Summer Opportunities: REUs

This post focuses on Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs), NSF-funded programs where students are paid a stipend to do research at a host institution.  Williams hosts one of the largest math REUs, and there are around 50 others throughout the country.  (To see a full list, see here, but know that it is not up to date and some of the programs listed do not run every year.)  Check out some REUs that AWM members attended this summer!

Emory University REU: The Emory REU is a short program (only six weeks long!), but almost every group manages to submit a paper for publication before the end of it. This is largely due to the projects selected by the mentors which, while challenging, are manageable and lend themselves to presentable findings within the six weeks. Work hours during the day varied by group, but most groups also met in the evenings to work. My group met with our mentors daily, while others met every other day. In general, schedules were very flexible.  This was my first mathematical research experience and it was eye-opening to see math in a research context, as opposed to in the classroom setting. The math I learned while working was learned for the sake of utility, not for a test or exam. I found that this motivated learning in a new way, and one that I am excited to take back with me into the classroom this fall. In addition to the research, we also spent time playing games (Mafia and Set), enjoying several outdoor activities around the residential campus (walks around the lake, ultimate Frisbee, and soccer), and celebrating several birthdays. (Anya Michaelson ’19)

Other students who have participated at this REU: Weitao Zhu ’18, Sarah Fleming ‘17.5

UCSB REU: The program was decently sized in comparison to most other REUs. There were 5 women and 8 men, which was definitely a noticeable disparity. We stayed in apartments owned by the university––some were coed, others not. Everyone shared a physical room with another person from the program.  There were no organized trips or “mandatory” fun. This past summer’s group played a lot of board games. Most individuals worked outside of the 9-5 hours to continue their research on the weekends, although I do not believe this was required or expected.  In terms of socializing, one thing I would recommend is to be prepared to encounter individuals who “live, eat, sleep, breathe” math. It can be intimidating, but this is a life choice every math student needs to make––how much time do I want to dedicate to this passion?

The 13 students were placed with 1 of 3 mentors. Two mentors were tenured professors, and one was a 4th year graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. Some individuals worked in subgroups of these larger 3 groups, and others worked alone. We worked from 9-5 Mon through Fri. My mentor was Dr. Karel Casteels, who does research in quantum algebras. However, Karel allowed all of his students to choose an area of math and an open question that genuinely interested them, which I thought was really amazing. In general, Karel was a great resource if you needed him, but a very hands-off mentor, which worked well for me.

Outside of research, earlier in the program, there were workshops in LaTeX and MATLAB, weekly faculty talks and group presentations, and panels on graduate school.  8 out of 13 students from the REU gave talks at Young Mathematicians Conference at Ohio State. I gave a 20 minute Beamer talk, which was a great opportunity for me to practice communicating complex mathematical concepts and ideas.  In the last week, everyone presented at the poster session at USCB for summer research students.  At the end of the program, we submitted a report of our work and results to NSF, and some groups submitted papers to undergraduate math journals or the arXiv.

Weather is ideal––70º and sunny every day with ocean breeze––and we were near the beach and the mountains (great for hiking!). There were multiple forest fires of significant size this summer, which made it hard for some to breathe.

I thought this REU was an incredibly beneficial experience, but I would say it was less about doing math and discovering new results, and more about learning the research process and how to present your research, which was a valuable experience to me but may not be what everyone is looking for. (Aesha Siddiqui ’19)

Latin@s and Hispanics in Mathematical Sciences

Check out Latin@s and Hispanics in Mathematical Sciences this Hispanic Heritage Month! Professor Pamela Harris and her colleagues have created a calendar running from September 15 to October 15 to showcase the contributions of Latinx and Hispanic mathematicians, both in terms of research and mentoring activities.  At midnight every day, a new Latinx/Hispanic mathematician is revealed on the calendar.  You can also check out the archive from last year’s calendar!

Reflections on Grad School – Ashwin Narayan ’16

Ashwin Narayan ’16 left Williams with a math and physics degree and found himself in graduate school with little idea of what he was doing. Somehow, he’s muddled his way into his second year of a PhD in applied math at MIT, and he’ll keep going as long as the administration lets him.  Here are his reflections on his first year in graduate school.

The realization that my first year of graduate school had ended only really hit me when I returned from vacation and had to fumble with the keys to my new (and empty) office. The “ziggurat,” a wonderful open-plan maze of cubicles and chalkboards, my home for the last year, was already occupied by the new batch of first-years. The first thought that occured to me was that I’d have to update my Tinder profile: “First year grad student pretending I know things but really subscribing to the ‘fake it til you make it’ doctrine.” As a first-year, impostor syndrome is cute and funny; as a second-year, maybe it’s worrying and sad. With qualifying exams coming up in January, maybe it’s no longer a good idea to answer, “I’m not sure yet …” when someone asks you, “So what type of math do you do?” It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the monumentality of the upcoming challenges, and reflection has always been my way to cope. It’s comforting to look back on what you once thought would be impossible but ended up being completely feasible.

Two years ago, I entered my senior year at Williams with unprecedented levels of self-confidence. The previous semester, I had thrived in Budapest, proving to myself that (a) I could survive in the real world (i.e. without a dining hall) and (b) maybe I was actually decent at math. Then there was a very productive and enjoyable REU experience over the summer which ended with tantalizing whispers of a potential publication. The next steps were obvious: write a thesis that revolutionizes the field, take some more hard classes, go to graduate school next year, draped in flying colors. Then repeat steps one and two. But of course, we remember Of Mice and Men, and this wasn’t even a particularly well-laid plan.

My first indication that I had perhaps over-simplified my future was the GRE subject test in mathematics. After years at Williams, I had forgotten that standardized multiple-choice exams existed, especially in math. I lived for partial credit. And apparently I was pretty terrible at calculus. Getting fewer than half of the questions correct on an exam ostensibly meant to evaluate my competence in the subject I majored in was already demoralizing. But then I stumbled upon this truly awful website where applicants from previous years listed their biodata and the schools they got into. Students who appeared far more qualified than me were getting rejected from schools far less selective than the ones I had set my sights on. Blog posts told me that graduate school was a waste of time unless I was absolutely certain I wanted to go into academia. How could anyone expect a liberal arts student to be absolutely certain about anything? At this point I wasn’t even certain which majors I would be finishing at Williams.

Writing statements of interest compounded the existential dread. Why did I want to go to grad school? Why applied math? What areas of math was I interested in? How was I qualified to attend this program? I couldn’t possibly use the actual answer to those questions. I wanted to go to grad school because I wasn’t ready to go into the real world and couldn’t pay for law or medical school. Applied math because it seemed the most versatile discipline and thus a way to postpone any real decision making. But because I hadn’t actually taken any applied math classes, I had no idea what areas I was actually interested in. And thus I felt in no way qualified for any of the programs I was applying to.

Of course, things worked out in the end, but I wanted to describe the process in such excruciating detail to help you understand my mindset as I started grad school last year. I truly felt that I had no right to be there, and, worse, sooner or later everyone around me was going to come to the same conclusion. I was often lost when the other students would discuss the math they were interested in, citing theorems that everyone clearly knew but I had never heard of or had completely forgotten. To be honest, I still don’t really know what cohomology is or what representation theorists actually study. When professors described their research, I nodded along, but the whole time would be thinking, “Will I ever be this passionate about anything?” At Williams, they always told us that even though the others would know more math than we did, our liberal arts background taught us “how to learn” and that we would have better “depth of understanding.” Now, I have absolutely no regrets about going to Williams and push everyone I know towards small liberal arts schools, but I honestly still have no idea what it means to know “how to learn” and I’m starting to think that maybe I skipped that unit at Williams.

I can’t say that I’ve “overcome” this mentality, but I have found that I can live with it. I now tell myself, Maybe they did make a mistake in admitting me. But I’m here now and it’s too late for them to change their mind. If I can’t convince myself that I deserve to be here, the next best option is to accept that I’m already here regardless. In some sense it’s a meaningless distinction, but we learn in linear algebra that simply rotating our perspective on a problem often makes it far easier to solve. And one thing I did take from Williams is that when push comes to shove, I am willing and able to work as hard as necessary. Hopefully that will be enough.

Thus, despite my many insecurities, I had an extremely productive and enjoyable first year. Once you swallow your pride and accept that almost everyone around you knows more math than you do, you quickly realize how much of an advantage this is. Everyone is so absurdly excited to discuss the things they’re interested in that even innocent bystanders can’t help but get drawn into the enthusiasm. I was relieved that my fellow grad students were more than willing to explain the concepts I didn’t understand, and I learned as much from them as I did from my classes. One of the most striking differences from Williams was the sheer volume of events and seminars and projects and reading groups and classes. Every day the biggest names in various fields are giving talks, research groups are discussing dozens of fascinating projects, classmates are coming up with breakthroughs.

