Thursday September 2nd
The start of a Fall semester (and PhD summit)
This week was the beginning of Fall semester
- It’s a bit weird being on campus again, but I think I’m in a lot more control than the last time I was here, in terms of not having to TA anymore, and knowing what to expect from classes, the deadline to drop, etc. I’m focusing on Abstract Algebra this year, with the goal of being able to write a paper, my first Maths PhD paper, with my advisors. I am still a Computer Science major, but a lot of the work I’m doing requires being able to formulate and have the precision to some extent of a Maths PhD student. No, it’s not PL type theory stuff, which, considering I know type theorists in Maths, has always been a bit strange when CS PL people call themselves “type theorists” without coming from Maths at the graduate level, or “mathematicians” because they write Haskell (??), but it’s probably my fault for thinking this way because I’m terrified of overclaiming in general and being called out for overclaiming. I’ve never been one to have that kind of overconfidence, and I see it as academically dishonest. In particular, what if you say that you’re a mathematician and end up in a room with Peter Scholze or something? Yikes!
- To verify my questions about whether I am in Maths or CS, I always ask myself (1) where do they publish? Although there is overlap, there are very specific places each chooses to publish. Also, if it’s a conference, (2) who is speaking? I’ve been funded both through Number Theory grants (for conferences) and Computer Science, and there are definitely differences between the two spaces, although there is some overlap. Here’s another hint: I seldom see slides at Maths conferences (lol). Lots of iPads (during quarantine) and otherwise blackboards and chalk. Even being funded by the Number Theory community, I wouldn’t dare to call myself a mathematician. I respect my friends who are, though, and I am training with some (ie there is some overlap) based on my research specialization.
- These people aren’t stupid, and just like any other field, they know each other’s work. I’m new, and I ask questions, and I listen. For now, I am here to learn, and that’s okay. In general, the ones I’ve met don’t go around tooting their own horn, either, about it. They will listen to your claiming that you are “an expert”, and slowly ask you questions, naively, until you back yourself into a corner. Then it’s your own fault but hey, it’s an opportunity to learn. And it’s all in good fun; they’re all very nice people.
- But I digress. Anyways, I want to be a cryptography researcher, specifically in isogenies, so no fancy symbols for me. So I’m learning how to do that. One of the things that it definitely requires, which I’m super happy about, is slowing down. I definitely felt that in my past work, there was a lot more pressure to constantly be churning out papers; people would ask “where are your papers?”, as though you should have ten or twelve in your first year. As it turns out, I’m not interested in that hamster-wheel at all. I really like that this crowd takes time to accumulate knowledge, and write a paper or two. And it’s really allowed me the time to focus on foundational knowledge.
- One thing to note is that most of the community is located outside of the United States, though. So basically, I’d have to consider what I’d like to do afterwards, bearing in mind that a lot of the community is in Europe, etc. One of the friendliest persons I’ve met in this community literally lives in China! They also have a hybrid CS / Maths background, but they kick a lot more butt than I do. I’m super grateful that they were so nice to me almost immediately in this community, though! And many really knowledgeable people (ie experts) in this field have already reached out to me and told me I should feel free to contact them anytime. I’m already considering who I would love to do a postdoc with. I never had that before in the space I was previously working in. They already see you, as a young researcher, as a budding one of themselves.
- I’ve been involved in this summer school related to my field of research, and this week one of the things we are covering is Kummer Arithmetic, which is interesting. So I’ve started reading up on that on my own, before the notes are posted. We typically have sort of seminar sessions, and it’s been fantastic.
- It was also one of the things that has convinced me that I’ve found my group. I really love working with the people in this field. I know I’m pretty new, but it seems to combine the communities I’ve already been a part of for years, and things I’m interested in. So that’s pretty awesome!
- I also have extraordinary mentorship; in fact, one of my advisors is taking me to a number theory conference at which they are speaking, which is a first for me! How exciting is that!? Just years ago, I was attending similar conferences, by myself, and although there was a little trepidation that someone in Computer Science was there, I made a lot of friends (some of whom are now postdocs or tenure-track professors! During the pandemic, I saw some of my friends defend their dissertations on iPads, which they would ordinarily do on blackboards with chalk!). And now, I can be part of that community, advised by someone who is known in the field. That’s super cool and quite frankly, a dream.
- But it’s very big shoes to fill, and I have to step up and do the work, too. So that’s what I’ll be doing this year, in a sort of mini-Master’s type programme. I intend to be the very nagging type who asks questions on everything got clarity. I want to understand everything :)
- Coincidentally, the Bible of the stuff was written by people who teach at the University. It’s also interesting, because years ago, when I was reading about some of this stuff on my own, I stumbled upon a mathematician’s blog, who as it turns out, is a friend, and works at my University (I’ve been to their house!). So that’s also quite uncanny.
- I really like the mentality that I’ve been introduced to, which is that “you can learn this stuff”. It’s very different from an expectation that one is intellectually inferior or will never be able to learn something. That seems to be quite a common thread in this field, and with this community, which is awesome. In fact, on my first day, I met someone who used to be a CS major (actually, I met two people; one at the summer camp and another who is at my school), and they told me they related to my experience of not quite feeling like I fit as a CS major. I mean, I do like coding, but I don’t like the culture of some Computer Science communities. And that’s been frustrating to me.
