About the Author

Confessions of a Vice President At Large

By Nick Higham

At the end of 2013 I completed four years (two terms) as SIAM Vice President at Large (VPAL), which followed four years as an elected member of the Board of Trustees. In this post I will reflect on the experience and give some insight into the role.

First, a brief overview of SIAM governance. The SIAM Board and Council provide oversight and direction for SIAM, with the Council being concerned with academic matters and the Board with financial matters (though many aspects are considered by both). The high level operation of the society is the responsibility of the officers, some of whom are elected (President, Vice President at Large, Secretary) and some of whom are appointed, typically by the President with the advice and consent of the Council and Board. The 70 or so permanent SIAM staff in Philadelphia ensure the smooth, day-to-day running of the organization.

The SIAM by-laws state that there will be an elected position of Vice President and that this person will assume the duties of the President if the President is unable to serve and there is no President-Elect at the time (every year there is either a President-Elect or a Past-President).


The duties of the VPAL have grown over the years, as specified by the SIAM Board and Council. Probably the most important role is chairing the Major Awards Committee (MAC), which oversees all aspects of prizes and awards administered by SIAM, in full (30 prizes) or jointly with other organizations (7 prizes), acting as an advisory body to the SIAM President. In most cases, the MAC delegates the selection of prize winners to committees specific to each prize. An exception is the SIAM Prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession, for which the selection comes directly from the MAC.

During my time as VPAL, four new Activity Group (SIAG) prizes were established and the specifications of several prizes were adjusted. The MAC has also worked hard on the health of the prizes, trying to ensure a good number of nominations for each prize as well as diversity of nominees and committee members. These efforts are described in my previous post Why to Nominate for Prizes.

The MAC is also responsible for appointing the members of the Fellows Selection Committee. Starting in 2014 the MAC also has the task of overseeing the SIAM Fellows Program itself. The growing responsibilities of the VPAL will be a theme of this post!

At the 2010 Annual Meeting with Tim Kelley (left, Board Member and former VP for Publications) and Ilse Ipsen (VP for Programs, 2004-2009). Photo: Susan Whitehouse.

Activity Groups and Sections

The VPAL also has responsibility for overseeing the SIAGs. Two new SIAGs were formed during my terms, the SIAG on Uncertainty Quantification in 2010 and the SIAG on Data Mining and Analytics in 2011 (though I can’t take credit for either) and there are now 19 SIAGs. The SIAGs need to renew their charters every two or three years, depending on the conference cycle of the SIAG, and the renewals are steered through the Council and Board by the VPAL.

At the start of my term, the Board gave the VPAL an extra responsibility: that of overseeing SIAM Sections. Sections are autonomous regional or national subgroups of SIAM members, such as the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland Section of which I am a member. With the help of an ad-hoc group I created procedures for starting a new section. Although some interest has been expressed, no new Section proposals have come forward recently.


Another VPAL responsibility is membership. The SIAM Membership Committee, which was ably chaired by Sue Minkoff during the past four years, reports to the Council through the VPAL. SIAM’s Membership Officer, Susan Whitehouse, provides detailed membership reports for each Council and Board meeting. As I am based in the UK, I was pleased that during my term the number of SIAM members outside the USA increased from 31%, where it had been stuck for several years, to 34%, and the UK and Republic of Ireland rose above Canada as the country with the most SIAM members after the USA. The increase in UK members has been helped by the formation of several new student chapters.

Social Media

Since I became VPAL in 2010 SIAM’s use of social networking has grown greatly. SIAM joined Twitter in May 2010 (@TheSIAMNews) and the 2010 SIAM Annual Meeting was the first with a hashtag (#SIAMAN10). In the same year, social media links were put on the SIAM front page, professional videos started to be made at the annual meeting, SIAM created a YouTube channel, and the SIAM Connect news channel was created. None of this would have been possible without the expertise of Karthika Muthukumaraswamy, who joined SIAM as Public Awareness Officer in 2010.

Karthika Muthukumaraswamy with the screen showing live tweets at #SIAMAN12.

It’s been great fun to be part of SIAM’s increasing usage of social media, which for me culminated in the launch of SIAM Blogs in December 2013. A key event leading to the creation of the Blogs was the Minisymposium “Professional Use of Social Media” that I organized jointly with Tammy Kolda at the SIAM Annual Meeting in July 2013 (see my blog post on the minisymposium). Feedback from the participants and the Council and Board convinced us that SIAM Blogs should become a reality.

Over several years I was involved in discussions about deploying an online community platform to provide private networking for SIAM members, something that could be a significant (and unique amongst major math organizations) member benefit. Several vendors’ products were investigated, but in the end we decided to proceed with SIAM Blogs, and revisit the possibility of a community platform in the future.

December Board Meetings

The SIAM Board and Council meet at the Annual Meeting each summer (or at ICIAM every fourth year) and the Board also meets every December in Philadelphia (actually in New York in 2013). My short December trips to a Christmassy and often snowy Philly have been enjoyable. It was very useful to be able to arrive early and meet with the SIAM staff at the SIAM office, which is on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus in a high-rise building with a great view of downtown.

Philadelphia downtown viewed from SIAM HQ.


I’ve very much enjoyed my four years as VPAL. Working with the other SIAM officers and committee members, including three Presidents (Doug Arnold, Nick Trefethen and Irene Fonseca) and two Chairs of the Board (Iain Duff and Tim Kelley), has been a pleasure. The SIAM staff have provided superb support. What will I remember?

  1. Attending two meetings that broke records for attendance: the 2010 Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh and the 2013 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering in Boston.
  2. Annual Meetings with almost every breakfast, lunch or dinner occupied by a meeting of some form.
  3. Telephone conference calls set up by the SIAM office for regular “cabinet calls” of the officers and for SIAM Committee meetings. Somehow people manage to avoid all speaking at the same time and useful business gets done – especially when European participants remember that there are a couple of weeks in the year when US and European daylight savings time are out of sync and the US-Europe time difference is one hour more or less than usual.
  4. Treasurer Sam Gubins’s reports to Board and Council on SIAM’s investments. The strategy followed by Sam and the Financial Management Committee avoids trying to predict the markets and uses an agreed asset allocation. The strategy has done very well over many years and hearing Sam’s explanations of it has been fascinating. At one meeting I asked him about hedge funds, which SIAM does not invest in. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a copy of Andrew Lo’s Hedge Funds, which he gave me and I duly read on the flight home. SIAM’s “simple” investment strategy is certainly not chosen through lack of knowledge of the alternatives.


Finally, you might feel that my title was misleading. Where are the confessions? There are only two. First, my predecessors as VPAL, most recently David Keyes, had done a great job so my efforts could be focused on new initiatives. Second, many of the things that people might think I have done were actually done by the excellent SIAM office, in particular Executive Director Jim Crowley and his team. I wish my successor, Daniel Szyld, all the best for his tenure as Vice President At Large.

 Nick Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Manchester.