For me this meant that I spent the first semester just trying to figure out what applied math even meant. What was I interested in? In the true liberal arts spirit, I muddled my way into statistics, a field I knew nothing about and never expected to find myself in. Surprisingly, I never felt that this was a problem because the department seemed almost to encourage this experimentation in a way I never expected to be able to in graduate school. For the entire first year, there was absolutely no administrative pressure to decide on an advisor or even a research area. I took classes in quantum computing, (pure) probability, theoretical computer science, machine learning, computational biology, and Bayesian inference. After a year of happily wandering the state space of topics in applied mathematics, I found myself drawn to what I hope will become my research area: developing inference algorithms for analyzing biological data.

Graduate school is starkly different than the undergraduate experience. I needed this to be the case because I don’t think I could have survived another five years of Williams. Graduate school is, for me, an occupation. And even though it’s certainly not a traditional 9-5, this transition has been extremely important. Classes are less important, problem sets are shorter and less frequent, and the focus is on research. There are no dining halls, there’s an apartment to maintain, professional friends to stay in touch with. In other words, there is life outside of school, and it is important. I’m able to emphasize my physical and mental health in a way I never did at Williams. I didn’t realize how much Williams had consumed me until around halfway through last year, when I found myself feeling just healthy, a result of focusing on eating healthily, exercising regularly, and sleeping. This is not everyone’s graduate school experience, but I am utterly thankful that it has been mine.

The existential questions still nag though. As my relatives always ask, What are you going to do with a degree in math? I love working on difficult research problems, but with so many pressing issues in the world, I often wonder if research in mathematics is my long-term calling. For example, the lack of diversity in the math department and in STEM departments across the country is still staggering, and perhaps I should leverage my privilege and go into science policy. We have an administration in place that refuses to treat climate change with the seriousness it requires, so maybe I need to be putting my efforts into fighting global warming. Or maybe I just need to persuade myself that I am good enough at math that I could pursue a worthwhile career in research. The best part of being in a PhD program is that I have four more years to figure it out.

Alumni Feature – Anand Hemmady ’17

Anand Hemmady ’17 majored in math because he didn’t really know what else to major in. Luckily, the math professors didn’t give him too hard of a time, so he somehow graduated.  Here are his reflections on his time at Williams.

 

I didn’t intend to major in math when I got to Williams. Math was something I usually enjoyed but also wasn’t very good at, which made me think I should look for something else to major in. Unfortunately, I felt similarly about every other subject, so I really had no clue what to study. I figured I would just take some math classes anyway, since I heard that the professors were great, and I knew that math would be useful no matter what I ended up majoring in.

During my first two years, when I didn’t always feel comfortable at Williams, math felt like a world where things made sense. Well, I take that back – math rarely made much sense. But I found that, with enough effort and badgering of professors during office hours, things started falling into place. You know that feeling of re-visiting something you once thought was impossible to understand, and all of a sudden it seems intuitive and natural? I got to experience that every once in a while, and those moments of understanding are my fondest academic memories. Of course, for every such moment of clarity were thousands of moments of feeling lost, but math taught me to become comfortable with not knowing things, and to keep striving for understanding. My relationship with math hasn’t changed much from when I started college. It’s still something I usually enjoy, and it’s still something I’m not very good at. Somehow, my experiences at Williams allowed me to embrace the former and make peace with the latter. After that, it felt like a no-brainer to major in math.

What really caught me by surprise was the dedication and compassion I felt from the math professors. Every professor I had held office hours more often than they needed to and went out of their way to make sure that we got the support we needed. Many also made it a point to make personal connections with us. I felt this most when I got a concussion the day before the spring semester of my senior year. All of my professors immediately told me to take my time to get better and were happy to let me turn assignments in late. As much as they cared about my math education, they cared more about my wellbeing as a person, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Looking back, I’m really thankful that I chose to major in math. I made so many close friendships, both with fellow students and professors, through the math/stats community, which became a sort of second home for me while at Williams. I guess that’s why I regret not doing more to make the community more welcoming to all. As a cisgender male, I knew that my experiences within the department weren’t representative of how everyone else felt. I regret not being a better ally. I’m a pretty shy person, and I was always scared to speak up about these sorts of issues. I did what I could while trying not to make much noise. I tried to listen to people without judging and let them know that I was there for them, and I did my best to talk less in class in order to let other people participate. I know I could have done more though. I’m still trying to understand what it means to be an ally and how to empathize from my position of privilege without being patronizing. I wish I began that process earlier in my undergraduate years.

That’s just one of the many reasons why the AWM is such an invaluable addition to the Williams math/stats community. Getting to know members of the AWM and attending one of their dinners helped me reflect on my privilege and understand the courage it took for non-cisgender males to simply exist in the math community. Everyone in the AWM is also just really, really cool, so I appreciated getting to spend more time with all of them. I hope that everyone who is interested in diversity and representation within the math community gets a chance to interact with the AWM. That being said, us cisgender males have to be mindful that the AWM is, first and foremost, a space of solidarity for individuals of other gender identities, and we must make sure that we don’t take up too much space at AWM meetings and events. I’m convinced that we can do this in a respectful and thoughtful way, and in doing so, become better allies ourselves, while maintaining the integrity of the space that the AWM provides.

To any students who are reading this, I hope you take a chance and enroll in some math courses. I hope you find them as enriching and welcoming as I did. If you don’t feel at home in the department, though, or if you ever feel uncomfortable about something, I hope you remember that spaces like the AWM are there for you, full of amazing and kind people who have gone through what you are going through, and who have made it through with their love for math (mostly) intact.

Getting Ready for the Semester!

As the semester approaches, here are some things you can do to prepare!

  1. GLOW Some professors use GLOW to learn students’ names before classes begin or during the first couple weeks of classes.  You can make it easier for your professors to learn the name and pronouns you use by changing your GLOW settings.
    1. You can add pronouns and name pronunciation.  Click on “Account,” then go to “Profile.”  On the right side of the screen, you should see “Edit Profile.”  In the “Biography” box, you can add the pronouns you use or the correct pronunciation of your name so your professors will know ahead of time.
    2. You can change your photo.  If your picture does not represent your current gender identity/expression (or even just aesthetic), you can change your picture by going to Account → Profile → Edit Profile.  Click on the photo next to your name and replace it with one of your choice.
  2. WSO: You can change your WSO settings as well!  Go to WSO, then click Facebook → Edit.
    1. Add pronouns.  You can include your pronouns if you wish!
    2. Change your photo.  As with GLOW, you can change your photo for any reason.
    3. Indicate whether or not you are off cycle.  If you check the off-cycle box, WSO will subtract .5 from your class year.  (If you are incorrectly listed, you can contact them.)
    4. Choose whether your profile, dorm address, and hometown will be visible.  Note that WSO Facebook is only accessible to people logged in to Williams accounts, so your profile will not be public no matter what.  Still, if you don’t want people to be able to find you on WSO, you can make yourself unsearchable.  Similarly, you can choose whether your dorm address and hometown are visible or not.
  3. Name Change:  If you want to change your campus name, now might be a good time.  (You can also change your name legally, though the timing with this does not matter as much.)
    1. If your campus name no longer matches up with the name you prefer, you can change it by going to PeopleSoft Self Service → Campus Personal Information → Campus Name Change Form.  To read more about the details of this process and where your name will be changed vs. where it will remain the same, check out this guide from the Registrar.
    2. If you are looking to change your legal name, the Davis Center has some resources but be warned that they were last updated in 2012.  All the relevant forms are available at mass.gov.
  4. Accommodations: If you anticipate needing accommodations of any kind (or just want to see what is offered), email G.L. Wallace or Jean Grant.  You can also reach them by calling (413) 597-4672 or going to the Office of Accessible Education in Paresky 203.
  5. Counseling: Counseling spots can fill up quickly, so once you know your schedule, you might want to book a spot to avoid the waitlist!  Call the Health Center at (413) 597-2353.
  6. Resources: Now’s a good time to review the resources available to you at Williams and think about which ones you might use this semester!  It can pay off to be proactive now and build a relationship with a counselor/chaplain/writing tutor/etc. while you still have the time to do so.

Joint Statistics Meetings: A Petite Undergrad Enters the World’s Biggest Stat Conference – Kiran Kumar ’18

Kiran Kumar ’18 is a senior math major with a mind towards diversity & inclusion in STEM (& life!). She plans to go to statistics grad school after she graduates—but first she wants to explore the real world!

 

The Baltimore Convention Center is a mammoth of a building with mildly revolting green and yellow wallpaper and soundproofing that makes you feel back in a high school band class. There is something decidedly superficial about the cavernous place. The carpets scream hotel ballroom, and all around you are a sea of people with lanyards, greeting each other. You catch snippets of conversations–“big data,” “machine learning” . . . “thesis advisor” and “defense” from the younger un-liver spotted ones.

Talks are filled with crusty professors to fresh-faced grad students—and of course us, the rare species: the undergrad. We are, as Yolanda Zhao ’18, my fellow attendee, call us “unicorns.” Statisticians are often on their computers or iPhones, reviewing their upcoming talk’s PowerPoint, tweeting presentation slides, or taking selfies (yes, statisticians are hip too).  At first, to us fresh faced babes, it seemed oddly fragmented, distracting, and utterly overwhelming.

However, first impressions do not always last forever.  The first day was a mini-disaster of talks from monotone paper presentations to an implicit bias panel where a white male faculty member lamented reverse racism (a LONG story I am happy to tell those interested). However, arriving at the mega conventional center the second morning, I felt my mojo kick into swing. Walking through the conference hall with my name bag perched at top my shirt, inside my heart & brain stirred a strange sense of professionalism.

There was one event that particularly stood out to me and would be insightful to you, dear reader of AWM blog!  It was a talk entitled “Essential Research Tips for Junior Researchers.” It was our first major non-technical talk, and it actually provided us with useful information that you do not get in the classroom. Topics covered included: how to write a successful grant proposal, how to collaborate with scientists, and how to use existing statistical associations (e.g. American Statistical Association, Caucus for Women in Statistics) to advance your career. (If you’re interested in the notes from the talk, feel free to email me.)  It was an unusually informative talk, and what was most remarkable about it was that all of the marquee speakers (except for one) were senior female statisticians. As Yolanda found out later and relayed to me, the chairs of Biostatistics at Harvard and Johns Hopkins (the two top departments) numbered among the female speakers. Coming from a pure mathematics background, this was such a welcome change!

Yolanda and I mustered our nerve and went to talk to the speakers afterwards. It was definitely not my first instinct to do so, but going together bolstered our shaky inclinations. The speakers were gracious and happy to talk to us! They gave us advice and offered their time if we wanted to email them with questions. I emailed one of them after the talk, and she connected me with some very helpful young female professors who gave me job searching advice. The biggest lesson that I learned was that ultimately statisticians are human beings too! No matter how successful or famous, they are people, and people love to be talked to at JSM (in a general setting, of course this principle may not hold!). After all, I would argue JSM is more about people getting together and “networking” than it is about the talks themselves.

As the conference passes from lived experience to memory, I encourage you all to go to a conference in your field of interest! I found it highly motivational in terms of discovering cool new topics and hobnobbing with researchers (& actually talking to them!) I was hesitant about going at first, but I am so glad that I went, and I wish you all the best of luck in your first (or nth!) conferences!

Math Conferences

Here are some upcoming math conferences!

Here are some descriptions of conferences that AWM members have gone to in the past:

If you’re interested in getting funding to attend a conference, contact us!

A Guide to Applying to Math Graduate School 4 – Megumi Asada ’17

Megumi Asada ’17, a former AWM officer, wrote the following short guide to applying to graduate school in math from Williams. They are currently teaching high school math through a teaching nonprofit called Blue Engine. The following year, they will be studying math at Cambridge on a Herchel Smith Fellowship. Feel free to contact them with questions!

I’ve found that a lot of information about applying has been word-of-mouth and can often feel like privileged information among those already in math circles or those who have “an in” at prestigious graduate departments. I thought that it might be helpful to share my experience of navigating the application process as a complete beginner.

  1. Creating a list & getting motivated
  2. Preparing for & taking the exams
  3. Applying & writing applications
  4. Costs & financing
  5. Visiting grad schools

4. COSTS & FINANCING

Funding Opportunities:

Within Williams

  • Allison Davis/Mellon Mays:
    • Can get various application fees waived (check individual school websites)
    • Typically Williams funds a van for each cohort to take the GRE
  • The Career Center’s Graduate School Grant
    • Max $500 in funding; need to submit quick form with cost estimates

Big Academic Alliance: very quick application for fee waivers for U.S. citizens to a decent number of schools; may have priority application deadline:

Participating Schools as of Spring 2017:

  • University of Chicago
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Indiana University
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Michigan
  • Michigan State University
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Northwestern University
  • Ohio State (otherwise $5 app fee)
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Purdue University
  • Rutgers University

Some of the schools above will ask you to individually apply to a fee waiver at their school. Some will waive based on participation in certain groups or scholarships including but by no means limited to: Gates Millennium Scholars, SACNAS, ADRF/MMURF, SMALL, MARC, McNair, Howard Hughes, COR Program; as well as students with demonstrated need on Pell Grants or via FAFSA/CSS profile.

Costs:

  • GRE General Exam: $205
  • GRE Math Subject Exam: $150 ($300 if you take it twice)
  • Application Costs to Individual Schools: $70-90/school

Less Obvious Costs:

  • Transport to and from exam sites
  • Sending scores to schools