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┬áLillian Pierce’s neat talk on the connections between torsion subgroups of class groups and phenomena like Fermat’s Last Theorem, and Jes├║s 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.

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