Monday, July 02, 2012

Guest Post: Report from the Snowbird Math Research Communities program

My student Amirali Abdullah attended a recent MRC event on discrete and computational geometry at Snowbird, organized by Satyen Devadoss, Vida Dujmovic, Joe O'Rourke, and Yusu Wang. This is his (lightly edited) report from the event. Note that the organizers requested that the problems discussed not be widely disseminated, so no specific technical questions will be discussed here.

Recently, there was an MRC workshop for Discrete and Combinatorial Geometry held right in my hometown, at Snowbird in Utah. Suresh invited me to share my experience of the event.

Working with trained mathematicians illustrated to me just how many tools are out there
that I wasn't familiar with beyond a "oh I heard that word somewhere" head-nod. Ergodic theory, configuration spaces of cohomologies, measure theoretic ideas, algebraic geometry techniques and variational calculus tools and more. Now, there's always a strong need for self-study and picking up techniques independently in a Ph.D but I can't help but feel that most theoretical CS students would benefit from required courses and curricula more tailored to supplementing our math backgrounds.

But more than being exposed to the mathematical depth of knowledge out there, I loved the intoxicating energy of a room filled with curious mathematicians. One group would be eagerly folding origami cubes, another playing with colored bricks and crayons on a coloring problem,
a trifecta of mathematicians lying passed out by a whiteboard decoated with scribbled figures and gazing dreamily into the distance .I finally understand the cliche of mathematicians having the enthusiasm and boundless energy of kindergarteners,playing with ideas and constructs-- no disinterested 'suits' here!

More so, it was good for me to associate real faces and people with many of the papers and fields I had read of.  One grad student speaks of how he had been burned out for several months after his last paper,  another stares blankly at his beer at 10:30 pm after a twelve hour session discussing a tricky problem, another discuss the merits of wine vs scotch, one raves about an advisor who recommend his students go out hiking on a beautiful day instead of staying in their labs (Suresh, hint, hint!!), another of handling the two-body problem in an already restricted job market. And of course, the common theme of how wonderful and at times frustrating math is.

There were many light-hearted moments too, to brighten a few faces. For example after mathematicians A and B had spent all day on a problem only to realize their approach was all wrong-
Mathematician A: "I guess doing math is all about cursing sometimes."
Mathematician B: "$%#@! F-bomb. #@%#@ F-bomb. Censored here for family audiences". 
Or another light-hearted conversation between Organizer A and a student who had invited him to speak at a conference -
"So, am I the entertainment for the high school students
Student-"Yes, we have your talk on geometry the evening after the sword-swallower performs."

Let me give a shout out to the wonderful facilities provided us by the organizers, especially the amazing food.We were fed three square meals a day, plus tea twice a day and another informal snacks and beer session after nine pm. Most of the meals were supplemented by confectionaries including red velvet cake or pastries, the meals were generally 3-4 courses (including mushroom and cheese garlic pizza, salmon fillet, chicken teriyaki, beef broccoli and more) and there were several rounds of free wine and scotch during the week. I may or may not have been slightly tipsy on a few occasions, and most of us put on at least a couple of pounds in a gluttonous week of math and fine cuisine. Several of us also went on a hike up the nearby trails, or enjoyed the swimming pools. I'm from Utah, of course, so I've been spoiled to always have the outdoors easily available.

There was a lovely talk given by the organizers on the job hunt process and pointers on finding the best fit institution. We've all heard the horror tales of how tight the academic job market is, but it's
disconcerting nonetheless to hear firsthand of several hundred applicants for a single faculty position, or of how many of the workshop participants had sent in over a 100 applications to various universities for their first job. Despite this, the independence of a research university position is still THE holy grail for those of a more mathematical bent - most of those attending  seemed uninterested in the compromises involved in a teaching intensive or industry position, and I can certainly understand that sentiment.

Finally a shout out for my favorite screening of the session- Diana Davis showed us her entry for "Dance your Ph.D thesis", which drew much approval from an audience worn out by the excessive number of dry beamer and powerpoint presentations we've seen. .

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