Surrounded by inspiring people

The two other REU mentors, Erin McNicholas and Colin Starr, are incredible people.

Erin is one of the PIs for the grant that’s funding the REU for the next three years. Colin has had this role in the past, too. Aside from the obvious responsibilities that come with that job, there are hidden mountains of paperwork and bureaucracy to summit. Erin is a portrait of productivity. She’s doing the extra work on top of mentoring her algebraic voting theory group, learning new math alongside them, organizing the occasional picnic or outing, and keeping up with her research agenda! Colin spends most of each day working with his students, which is a big time commitment considering everything else a professor has to do over the summer. My only complaint? Erin and Colin haven’t gone to karaoke with me yet. It might be the only activity in which I have a chance of keeping up!

However, I’m not just writing about Erin and Colin because they work so hard for the success of the REU. What impresses me is that they also manage to be excellent parents and spouses.

When I think about my future family, I’ve always got a bjillion career objectives that push the event-horizon further into the future. When people ask about my work-life balance,* I shrug. What balance?

At this stage in my life, as a 30-something junior faculty member, it’s inspiring to be around people who have found that balance. I don’t get the sense from either Erin or Colin that they have compromised or that they have sacrificed being “real” mathematicians or being good parents. When I see them at work and with their families, it’s clear that their successes in each realm amplify their successes in every realm. I am slowly shedding my skepticism of the “You can have it all!” ethos that defines my generation’s values. Maybe it is possible, after all.

Still, tell me to “Lean in!” at your peril. Enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight. ūüėČ

*I will tell you another time how much I resent that this question is put almost exclusively to women!

Whoa!   Recently updated !

I had resolved myself to the idea that we might not prove our theorem in full generality. I accepted that we’d settle for writing a paper where we made a conjecture about the general case and wrote proofs for, I don’t know, up through n = 6 or something.

Note-to-Gibbons: You shouldn’t doubt your incredible REU group like that! We riffed on the general ideas in our proof and about 10 minutes ago, we proved the general case!


Now, I know it’s dangerous to declare that you have a proof right after coming up with it. However, it’s important to celebrate immediately after proving something just in case it isn’t an actual proof. Pro tip: this technique will maximize your personal happiness in the field of mathematics.

But the best part of all of it is that I don’t have to write any more code!

#win   Recently updated !


My students won the minisymposium conference this time!

Advice for applying to REUs   Recently updated !

I’ve had a few people ask me what I was looking for when I read through REU applications. ¬†I thought I’d describe my process and my reasons, which you can take to be my rubric for putting together an excellent application. ¬†As with all advice on this blog, these are my opinions. ¬†You should gather a few other ideas for a complete picture, especially since this is my first time as an REU mentor. ¬†Now, disclaimers aside, follow the jump to my advice.


WMC REU: Stalking the Theorem   Recently updated !

We’re pretty close to Theorem 1.

When I started designing my REU project, I worried that I was either too narrow or too ambitious. ¬†I thought the students might finish in week 1…or not get anywhere at all. ¬†After all, my experience mentoring student research has been with the amazing and talented Robert Huben. ¬†On some days, I felt like I should be happy with less from Robert, and on other days, I thought I should push for more. ¬†I’m sure it was baffling at times, working with Dr. Gibbons and Ms. Hyde.

Let me return to my point. ¬†Based on research as an undergraduate and now my sample size of one research student, I wasn’t abundantly confident in my ability to design a challenging, satisfying, and fun project. ¬†I’m overstating my anxiety a little bit; if I thought I couldn’t pull it off, I wouldn’t have agreed to mentor. ¬†Nevertheless, I was anxious even into the first week. ¬†(Luckily, in grad school, I learned to manage and even transform anxiety into a weird calm competence.)

Well, folks, even if my project had some flaws, it’s turned out to be a good project, and my group is working like a smoothly oiled machine. ¬†Double induction? Ha! They eat double induction for breakfast. ¬†Three cases with several subcases? No big deal. ¬†I’ve taken a slightly more active role in the project now, trying to highlight some opportunities to make progress. ¬†I think we’ll have Theorem 1 nailed down by the middle of next week. ¬†There’s a second theorem I’d like them to prove, and I think that will be a bit more straightforward (knock on wood). ¬†From these two theorems, we get some nice structure results.

I think part of our progress¬†comes from a change of scenery. ¬†We got locked out of our classroom, so we’ve been working in a common space with a couple of comfortable chairs.

Alas, my team didn’t win the first round of research symposium talks, but they have a chance to redeem themselves on Wednesday next week. Here’s the silver lining: I’d feel guilty if they won the research symposium talks every week. ¬†They’re already exceeding expectations!

As for team-building, we had fun at the weekly picnic, we laughed our way through a session on “Do’s and Don’ts” for presentations, and we enjoyed a rousing game of “Rabbit Rabbit Moose Moose” at Friday Floats this week. ¬†The fun will continue into the weekend: some of the students and some of the faculty are going to karaoke this weekend. ¬†Watch out, Bowie.

Way to go, SCOTUS!  Interested in the data re: same-sex marriage?  Start here: