terms of seeing lots of famous mathematicians at once, they can easily make up for it in terms of quality time with those famous mathematicians.

    The other technique is to use other people you already know to bridge the gap: if you go to a conference with your advisor, go to dinner with your advisor and whoever s/he is going to dinner with. At your next conference, maybe you can use your new acquaintance as your next bridge.

    Of course this is all easy to say, but for those of us who are shy, this really is hard. To add one more tip that may be controversial, a little alcohol at dinner, if you’re so inclined and with moderation, can also make socialization a littler easier.

  2. Avatar bmalmskog says:

    Thanks for your comment! I think that going to small conferences or focused conferences is a great idea, with the caveat that the sometimes high level of talks at extremely focused conferences is a little daunting for me. I have met very cool people by following my advisor to dinner as you say, and beer with dinner also works for me, except for the strange occasional backfire case in which case I start worrying that I drank too much after half a beer.

    • Avatar Greg Friedman says:

      That’s a good point – sometimes those smaller conferences are _so_ specialized that the talks are too hard. But that’s another benefit of searching out workshops in the CBMS mode that are specially designed to be introductory. Such things do exist – one just has to know to look for them! 🙂

  3. Avatar Joe Silverman says:

    Beth, a great blog post, you’re really taking over from Adriana (who was, of course, fantastic) in style. A propos of being afraid to ask “simple” questions and my mentioning Milnor when you talked to me, here’s a follow-up story. The first time I heard a talk about complex dynamics was at a conference at Union College in 1992, where Milnor gave a colloquium-style talk in which the first half was on classical one-variable complex dynamics, and the second half on more recent work in two dimensions. I quite literally knew absolutely nothing about the subject, but Milnor is a great lecturer, and the talk was fascinating. Further, half the theorems that he mentioned made me think to myself: “There should be some sort of an analogy to that result in Diophantine geometry,” which is a field that I did know a bit about. Then the next morning at breakfast, I saw Milnor at a booth in the cafeteria, so I went over and asked him what, in retrospect, were some incredibly naive questions. His response was to treat my questions seriously and to give me thoughtful answers. And that’s how I got started in the subject that has become arithmetic dynamics: a colloquium talk by a great lecturer and having the nerve to ask him a bunch of elementary questions.

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