- Even in terms of the CS research community, there’s a lot of gatekeeping, which is silly, because everyone (by definition) in research is learning and discovering new things.
- But there is a lot of hierarchy (in CS) in terms of (1) fields and types of research people think you should be “eligible” to do, and (2) who you can work with. This is very different (from my limited experience) in my community (perhaps not all parts of this field, but certainly the one I’m in currently). People don’t care what school you’re from. I think being a part of this community and others, like the general number theory community, has been some of my first experiences where people have just said “we’re writing a thing; would you like to join us?”. In the usual CS research world, it’s been very hush-hush, typically reserved for only the blessed students of certain prestigious advisors (especially in fields like PL!), from certain schools garbage garbage nonsense it needs to stop or your field will die and become homogenous and inbred. And people get off on this feeling of superiority, that is literally driven by others being structurally excluded from access, which has nothing to do with meritocracy. But I’m not here to go on a rant, but just do my part through certain programmes to try to make it a bit better for the next group of people coming in. But to be honest, my first priority is my community that currently supports me. I can’t fix everything.
Differences in Culture
- One of the things I’ve been super annoying about (ha!) is that the culture is so different in Pure Maths, at least in my field, versus Computer Science.
- Within the first two days, there is this very strong sense of collaboration, friendliness, and feeling that “we’re here to succeed together”. And I really like that.
- It feels a lot more like trying to push the frontiers of the field together, and maybe that’s why Maths papers have ten authors :)
- Coincidentally, some professors I’ve worked with in the past (although I believe it was Applied, not Pure Maths) have also asked if I’d be interested in writing a proposal with them again. So that’s super cool, too! In my first semester, feeling like I didn’t belong and being acutely reminded that “you didn’t start coding out of your mother’s womb”, I bounced and went to a SageMaths workshop I got funding for, and that led to writing an NSF proposal with a bunch of Maths professors. We didn’t end up getting it, but I really enjoyed working with them, and we may be working on another. It was one of the best experiences I had that semester.
- This is the first time I’ve ever had a professor have a class on TeX-ing (pronounced “tech-ing”). I don’t know why, but it can seem like this super pretentious thing that the Academic community has about whether you “can hack it”, if you sort of just come in knowing how to do it, as though it’s something that if you belonged in grad school, you’d “just know how to do”. In Dr. Tse’s class, I think he was the first to provide a nice template, and also correct my work (for his class notes). I was so grateful for that opportunity! The second time for actual help is this class. The professor is great in not assuming that you “just know” how to do it, but also in letting you figure out what you like, and in even stating some of the ways they learned that what they were doing could be better. They also showed us how to achieve particular results that you’d want as a mathematician, which is awesome. I’ve written a fair amount of TeX, but I felt like I was never formally taught, and held up along the way by other people who just knew more, so I’m thankful for the formal lesson.
- I don’t know why, but collaborating with people in Mathematics, to me, just feels more natural. Their process is very rigorous, and precise, but it feels very organic.
- They (in particular, the number theory community) do really cool things like sit by the beach and come up with a cryptographic scheme and name it something relating to the ocean; there are lots of fun puns and inside jokes, while the work stands up to academic rigour of their field. And to me, that’s how for the first time, grad school has felt really wonderful, like this is where I could fit. I’ve met so many people across the world, experts and rising stars alike, and it’s just felt like home.
- But maybe I’m just honeymoon-ing. I’ve been a part of the Number Theory community since around 2018, but specifically the isogenies community only since earlier this year (although I’ve been interested in and asked about isogenies since 2017).
A pirate obsession
- Are you obsessed with pirates and sailing? Well, you may very well be an isogenist! As it turns out, this community is very obsessed with pirates, the sea, and other such things. I can’t stop laughing; it’s SO much fun! Helms a lee!
Google PhD Summit
- I was invited to the Google PhD summit. It was sort of overlapping with my classes, so I couldn’t attend everything, but one of my questions was asked first, and answered by Jeff, and I got some swag in the mail today!
Pickier about recruitment
- I have a return offer for my internship, and I haven’t decided what I’m going to do next summer, yet, but the time is drawing near. To be honest, though, I’m probably going to only consider researchy stuff, or otherwise just say no and work with my advisors instead. I really, really enjoy learning about and working on this topic, and I’d prefer to spend my time on that, unless there is a specific or valuable opportunity otherwise (like a researchy internship).
- One of my advisors said that basically, if money is not a problem, do the workshops that contribute to research, and focus on research, but make sure you can feed yourself and take care of yourself first. So that makes sense.
- I’ve been slow in responding to recruitment this year because I have a lot on my plate to think about.
- But…my friend is visiting me in September and I am so excited!!!!! I’m excited to meet her! We’ve been chatting during the pandemic and I’m sure it will be fun to see her briefly in Vermont :)
- Oh, I was taking part in a book club in R (haha pirate reference!) on the book, Open Statistics, and gave a 15 minute overview of chapter 4, and led chapter 7’s exercises. We’re wrapping up the last chapter this upcoming week, but I ended up not really using R and just using a calculator for the bulk of my exercises. That book club has been a lot of fun!
So I guess that’s it
- I’m really excited because we’re using Sage in at least one of my classes this semester. Over summer, I used Sage quite a bit, too. I really enjoy using it!
And that’s it
Written on September 2, 2021