Like last year, our stalwart Dr. Ralf Schmidt (with invaluable assistance from Lynn Greenleaf and Sophia Morren) led a merry band of OU undergraduate women to the 15th annual Nebraska Conference for Women in Mathematics.
This year’s speakers were Dr. Cathy O’Neil (aka Mathbabe) and Dr. Rekha R. Thomas (aka Professor of Mathematics at the University of Washington, Seattle).
Everyone who goes has a great time. Indeed, this year the OU contingent was full (with a wait list!) even before we had a chance to announce it! If you’re interested in going next year, be sure to email Dr. Schmidt early!
But don’t take our word for it. Three of this year’s participants were Lena Erickson (LE), Sarah Coulson (SC), and Allie Kallmann (AK). Here’s what they had to say about the trip:
Why did you decide to go to NCUWM?
LE: I hoped to learn about career options and graduate school and see other undergraduates present their research.
SC: I wanted to meet and get to know some of my fellow math majors and learn about some of the math programs in the rest of the country. I thought that NCUWM would be a great opportunity to do both of those things.
AK: I’d had several friends recommend that I go in previous years but was never able to make it work with my schedule, so when I had the opportunity this year, I jumped at the chance! I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, so I thought it would be helpful to find out what other women in mathematics were doing with theirs and see if I could learn from their examples.
What happens at this conference? What did you do there?
LE: A few main speakers address what they think is relevant for an undergraduate woman in math to know, especially information or advice they wished they had been given as undergrads. Much of the time is spent attending short talks by undergraduate women about research they have done at REUs or with professors at their home universities. Each conference attendee goes to two break-out sessions where there is an opportunity to ask questions to the speakers who know the most about certain topics, like choosing a graduate school. There was also a panel on careers using mathematics, with representatives from the NSA, the US Coast Guard Academy, XBOX Live, and various universities.
SC: The conference involved a lot of presentations of undergraduate research, as well as panel discussions on topics such as choosing a grad school, finding a career in mathematics, and summer research opportunities. We were pretty much in presentations and at discussions all day, but seeing all of the research that students just a year or so ahead of me have been doing piqued my own interest in research.
AK: We spent a lot of our time listening to presentations from other undergraduates about their research, as well as getting to know a number of professional women mathematicians. This ranged from the plenary speeches to the panel discussions to one-on-one conversations with, for example, a Program Manager from Xbox Live.
Give 5 words that describe the NCUWM conference.
What was your expectation for the conference? What did it actually turn out to be like?
LE: I expected it to be formal in tone and purely informational. However, meeting new people was a huge focus of the conference, as well as hearing about older women and their experiences. There was less advice on how specifically to engage in math and more advice about how to navigate the systems of academia and industry, both socially and professionally. The speakers wanted all the undergraduate women in the conference to succeed in math and at life in general, and they did not want students to drop out of math due to lack of social and systemic direction. The undergraduate research presentations gave a good idea of what sort of research is possible at the undergraduate level and how to initiate a research experience.
SC: I was expecting fewer undergraduate talks and more recruiting from grad school and research programs. The majority of both Saturday and Sunday were actually undergraduate presentations, and I only ran into one recruiter.
AK: I wasn’t expecting to have near as much fun as I did, honestly. I thought there would be a lot of boring speeches (not true), a lot of mathematics that was over my head (pretty true), and unsociable people forced into awkward situations (kind of true, but we were all in the same boat, so everyone was really cool!). I came home on a SUPER feminist kick because of all of the empowering professionals and successful women there. I also had a blast getting to know the other girls from OU and exploring Lincoln, which is a shockingly neat town.
What was the coolest math thing you heard?
LE: There was a presentation about Magic Cayley Sudoku Tables, a game/construction like Sudoku that uses Abstract Algebra, so it is more complicated and hence more fun. The undergrad who was creating the game was obviously delighted to be using math to create puzzles.
SC: I really enjoyed one of the undergraduate presentations on Magic Cayley-Sudoku Tables. Although it didn’t really have any real-world applications, I thought it was pretty neat.
AK: We spent about 20 minutes on the car ride home talking about the concept of fair division – you know, like with the arguments that you’d have with your siblings over the “bigger half,” which is an exact mathematical measure and an oxymoron. The concept of measuring people’s perceptions with mathematics was really cool for me.
What’s the best piece of information you received at the conference? The thing you will be sure to remember?
LE: Cathy O’Neil emphasized that when choosing a career, it’s essential that one’s values align with one’s type of work and place of employment. This should be common sense, but most people consider responsibilities, salary, benefits, and location most when choosing a job. It’s rarer and harder to consider whether there will be sufficient feedback, whether one’s incentives will be aligned with one’s coworkers’ and with the goals of the institution, and whether the work is good for the world in general. When thinking about my future, I will likely remember to ask those questions.
SC: I will definitely remember Cathy O’Neil’s talk about her transition out of academia, the different jobs she has held as a math PhD, and how to find a job in mathematics that makes you happy. I think I’m definitely going to start reading her blog, because she was funny and inspiring.
AK: I think the biggest thing I came away with was the concept that we shouldn’t let other people’s measurements define our successes, which is something you hear fairly often but really resonated with me over this weekend.
What would you say to someone thinking about going to next year’s conference?
LE: The conference is immensely valuable to any young woman who wants more direction and who wants to see what sort of research other undergrads are doing.
SC: I would say that you should be prepared to be exhausted by the end of it, but that you will definitely learn a lot about what being a math major means to you and what implications that has for your future. NCUWM got me started thinking about research, something I hadn’t really considered yet, which has started me on the whirlwind process of applying for REUs. I’m super busy with it, but really excited to get started actually doing something in math outside of my classes. I highly recommend the conference.
AK: DO IT. Whatever reservations you have, they’re not worth missing out on the opportunity that this presents. Also, you should present your research. I wish we had had someone doing that.
A talk at this year’s conference:
(photo from NCUWM website)